Wallace carries state flag deep into NBA playoffs
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It seems to happen all the time.
A significant national sports story appears. And - well, I'll be darned - there's a West Virginian in the mix.
Earlier in the NBA season, Mullens native Mike D'Antoni was trying to manage the mess that was the Los Angeles Lakers.
Now, the biggest NBA story centers on the Memphis Grizzlies, who have made their way to the Western Conference finals against San Antonio. And, sure enough, there's a West Virginian - Buckhannon native Chris Wallace - smiling as the Grizz general manager.
Wallace is a proud West Virginian. ("When you look at the number of West Virginians that's been in the league, per capita, we have to be up there," he said before pointing to D'Antoni, Jerry West, Rod Thorn, Hot Rod Hundley, Bimbo Coles, Jason Williams, Hal Greer, O.J. Mayo and others.)
"I like carrying the flag for north-central West Virginia," Wallace said. "All of the others are from southern West Virginia. I'm representing the Muriale's crowd."
Those in the Mountain State with a taste for Italian food know the legacy of Muriale's restaurant. Wallace, meanwhile, continues to build upon his legacy. As a former Boston Celtics general manager, he drafted future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce with the 10th pick of the 1998 draft. After taking over in Memphis, he grabbed point guard Mike Conley in the 2007 draft.
His legacy, however, has been standing tall through severe criticism and, mostly, proving to be correct.
Observers - including Spurs coach Gregg Popovich - howled when Wallace shipped Pau Gasol to the Lakers for Kwame Brown and a second-round draft pick. That draft pick, however, turned out to be Pau's brother Marc Gasol, now considered the NBA's top defender. ("What they did in Memphis is beyond comprehension," Popovich said at the time.)
Wallace signed Conley, shaky at times, to a five-year, $45 million extension in 2010. He's blossomed. Wallace signed defender extraordinaire Tony Allen from Boston that same year.
Shockingly, the Grizzlies sent leading scorer Rudy Gay to the Toronto Raptors in the middle of this season for, basically, Tayshaun Prince in a move that saved the team $12 million.
After the initial shock, the Grizz not only came together, but flourished.
"We started the season extremely hot," Wallace said. "Then we flattened out. But once the trade was done, there seemed to be a new focus.
"Our main strength is our inside game with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Most people now consider Marc to be the best center in the game. Zach is an exceptional scorer and rebounder.
"We became more streamlined offensively. We were getting the ball inside. Plus, Conley was given more of a load and has been able to handle it. Defensively, we've been really good for the last couple of years."
Memphis, the West's fifth seed, became only the 10th team in NBA history to win four playoff games in a row after falling behind 2-0, taking out the Los Angeles Clippers in Round One. The Grizzlies then defeated Oklahoma City, which was without injured guard Russell Westbrook, 4-1.
"We're in the final four," Wallace said. "Our team has really banded together in the playoffs. There was adversity when we were down 2-0 to the Clippers. But I'm very happy with how the coaches and players came together. They were extremely tough mentally and physically. In all five games against OKC the game wasn't decided until the last minute - sometimes until the last 10 seconds."
Thunder star Kevin Durant, in fact, missed an open 16-foot jumper with 4.9 seconds in the last Memphis victory.
"When you hand the ball to the second-best player in the league, there's danger," Wallace said. "Tony Allen, though, is a tremendous defender. We have a great team defensive concept."
The success has the city of Memphis hopping.
"The city is going crazy," Wallace said. "Memphis is the foremost basketball city in the South. With most places in the South, it's football. But basketball has deep roots in Memphis from players like Penny Hardaway to coaches that have been here like Gene Bartow, Dana Kirk and John Calipari."
It will be interesting to see whether Wallace continues to grow his roots there. His contract expires after this season. And while all seems well on the Western front, Wallace was hired by former franchise owner Michael Heisley, on the advice of ex-president and GM West. Billionaire tech mogul Robert Pera now owns the team.
"I won't get into my situation," Wallace said. "I'm here. I'm very excited with the way it is. We'll leave it at that. The focus should be on the court. This is a landmark series for us. Hell, we only won our first playoff game two years ago."
Wallace, you must know, wasn't speaking from Memphis. He wasn't traveling back from Oklahoma City. He was in an airport, returning from the NBA pre-draft camp in Chicago. ("It was lacking a Mountaineer presence," Wallace, a big WVU fan, quipped.)
"I have limited travel with the team," Wallace said. "It's not like [WVU athletic director] Oliver Luck or [retired AD] Eddie [Pastilong] going to away football games.
"We have 45 road games, and that's before we get to the playoffs. There's nothing I can do to help the team on the road. The equipment manager can do more to help. My job is to constantly look to the future. My job is to evaluate players."
As well as carry that Muriale's flag.
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.