Wallace's story still has the power to inspire

The courageous story of Perry Wallace has been inspiring people for decades. But as Bill Trocchi reports, Wallace delivered an emotional, 40-minute pre-game address to the Commodores before Saturday's game; coincidentally or not, Vanderbilt played inspired basketball in upsetting No. 24 LSU. Coach Stallings and several players talked after the game about Wallace's inspirational message.

NASHVILLE-- The first thing you notice about Perry Wallace when you talk to him is his presence. Even if you had never heard of him, if you didn't know he broke the basketball color line in the SEC, you would know you were in the presence of someone important, someone significant.

I talked to him for five minutes at halftime of Saturday's game against LSU, and walked away impressed. I could not get the word 'dignified' out of my head. Perry Wallace embodied the word.

Perry Wallace waves to a standing Memorial Gym crowd as his jersey is retired Saturday. (AP Photo / Neil Brake)
He talked about enjoying the actual moment of seeing his jersey go to the rafters of Memorial Gym, over the same floor he made history on 36 years ago. He said it was "overwhelming," and that it "filled him with a great deal of emotion and pride."

Of his playing experience, he said, "There was a great deal of pressure, and that made it tough, but I understood that. You have to rise to the occasion. That is what being a pioneer is all about."

He talked about advising young people today to stay away from temptations, from shortchanging their education and their experience in life.

It was a five-minute conversation, but it left me wanting more, wanting to hear how he survived the ugliness in some road venues to become All-SEC as a senior. I wanted to hear how he went on to an amazingly successful career after he left Vanderbilt, first as a lawyer and then as a law professor at American University.

The Vanderbilt basketball team, it turned out, had the same feeling I did. Wallace spoke to the team after their shootaround Saturday afternoon before the LSU game.

"Perry Wallace came and spoke to our team today and there were about 25 people riveted for 35 or 40 minutes," Kevin Stallings said. "That will be something that our players will never, ever forget."

Stallings himself, said hearing Wallace was, "absolutely one of the finest moments that I have ever experienced as a basketball coach."

After he spoke, Wallace took question after question from the players. Stallings said the team was late to pre-game meal because of it.

Jason Holwerda said Wallace talked about "what he had to go through at places like Ole Miss and Alabama, and people chanting terrible things to him. He had the character and ability to rise above that and put up big numbers. He is such an inspiration for players like us."

Matt Freije said he gets yelled at a lot by opposing crowds on the road, but "I don't get a fraction of what he got. He talked about how a dagger was thrown on the court in one game he played in. I can't imagine that."

Vanderbilt's 20-point win over LSU was one of the biggest of the season and the biggest of Stallings' career in Nashville. Yet he still called it the second biggest thrill of the day after speaking with Wallace.

"The guy is a model of success. He's a guy that I was just completely captivated by what I heard," he said. "We saw the premier model that Vanderbilt University has ever seen of courage and toughness this afternoon. I told our team if we played with anywhere near the courage and toughness that guy played with, we'd be just fine."

Longtime Tennessean reporter Jimmy Davy covered Wallace first at Pearl High and then at Vanderbilt.

"He was the perfect person to integrate the league," Davy said. "He was smart. He was a good player. He was a nice guy. He was competitive. If he got hit he would hit back, but you could never intimidate him, never bait him. If you drew up specs for a person to integrate the league, he was it."

And now every visitor to Memorial Gym will be reminded of Wallace's legacy. When the national anthem is played, and people look to the American flag hanging from the rafters, they will see No. 25 hanging right next to it.

It reads Perry Wallace, 1968-70. But his influence carries on to this day.


Bill Trocchi is online editor at Athlon Sports.

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