Mutka: Wallace Bryant walked tall for Emerson, Smith
July 21, 2013 11:12PM
Updated: August 23, 2013 6:35AM
No matter how crowded Earl Smith’s retirement party was over the weekend Wallace Bryant was easy to spot.
The engaging 7-footer, who played for the exiting Gary athletic director during Emerson’s golden years of basketball, walked tall at the Avalon Manor, but it wasn’t always the case when he was growing up. Like many basketball bigs he was self-conscious about his height as a teen-ager.
“He used to slouch,” said Smith, who addressed Bryant’s confidence issues by taking him to see Bill Cartwright during a San Francisco visit to Notre Dame in the late seventies.
Cartwright could empathize with Bryant, having wielded his 7-foot frame to earn All-American honors with the Dons, whom he led to three straight NCAA appearances. The 7-foot center, who would go on to a 16-year career in the NBA, including three championships with the Bulls, propped him up with some tough love.
“He talked to me like a Dutch uncle,” said Bryant, who admits to having been kind of a shy kid. “He told me being big is a blessing, that I should be proud of being a tall guy, and not act like a small guy.”
They later became teammates, spurring the Dons to a 22-7 record and the Sweet Sixteen in their one season together. Bryant also went on to a five-year career in the NBA with the Bulls, Mavericks and the Clippers, but never forgot his time in Gary.
Smith frequently talks about athletes who played for him at Froebel, Emerson and Wallace as if they were his extended family. In Bryant’s case he took it to the next level.
“He was my guardian in high school,” said Bryant, who lived with Smith’s mother. “His mother gave up custody because of family issues. Coach raised me, taught me how to be a man. It was a special relationship.”
To improve Bryant’s stamina he qualified as the nation’s tallest cross country runner in high school. In track he competed He also competed in shorter races.
“The 220 was my best event,” said Bryant, grinning. “Twenty-seven seconds. He had me flying.”
Bryant took advantage of his dual citizenship — he was born in Madrid, Spain 54 years ago — to play pro ball in Barcelona, Italy and Argentina, starring for four championship teams in a dozen years.
He still looks fit, easily carrying 275 pounds on his frame.
“I’ve got three sons, 32, 27 and 22 years old,” he said.
Any matching his height?
“My tallest is 6-10. but he didn’t play basketball,” said Bryant. “He a brainiac who works as a financier.”
Bryant coached the California Sea Kings and the Ford City Pirates in the ABA for several years, but now runs a basketball academy for the Boys Club in Stockton, California.
“Our slogan is buffing the diamonds,” said Bryant. “We’re trying to put kids on the right path.”
Hulet Hope, one of many of Smith’s proteges who attended the affair, remembers playing for his 1974-75 semistate team with Charles Hicks, Emmett Lewis and Michael Moore.
“We knocked off Hammond High which had Rich Valavicius and Brian Banks,” he said. “We were 24-3. My only regret was we didn’t finish the job. All of our losses were by two points.”
Hope played wherever needed, referring to himself as a defensive stopper. Now living in Texas he’s a CPA, working for what he laughingly describes as “the most hated organization in the world.” (IRS?)
Frank Smith, Bryant’s teammate at Emerson, went on to start at Arizona for four straight seasons. The two-time team captain twice led the Wildcats in rebounding and blocked shots for three years and finished with 1,329 points.
“When I graduated I was in Arizona’s top ten for scoring,” said Smith, an imposing 6-foot-11 figure at his former coach’s banquet.
Portland drafted him, but he spent his pro career in Europe and Argentina.
“He’s a truly special man,” said Frank, who credits Coach Smith with inspiring his selection to the Indiana silver anniversary team a year after Bryant was named.
“What I want people to know is how many lives he affected,” Frank said. “He made sure you were seen by the right people.”
Before Bryant graduated they created a formidable tandem for the Golden Tornado. Coach Smith believed in the star system, which served him well with players like Frank, Bryant and Wallace’s Jerome Harmon and Tellis Frank.
Frank Smith still remembers being approached after Bryant scored 40 in his senior season.
“Coach came up to me after the game and said you’ve got to beat that next year,” Frank recalled. “I broke that three times in my senior season.”
One of his favorite prep memories was winning the Hall of Fame Classic, which earned Emerson a No. 1 state ranking.
Frank Smith now lives in Fort Worth, Texas.
Elmer Edwards, among those celebrating Coach Smith’s life, was his teammate at Roosevelt High School.
“He was like my little brother,” Edwards said. “He played everywhere, even some quarterback. A heckuva athlete. We were the first Roosevelt team to beat Emerson.”
Claude Taliaferro, who later returned to coach Roosevelt football, and Edwards were team captains.
“One of our guards was Chet Adkins. He weighed 135 pounds. We had halfbacks bigger than him.”
In 1952, Adkins won the Olympic gold medal in boxing with a bloody split decision over Russian Viktor Mednov. Until then Mednov had never been beaten in more than 300 fights, according to the Nevada State Journal.