One can't help but wonder what role race plays in Szczerbiak's popularity—or lack thereof—around the league. He's one of only three white players who regularly start at two guard, a distinction often noted by the opposition. In a game last season Toronto Raptors swingman Vince Carter looked at Szczerbiak, laughed and then turned to the Timberwolves' bench. "He said, and this is a direct quote, 'You better get this white guy off me or I'm going to score 40,' " recalls Szczerbiak. "I took that as a slap in the face." (Carter, who scored 32 points that night, denies referring to Szczerbiak's race.) In his book Shaq Talks Back, Shaquille O'Neal lists Szczerbiak as one of his favorite white players but adds, "If you get dunked on by a white boy, you got to come home to your friends and hear it."
If being a white player in the NBA—in which more than 80% of the players are black—consigns one to outsider status, Szczerbiak has had a decade to become inured. In high school he drove to the Bronx and Brooklyn from his home in the verdant Long Island community of Cold Spring Harbor to play AAU ball with Stephon Marbury and Lamar Odom. Often, he was the only white kid on the floor. After Szczerbiak graduated from Miami of Ohio in 1999, the players with whom he was compared at predraft camps were Tom Gugliotta, Dan Majerle and Larry Bird. Does Szczerbiak feel stigmatized because of his race? "I'm sure I gel put through the wringer a little more and scrutinized a little more,' he says. "That's fine with me. It makes me work harder. Now that I'm getting more looks, I can go back at guys [such as Carter], sc it's not like I'm a punching bag."
Szczerbiak was constantly mentioned in trade rumors last season—to the Chicago Bulls for various combinations involving Ron Mercer, Ron Artest, Marcus Fizer and Khalid El-Amin; to the Seattle SuperSonics with Brandon for Gary Payton—and he's elated no deal came to pass. He and his wife, Shannon, live in a well-appointed town house in downtown Minneapolis during the season and have fallen for the charms of the upper Midwest (you betcha!). Plus, the Timberwolves are back on solid footing after a shaky 2000-01. Though Minnesota made the playoffs for the fifth straight time and won 47 games, the most ever for an eighth seed, the year was fraught with bad mojo.
In May 2000 forward Malik Sealy was killed in an auto accident. Then the NBA got wind of the team's sub-rosa deal to sign Smith to a seven-year, $86 million contract that made a mockery of the salary-cap rules. The league's sanctions included suspending owner Glen Taylor for one year, fining the T-Wolves $3.5 million, voiding Smith's contract and ultimately taking away four first-round draft choices. "I'm proud that we persevered last year," says Szczerbiak, whose option for 2002-03 the club picked up in September, "but the vibes are much better this year."
The season is still young; Szczerbiak's barely faded summer tan—cultivated while he cruised Long Island Sound on his 20-foot boat, Wally World—attests to that. Nonetheless, Minnesota, a team that hasn't won a playoff series in its 12-year history, has already penetrated the consciousness of the other top teams. "People are aware of what we're doing," says Garnett. "They might not come out and say it, but you better believe everybody has a tape of the Timberwolves, because we're winning games."
Likewise, the word on Szczerbiak is out. "No question," says Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Andre Miller, who was also a member of the Goodwill Games team. "Other teams know that Wally is a player you need to watch."
Szczerbiak's not hard to spot. Just look for the white guy who's locking and loading, shooting the lights out.
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