All that summer weight work helped Szczerbiak lead the nation in scoring through the first few weeks of last season with a 29.4 average. Thus Coles reacted the way any coach might have when, on Jan. 3, Wally broke his right wrist and was lost for eight games. "The worst thing that could happen happened," Coles said at the time.
Coles, 56, had no way of knowing how wrong he was. Less than two months later, the RedHawks were in Kalamazoo, Mich., a seventh seed in the MAC tournament, facing second-seeded Western Michigan in the first round. Moments after the RedHawks had broken a timeout huddle, with the score tied and just over 11 minutes to play in the first half, Coles keeled over and hit the floor with a thud. Miami, the school known as the Cradle of Coaches, had nearly sent one to his grave.
Officials suspended the game for two hours while Coles was treated courtside and at a local hospital. After being assured that Coles would survive, Szczerbiak and his co-captain, guard Damon Frierson, gathered their teammates to decide whether to complete the game the following day or play on. Coles likes to talk about "the long way around"—how, in coming to Miami and choosing a league like the MAC, a young man has usually forsworn shortcuts and cop-outs. Following a regular season in which the RedHawks lost not only Szczerbiak for three weeks but also four other players to injuries or academic failures, there wasn't much deliberation. "We knew our coach wanted us to be warriors and go on and play," Szczerbiak says. Miami won the game and beat Kent several nights later before losing to Eastern Michigan in the final as Szczerbiak scored 26 points but was trumped by the Eagles' Earl Boykins, who had 29.
This season Szczerbiak is joining such recent senior stars as Tim Duncan and Keith Van Horn as examples of the proposition that, by staying in school for four years, a college player can help his game and himself. In a sense, Wally is living his life much as Walt did. Wally has his Real Madrid in mid-major Miami, an idyllic, out-of-the-way place with more to offer than just basketball. He has his Marilyn in Shannon, who takes many of the same courses he does so she can fill him in if a road trip causes him to miss class. He has his Madison Square Garden moment, one that even ended in victory. And he has the stroke and the smarts that served his father so well. "In the Goodwill Games one move he made was a flashback," Marilyn Szczerbiak says. "I could see Walt exactly."
The night before he's to drive from Long Island back to campus for his senior year, Wally sits at the dining room table, listening to Walt recount the vicissitudes of his pro career. The contours of these stories are familiar to Wally, but many of the details are new, including the stats Walt recites from his final scrimmage with the Colonels to support his claim that he was unjustly released. He even offers to produce the box score. "So you're bitter about that?" Wally asks. "About not playing in the NBA?"
Walt doesn't really answer. "I don't regret going to Spain," he says. "If I hadn't, I don't know if I'd still be working in basketball. But as a competitor I'd have loved to have gone up against a guy like Wilt Chamberlain. I think I could have competed at that level, and I never had a chance to prove it."
Wally will most likely have that chance, but it would be misleading to say that Walt is spoiling for vicarious vindication. Vindication is a juvenile emotion. Paternal pride, on the other hand, is something it takes a man of a certain age to know, and Walt fairly swells with it. "Played over at C.W. Post last Sunday," he says. "My team went 0-5. Another guy in this room, his team went 5-0."
At that, Wally Szczerbiak springs his best move, and that bright smile warms the room.