Wallace is legend before his time


January 16, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

He piles the letters in boxes at each end of his bed, another box in the corner, and a big trash bag in the middle of his room.

"I can't pick it up. I've just got to drag it and push it across the floor," says Rasheed Wallace, the 6-foot-11, 215-pound weakling whom many consider the best high school basketball player in the country.

The letters started coming when Wallace was in ninth grade. Now there are more than 300, from virtually every college imaginable, and as Wallace points out, "I'm not even counting the ones lying around my room under my bed."

Such is life for the most highly recruited big man out of Philadelphia since Wilt Chamberlain. The whole thing can be rather intoxicating, and it's easy to forget these high school legends are, well, in high school.

Somehow, Wallace didn't evoke memories of Chamberlain last night in the Charm City Classic. He missed his first six shots -- two were air balls -- before finishing with 10 points and eight rebounds in Simon Gratz's 60-46 victory over Lake Clifton.

Maybe tonight Wallace will be more inspired, when Gratz, the nation's top-ranked team, faces No. 10 Dunbar, the defending mythical national champion. Dunbar beat Gratz twice -- by a total of five points -- while going 29-0 last season.

Now the situation is reversed: Earlier this season, Gratz ended Chicago Proviso East's 63-game winning streak with a 56-31 victory in which Wallace scored a game-high 20 points.

"It would've been nice to get hit by a car instead of a truck," Proviso East coach Bill Hitt said.

Wallace wasn't nearly as dominant last night, missing eight of his 11 shots. Then again, he repeatedly got pounded by Lake Clifton's Terrance Payne and Bernard Williams, who combined for nine fouls.

"You saw it," Gratz coach Bill Ellerbee said. "Sometimes, he gets a little bit discouraged and doesn't show what he can do. He gets beat up pretty good."

Said Payne, who previously faced Wallace at a summer tournament in Philadelphia: "I learned from the first time I played him, keep the body on him, and he'll get a little mad."

Clearly, Wallace must learn to bang, but he's agile and coordinated, graceful enough to run the floor. Division I schools drool over such players, and Wallace has narrowed his final four to Georgetown, Villanova, Temple and North Carolina.

Of course, there are those who think he doesn't even need to bother with college.

"He's a lottery pick right now," Charm City Classic tournament director Bill Spotts blurted before last night's game.

Which lottery, the state's?

"I'll put it this way," Gratz coach Bill Ellerbee said. "If he was playing in that league, he wouldn't embarrass himself."

Come to think of it, Wallace probably could help the Bullets without getting into a shoving match with Wes Unseld, like a certain former All-Star we know.

Seriously, how good is he?

"Rasheed is the best since Mourning," said Howard Garfinkel, director of Five-Star Basketball Camp. "If you want to go back further, you've got to put him on the same par with Ewing."

And Chamberlain?

"I wouldn't make that comparison, but I've talked to people who played with Wilt, and saw Wilt quite a bit," Ellerbee said. "They kind of surprised me. They said Rasheed was ahead."

All right, enough of this lunacy.

Wallace might indeed be more advanced at this stage than Chamberlain, simply because he plays more basketball. Chamberlain didn't attend all-star summer camps, and his high school team didn't travel around the country like Gratz and other national powers.

But better than Wilt?

How about Russell and Abdul-Jabbar?

Fortunately, Wallace seems to tune out the hype. He walks around like any city kid, headphones over his baseball cap, portable stereo in one hand, gym bag in the other.

As for pressure, it comes more from reporters than recruiters, who spend most of their time dealing with Ellerbee or Wallace's mother, Jackie, a caseworker in Philadelphia's Department of Public Welfare.

"When it happens, it happens," Wallace says, referring to his college choice. "I could wake up tomorrow and have my decision, or it could be later in the year."

Until then, he'll just keep piling up the letters.

The kid's in high school.

His room, his game, his life -- it's supposed to be a mess.

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