I was introduced to Perry Wallace when we both were in high school. My school, Overton, played his, Pearl, in the Regional basketball tournament. Our team was all white, Pearl’s was all black and therefore exotic to us, and before every game, during warm-ups, as an intimidating ploy their players stood in a semicircle at half-court and glowered at the other team. I wondered if they worked on this at practice.
The game started, and on our first trip down court I got the ball on one wing, and seemed to be wide open. Our coach, Tommy Griffith, had told us several hundred times at least before the game to always give a head fake before shooting, as the Pearl guys were fabled blocked-shot artists. However, as I said, I was wide open to my mind, so I jumped (a rather generous verb) and shot. Out of nowhere, a Pearl player flew at me and swatted the ball fifteen rows or so into the stands, imperiling the well-being of a knot of fans seated there.
That was my introduction to Perry Wallace. Pearl beat us by 15, the closest anyone came to that great team (the greatest in Tennessee high-school history is the general consensus) all year, I believe. Wallace went on from this legendary beginning to play at Vanderbilt. (No strings pulled, either: Perry was valedictorian of his high-school class.) He was a six-five center in one of the nation’s best conferences, yet he flourished. My college team played Vandy, and we upset them, but Wallace dominated.
Years later I heard from some of his ex-teammates about the horrible and harrowing ordeal that Wallace endured as the first black player in the SEC--the vile baiting, the cretinous catcalls, the objects hurled, the noose waved (a noose!), the rage, the venom, the unreasoning hatred--and his courage and stoicism in the face of it. My admiration grew even greater.
I followed his career from afar as he became a lawyer and a professor and a judge, always the very model of dignity and grace. I read Andrew Maraniss’s excellent book, Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South. And I went out with my son to the game at Vandy in 2001 at which the school retired his jersey. After the game I made my way up to him and shook his hand; I don’t know if he remembered me, but that was all right either way--I wanted my son to meet him.
So Wallace’s death was a shock to me. He was a hero of mine. Great athletes come and go, but his heroism was of the kind that doesn’t fade with time. His story affirms something about America--something shameful, yes, but something noble, over and above it. His legacy will endure.