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Basketball: Ex-NBA player talks work ethic

While stretching out his 6-foot-8 frame and long limbs on the Greenport High School gym floor, former NBA player John Wallace was asked how young people have changed since he was their age. Without hesitation, he spoke about work ethic.

“They don’t have any work ethic,” he said. “They suffer from a sense of entitlement. We come from the cloth where you just work and you work and you grind and you grit and when a promotion happens, you’re overly thankful and appreciative of it, but you don’t expect it, and when it happens you’re like shocked. We’re cut from a different cloth. The players are different, the workers are different.”

The value of work ethic was one of the messages Wallace, 44, delivered last Thursday while taking part in the first of a series of summer clinics for the Greenport boys and Greenport/Southold girls basketball programs.

What better person to talk about work ethic than Wallace? It was his work ethic — along with extraordinary talent, of course — that enabled him to play for Syracuse University, be selected 18th by the Knicks in the 1996 NBA Draft (considered one of the best in league history) and go on to a seven-year NBA career as a small forward for the Knicks, Toronto Raptors, Detroit Pistons, Phoenix Suns and Miami Heat. He averaged 7.6 points over 381 NBA games, and also had stints playing in Greece and Italy.

The clinic was sponsored by Greenport/Southold girls basketball coach Skip Gehring, Greenport High School and the Long Island Lightning AAU program, of which Gehring is a director.

Wallace drove from Syracuse and Romell Witherspoon, a chaplain for the Los Angeles Lakers, flew in from California to take part in the clinic. Sure, they preached the importance of basketball details such as head fakes and jab steps, but they also spoke about opportunities in college basketball and, yes, the value of hard work.

Wallace, wearing a gray Syracuse T-shirt, said the most important thing a college athlete can have is work ethic. “Work ethic determines everything,” he said in an interview, noting that his mother had worked three jobs at the same time. “We don’t have it. You’re going to fall back in life because the people that have it are just going to eat you up.”

Before the players took part in drills, Witherspoon spoke to them about college possibilities, using himself as an example. He said he earned a college scholarship despite averaging about four points per game for one of the top high school teams in the nation. What he did, though, was lead the team in assists, he said, before going on to play for Savannah State University in Georgia.

“I did not pay a dime for college, and that’s crazy,” he said. “There’s room for you, man. There’s room for you at the next level. Don’t get caught up in the numbers.”

Gehring, a former Villanova basketball player himself, said that in “the last three to four years, Romell and I have gotten easily over a hundred kids basketball scholarships or academic scholarships to play at the D-III level. That’s what we do. We’ll help kids find the right college, the right niche, the right spot.”

Wallace is an executive board member of Heavenly Productions Foundation, a charity that helps children in need. He also does work for the NBA and the Knicks, and enjoys working with young people. “It’s more than just talking to kids,” he said. “It’s just giving them some uplifting words. Just putting a smile on a kid’s face, sometimes it’s priceless.”

About 25 players attended the clinic, including Sam Dunne, a Southold High School senior who was brought up to the varsity team for the playoffs as a sophomore. “Every person that Coach brings in here really contributes to our learning in the sport, in life and everything, and I think that bringing John Wallace in here really is a great opportunity for everyone in the community because we really do just get to learn what hard work is,” she said. “Romell has been coming out here since I was in 10th grade, I think, and he’s helped me develop as a person in every sport I’ve ever played.”

Greenport High School senior Jaxan Swann said, “It’s fun, just coming here to work out, but having guys with such big names come in and just take time out of their day to come help us young kids all the way on the east end of Long Island, it just means a lot.”

Wallace said he has no complaints about a playing career in which he played for coaches such as Jim Boeheim, Pat Riley, Jeff Van Gundy and Stan Van Gundy. “I loved every second of it,” he said. “I enjoyed it. I’m very thankful and blessed to know that I had basically the best job in the whole world, the hardest job to attain in the whole world. There’s 430 guys in the NBA. It’s the hardest job to get in the world. There isn’t another job that’s harder to attain than becoming an NBA player. I’m living more than a dream.”

Greenport High School senior Jude Swann, who at 6-4 was the second-tallest person in the gym after Wallace, was asked what the younger players would make out of all of this.

He said, “They’re probably going to go home and say they met an NBA player.”

How many people can say that?

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Photo caption: Former NBA player John Wallace spoke to players at a clinic at Greenport High School about the importance of work ethic. (Credit: Garret Meade)