After nine seasons in the NBA, the Charlotte Bobcats' Gerald Wallace has soared to a place he has never been before.
Today in Dallas, Wallace will play in his first NBA All-Star Game - the first Bobcat ever to earn a spot in that showcase. This week he was selected as one of 27 NBA players who will comprise the U.S. national team, which means he's a finalist for the 2012 Olympic squad. Wallace also co-captains a Bobcats team that has inched over .500 for the first time at the all-star break and finally morphed into a playoff contender.
How has Wallace persevered to make it here? To understand that, you must understand where he came from - Childersburg, Ala., population 4,927.
And you need to meet his family - particularly his mother, Alice Castleberry, who raised Gerald and his older brother Courtney by herself. For most of the past 28 years, Castleberry has worked at the local Winn-Dixie grocery store in Childersburg.
If you want to trace the lineage of Wallace's work ethic, you could simply get in the checkout line where Castleberry serves as a cashier - scanning bar codes and smiling at customers for five eight-hour shifts per week.
Although Wallace makes $9.5 million per season, his mother refuses to quit ringing up other people's groceries.
"I'm still his Mama," Alice Castleberry said. "Gerald can't tell me to quit and stay home. He makes millions, but that doesn't count as much as me being his Mama."
Says Wallace, smiling: "She drives me crazy with that. But she loves the people there. It's not 'I've got to go to work' with her. It's 'I want to.' She loves her job the way I love mine. So if it keeps her happy, I hope she'll be able to get up and go to that grocery store every day until she's 150."
Castleberry is 50 now. But as her 27-year-old son's NBA career has risen, her own health has plummeted.
Castleberry has bone cancer.
She received a bone-marrow transplant in Birmingham six weeks ago and hasn't been home to Childersburg since because doctors feared complications.
Once Castleberry gets stronger and goes home, she plans to return to work at the grocery store. She will soon live in the house that Wallace is building for her in Childersburg. It will be big enough that Wallace and his own family will also stay there in the summers.
"His mother is his motivation," said Warneshia Wallace, Gerald's wife. "He does everything she says. Gerald lives to please her."
Crashing into basketball
Gerald Wallace is 6 feet 7. He averages 10.9 rebounds per game, which ranks seventh in the NBA. Wallace is the only NBA player under 6-8 among the NBA's top 30 in rebounding.
Like his mother's work at the grocery store, rebounds are about "I want to" for Wallace. A wiry leaper, Wallace is often banging into players who outweigh him by 40 pounds in pursuit of balls above the rim. He is also well-known for the way he fearlessly drives to the basket, trying to dunk and sometimes getting slammed to the floor.
That's why his nickname is "Crash."
On the court, Wallace has suffered numerous concussions. "I stopped counting at five," he said, "but it's probably several more than that."
Wallace has occasional headaches now, he said, but it hasn't changed his game. "I'll worry about my bumps and bruises when I'm done playing," Wallace said.
Wallace has also had a collapsed lung, a separated shoulder and numerous other scrapes. In a lighthearted attempt to warn him away from his floorburn style, Bobcats teammates once stuck a sign in Wallace's locker that read, "No diving." He ignored it. And yet Wallace still leads the NBA in minutes played this season at 42.2 per game.
This is another lesson learned from Childersburg and from Wallace's mother.
Wallace started playing basketball on an outdoor court at a public-housing project in Childersburg, which is 35 miles southeast of Birmingham. He, his mother and brother shared a tiny two-bedroom, one-bathroom house down the street.
The public basketball court was a hard place to learn. Wallace seemed older than he was because of his height and a deep bass voice that has always reminded people of the singer Barry White. But he came home crying from that court numerous times.
Two older friends named Chris McGowan and Marquis Marbury acted as father figures to Wallace, trying to keep him out of trouble and "giving Gerald a thumping on the head whenever he needed it," as McGowan said.
"We did rough him up pretty regular," agreed Marbury, who like McGowan is in Dallas at Wallace's invitation for the All-Star Game. "I'm eight years older than him, and we played one-on-one all the time. Sometimes I'd push him into the pole that held up the goal when he drove to the basket. Sometimes I'd elbow him in the mouth. Sometimes he'd go home and tell his mother, thinking he could get me in trouble. Miss Castleberry would say: 'Once you stop crying, Gerald, go back on out there.'"
'Just give me a year'
Wallace became a remarkable high school player at Childersburg High and was USA Today's national player of the year in 2000. He wanted to jump straight to the NBA, which was allowed at the time. He averaged 28.7 points and 13.8 rebounds as a senior at Childersburg. "And I think he jumped higher back then compared to now," said Neil Garrett, a high school teammate and still one of Wallace's closest friends.
His mother, though, wanted Wallace to go to college for at least a year. "I just wanted him to try it," Castleberry said. "I thought maybe he would like it and go for longer. But I said, 'Just give me a year.'"
Wallace did. He went to the University of Alabama - and couldn't stand it. He clashed with the coaching staff. He says he disliked almost everything about college life.
"The experience was totally unbearable," Wallace said. As soon as the season was over - Alabama made it to the 2001 NIT final and lost - he quit school and went home to Childersburg to await the NBA Draft. This time, his mother didn't try to talk him out of it.
Wallace still has such bad memories of his brief college experience that he once asked Bobcats media relations director B.J. Evans if he could be introduced before every game as a product of "Childersburg High School" instead of the University of Alabama.
Because of NBA protocol, Evans had to tell Wallace no.
"So when I hear my introduction at each game, I don't think of the University of Alabama," Wallace said. "I think about the state of Alabama itself, which I am proud to represent."
Wallace was still only 18 when the Sacramento Kings selected him with the No.25 overall pick of the 2001 NBA Draft. He joined a veteran-laden team that had won 55 games the season before and included all-stars like Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic.
Wallace moved his mother out to Sacramento for almost a year, thinking she could take care of him and leave the Winn-Dixie behind.
"I thought I had gotten away with getting her to quit," Wallace said. "But she started getting homesick. Sometimes when you take somebody away from all they know, it kind of tears them up on the inside. So she went back home."
In three seasons with the Kings, Wallace was a benchwarmer who didn't even play in about half the games.
"He played about 10 minutes a game for us," said Geoff Petrie, the Kings' general manager then and now. "Gerald was a superior athlete, but we had so much talent. When it came down to exposing someone in the expansion draft of 2004, the way the NBA rules were at the time, we were either going to have to put one of our starters out there or Gerald."
The Kings exposed Wallace - "I was glad because it meant a chance to play," Wallace said - and the Bobcats grabbed him in 2004.
In Charlotte, Wallace says he has become a man. He has surrounded himself with friends and family from Alabama. His older brother Courtney lives here and has become Wallace's unofficial personal trainer.
"I just try to push him," Courtney Wallace said. "Make him eat right. Make him lift weights - he hates to lift."
For now, though, he wants to lead the Bobcats to the playoffs - and for his mother to beat bone cancer.
"It's always in the back of my head: 'How's she doing? How's she doing?'" Wallace said.
Right now, she's doing OK.
Doctors gave Castleberry permission this week to travel to Texas to see her son play in today's All-Star Game. She arrived in Dallas on Friday.
And that, said Wallace, is the best part of this weekend.
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