John Wallace (Syracuse Legend)

Interview from June 22, 2012

Etan Thomas: J Dub how you doin man. Thanks for doing this interview for me. First, tell me how you grew up and describe your relationship with your father growing up.

John Wallace:  No problem man, you know its Syracuse love. My father was in and out of my life when I was young. He was actually locked up a lot during my childhood. So it was this tumultuous experience because sometimes he was around and other times he wasn’t. So at some times I was happy then in the blink of an eye, that happiness was snatched away from me. And that really leads to a sad childhood to be honest, because as a boy all you really want to do is to be able to do things with your father. And when you are not able to do those things with him it turns from wanting to be with him to resentment and anger and hatred. And I was eventually able to work past all of that anger and hate but its not like a father and son relationship now, its more of a friend relationship.

Etan Thomas: So how did you not allow that anger to ruin your life? I work with a lot of young people in correctional facilities and the common theme I always see in them is anger, and they don’t know what to do with it. How did you channel that anger into something positive and become the star of Syracuse University. I mean, if people don’t remember, you carried that team on your back your senior year all the way to the National Championship Game.

John Wallace: Thanks Etan those were the good old days but I remember practicing basketball and working so hard just because I wanted to be so good that he’s going t wish that he was in my life. Besides being ultra competitive and wanting to be the best player, I wanted my dad to realize that he missed out on something special. And I knew that eventually, he was going to hear about me or read about me, and wish he would have done better by my. He was going to regret how he was in and out of my life. And I turned that negative energy, into something positive.

Etan Thomas: So how did you avoid some of the pitfalls that some guys who are in similar situations fall into? Guys that I work with in correctional facilities have fallen into?

John Wallace: Honestly Etan, I didn’t avoid them. I have a youth mentoring program so I talk about this a lot to them. I didn’t avoid them at all. I used to steal cars. So I didn’t avoid anything, I was in that world. I remember one night, we stole a car and was joy riding and I was literally five minutes away from ruining my entire life. I was smart enough to get out of the car but my friends didn’t. They got pulled over and my cousin did three years at Industry which is a prison for boys 15 and under, my other boy did almost a year, I was literally five minutes away from my life literally never being this way.

I wasn’t just being reckless just to be reckless though. My family didn’t have anything. We didn’t have food in the house a lot of times, electricity was off sometimes, and thats why I started stealing cars. I didn’t steal cars to do for fun or no joy rides, it was about getting money. I was taking them to the chop shops and getting money for them, I didn’t have any interest in joy riding, I was stealing cars for a reason. That’s the only reason I got out the car that night, because it wasn’t business they were joy riding. I was about business. I was running a business at 13 years old. Now, yes it was a criminal, illegal business, but it was a business. It put food on the table, I was being the man of the house. Now, I shouldn’t have been put in that position in the first place, but thats what I did. And even though my mom didn’t know where it was coming from, I assured her it wasn’t from drugs, I have never sold drugs a day in my life, but I was stealing and selling cars. Not something I am proud of, but its what I did. And that night that my cousin got caught, I looked at myself and said God put me on earth for something bigger than this and I never stole anything since, I just dedicated all of my time all of my life to basketball.

Etan Thomas: Wow man, thats a blessing you got out of the car, so what do you tell the kids in your mentorship program when you talk about that?

John Wallace: I always explain to them how you are one bad decision away from ruining your life. That was my good decision to get out of that car. It was a wake up call that I needed. If I would’ve stayed in that car that night, I would have never gone to Syracuse because no coach would’ve touched me after that, would have never played in the NBA and would have had a completely different life. I would have been entrenched in a world of crime. I mean, you have to be a hardened criminal if your going to be a criminal, you can’t halfway do it. But I would have started down a path where I probably wouldn’t even been here today doing this interview with you. I would be dead or best case scenario locked up. And what kind of a best case scenario is that?

Etan Thomas: So when people throw statistics at young people telling them that they have no other choice because they come from a certain background or they come from a “broken home” and they’re going to end up in prison, what do you say to that? Because that was really something that i heard growing up, all the so-called experts throw all of those negative statistics around and implanting all of that negativity into young people’s minds. That was really a big motivation for me doing this project.

John Wallace: I don’t know the current stats, but I know when I was younger the stats were one out of four black males would end up in jail. I remember hearing that over and over and over again and saying to myself well, I am going to be that one out of four then. I’m not gonna be the 75% I am going to be in the 25 percentile range that was going to be successful. I was going to do the things I had to do to be able to get to college. I got my first college letter the summer of my ninth grade year, and that changed my life. It became a goal that I saw possible that I could achieve. Thats all it takes for young people, to see it as a possibility, but if your expectations are low, if you set the bar for yourself low, then all your going to achieve is low. You limit yourself. But when I got that letter from college, my expectations grew and I saw it as a possibility.

Etan Thomas: That’s great man. Ok, I am going to ask you one more question. This is like one of the main questions that are asked. How do young men learn how to be good fathers if they never saw that growing up?

John Wallace: Thats one thing I told my dad. The best thing you showed me was how not to be. I have five kids of my own. I’m a great father because of my father not being a good father. I want to do everything possible for them that was never done for me. I don’t want them feeling the way that I felt. I don’t want them going through life with resentment or anger or hatred toward me like I had for my father. So I am going to do everything possible so that they know how much I love them and they know that I will always be there for them and I will never abandon them. They are MY KIDS no matter what.