An NBA icon made his way to Baltimore to join local sports figures who facilitated a youth sporting event concurrent with CIAA Basketball Tournament Week.
Ben Wallace, an NBA Hall of Famer and CIAA legend, accompanied former Harlem Globetrotter Charles “Choo” Smith, Coach Omarr Smith and Harlem Wizards guard Arthur “King Arthur” Lewis for a basketball clinic hosted by Choo Smith Youth Empowerment, Inc. (CSYE) at Baltimore City College on Feb. 25.
Most of the clinic leads had ties to the CIAA. Choo Smith, a City College graduate, competed for Bowie State’s basketball team before transferring to the University of the District of Columbia for the rest of his college basketball career. Likewise, Lewis and Omarr Smith starred on the Bowie State basketball team back when it captured the CIAA title in the early 2000s.
The free two-hour clinic, which lasted for about two hours, was a day of fun, basketball skill development and most importantly—learning. Most of the clinic participants— a few dozen aspiring basketball players aged 10 to 17— were from the Choo Smith Youth Empowerment Program.
A dynamic warmup was the first phase of the clinic, followed by a variety of drills that emphasized ball handling, footwork, defense, shooting and conditioning. About an hour into the clinic, the children saw a tall, stoic man walk through the gym doors. Wallace had arrived, and was prepared to offer some valuable insight he hoped the youth could put to good use.
When walking in front of the group to speak, Wallace passed his NBA championship ring around before saying a word. The children experienced first hand how it felt to hold one of the most coveted souvenirs in sports and what hard work and resilience leads to.
The significance of failure seemed to be a common theme throughout Wallace’s 30-minute unscripted address to the listeners.
“Greatness is built on the back of failure,” he would often say. Coming from a family of 11 in rural Alabama, Wallace has had his share of failure. He gave a chronology of his journey, from playing only one year of high school basketball, on to Cuyahoga Community College (1992-94), then to Virginia Union (1994-96) to going undrafted in the 1996 NBA Draft.
While at Virginia Union, Wallace averaged 13.4 points and 10.0 rebounds per game, guiding the Panthers to a Division II Final Four appearance and a 28–3 record. In his final season at VUU, Wallace was named to the First-Team All CIAA and was selected as a First Team All-American.
“Playing in the CIAA was a great experience,” said Wallace, whose jersey was retired in 2016 by the Detroit Pistons.
“Playing in the CIAA kept us close as a team and kept providing more like a family atmosphere, so it was great.”
Choo Smith and Wallace competed against each other in college, and fast forward some 25 or so years later, the two reunited to give back to local youth.
“Ben’s story is phenomenal… It was beautiful, the kids had fun and everything,” Smith said, hoping that the biggest takeaway from the youth’s clinic was “just knowing they can dream big and do anything they can put their minds to.”
Wallace encouraged children to embrace their journeys and take advantage of life’s opportunities. Despite being undersized for his position, he capitalized on the life-changing opportunity that was set before him.
“Understand, y’all are not playing this game not to be just playing this game,” he told the clinic participants. “You’re playing this game for a purpose.”
Wallace went from being told he’d never make it in the NBA because he was too small to be a center (most of whom tower around 7 feet) as opposed to Wallace’s 6-foot-7 stature to making NBA history and winning four Defensive Player of the Year awards in addition to other honors, including four NBA All-Star game appearances.
He used failure, mistakes and doubtful attitudes that others had toward him as motivation to pursue his dream rather than become a product of his negative experiences.
When the Detroit Pistons defensive great was inducted in the 2021 Hall of Fame class last summer, he made history as the only undrafted player in NBA history to achieve that feat.
“Anything is possible. I try to encourage kids—if it ain’t basketball, you’re going to turn professional in something so you gotta be ready and prepared,” Wallace said.
“How well you take failure” was a major point of emphasis.
“Failure makes you great… It might not work out the way you want it the first time probably because it’s not meant to work like that. The second time, you come at it and try it a little different. The third time, you try it a little different. The fourth time – oh, now you got it. That’s what I want the kids to understand.”
Also present was City College Athletic Director Rolynda Contee, also a CIAA alumna.
“This clinic was a good thing; it’s a great opportunity for the school itself to feature an HBCU [legend], to represent City, our student-athletes and other athletes that came to the school,” said Contee, a former member of the Virginia State women’s basketball team that went on to clinch the CIAA championship in 2002.
“I just hope that they just understand that he also started from the bottom, speaking of Ben Wallace.”
The day concluded with slices of pizza and autographed posters from Wallace who also took pictures with the youngsters and their parents.
Later that night, his Virginia Union Panthers defeated Winston-Salem State in the semifinal round of the CIAA men’s basketball tournament. He was briefly seen on the sidelines of the court at Royal Farms Arena.