On Dunking: An Interview With Perry Wallace

Perry Wallace was 15 when Loyola won the national championship. Later in the year he would enter Pearl High School in Nashville, where Loyola’s big men, Les Hunter and Vic Rouse, played their high school ball. In 1967, Wallace would cross the last racial frontier for college basketball players, as the first black player in the SEC. He did not see the big game on TV, but he didn’t really need to. The black community in Nashville had been tracking the progress of their favorite sons since they’d enrolled at Loyola. When the Ramblers reached the NCAA tournament the whole city was watching. Wallace knew it was big because it wasn’t relegated to the back of the sports section, like most black sports stories. It was up front—“in what we used to call the white section of the sports page.”

“It was the talk of the black town,” Wallace remembered. He heard it from his coaches, from the ballplayers who hung around at all-black Tennessee State, from older people in the neighborhood. “They kept up with it the way we’re keeping up with events in Libya. [We spoke in March 2011, in the midst of  the “Arab Spring.”] It was that mesmerizing and that level of heightened interest.”

The interest was not limited to basketball fans, Wallace remembered. “You had three parallel conversations—you had sports fans, the general public, and then the kind of educated class who were vitally concerned about racial progress. They tracked athletes and others who attained some note because there was always some potential for leveraging it. And any time you had the races cooperating, it was a real victory and it deserved our attention.”

For Wallace, who dreamed of going to college on a basketball scholarship, Loyola’s success had a more particular meaning too. “Growing up in the segregated schools ofNashville, and in particular going to Pearl High, it was a powerful, powerful influence. Here were these guys who came from the world that I came from. I played on the same playgrounds they did. I grew up sort of under their aura. They looked like me. I played like them. We came up in the same system. It was ready-made role model stuff. Coaches really knew how to use it to inspire us. I always remembered stories about Hunter and Rouse and when they played in the south and then how they went up north to Chicago, which was kind of a dream that all of us had.  And then when they won the national championship, of course this was huge. It really pumped up the hopes and dreams about going to a big college outside the south and playing major college ball. In terms of black culture and literature and lore, going up north, ever since the underground railroad, the north was always the land of hope. And in many respects it became kind of a mythical place where you could go and be free compared to the south.”

As the 1963 final fed the dreams of youngsters, it also opened the eyes of those who controlled access to those dreams. “The prospect of integration was scary to many whites,” Wallace said, “but some of the coaches and administrators were beginning to peep out and say, Wow, what could we have done this year had we had a Hunter and a Rouse? Basically they were beginning to look at the spigot that had spewed out the Hunters and the Rouses and they were looking for more.”

As it turned out Wallace did not go to college in the north. In his senior year at Pearl High he led his team to a 31-0 season and victory in Tennessee’s first integrated state championship. He had become a college coach’s dream—6-5, a prodigious leaper who could score and rebound, a high school All American, and valedictorian of his class to boot. He had about 80 college offers from all over the country (including from George Ireland at Loyola), but in the end he succumbed to the school on the white side of town. Vanderbilt chancellor Alexander Heard was eager to integrate the SEC and Perry Wallace was perfect for the job.

He didn’t have an easy  time of it. He didn’t meet another black player in the SEC until his senior year. When Vanderbilt traveled to play other teams in the conference, he was cursed, called names, and spat on. What he remembered most, though, was the indignity of the nigger-ball stereotype—the persistent notion that he and other black players were brute athletic talents incapable of thinking for or controlling themselves. They had no discipline. They couldn’t play defense or be counted on under pressure. If they fell behind they would panic and scatter.

Since boyhood, Wallace had been captivated by the dunk. To him it had a certainty that was not available in everyday life. “When I first started watching basketball, I saw Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell dunking, and this was a fantastic inspiration to me—not just as an athlete, but it had a spiritual, Proustian effect. You know, I’d walk through these white communities, past these white houses and schools, and they had everything. We didn’t seem to have anything. And we could be picked on at any time. In a world that was a lot of times not hopeful, not so certain, where you were powerless, these black athletes seemed to be powerful and strong and sure.” A dunk could not be deflected or misconstrued. It was an act of will and control. To the young Wallace, it was “just magnificent.” In the evening he would work on his dunk muscles while watching TV. “Squat after squat after squat, watching Leave It to Beaver and Dragnet—doing squats and practicing jumping.” The Tennessee State gym was a gathering place for basketball players from the school and the neighborhood. When Wallace first showed up there, a 6-foot 2-inch 13-year-old kid, “I got on the floor and at one point I got the ball and I drove in and I dunked and these college guys went wild.”

The dunk was banned from college basketball at the end of Wallace’s freshman year at Vanderbilt. It was also the end of Lew Alcindor’s sophomore year, his first year as a varsity player; the new rule was approved just two days after his UCLA team won the national championship. Some basketball people called it the Lew Alcindor rule.  According to the New York Times, an NCAA spokesman said it was needed to prevent injuries and because there was no defense for the dunk. “The founders of the game, he said, intended the ball to be thrown through the hoop, not pushed.” Perry Wallace remembered that some people saw it differently. “A lot of people ascribed it to the fear of these black players slam-dunking with these strongly symbolic moves.”

Wallace developed an alternate move. “One of the things I used to do was to go up high above the rim and just drop the ball in.” The dunk rule prohibited his hands from crossing the cylinder of airspace over the rim, but Wallace learned to drop the ball in without violating the cylinder. “It was a strategy on my part,” Wallace said, especially useful when he had to play center against taller players. “Now when I did that, routinely, one of the fans, or one of the athletic supporters, would come up to me and this was the interpretation they had of my strategy:Boy, you got that ball, and, and you were all excited, and, and, and you just went up and you were gonna dunk the way you used to dunk, and then you remembered at the last minute and dropped the ball in.’ Every game: ‘Boy, I know what you were doing out there, you just forgot and you just, you just, you went wild for a minute, and then you caught yourself.’ Now here I am, a valedictorian, I’m a major in the engineering school at Vanderbilt, in electrical engineering and engineering mathematics. I’m making As and Bs. ‘Boy, you just lost your mind, you just went wild and then you just remembered at the last minute.’ Every game! And this wasn’t hatred at work. They liked me! This was the ultimate in stereotyping.”

Wallace graduated with his engineering degree in 1970. He was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers and flirted briefly with pro basketball before enrolling at Columbia University law school, which awarded him a J.D. in 1975. He worked as a trial attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice during the Carter and Reagan administrations. Since 1993 he has been a tenured professor of law at American University in Washington,D.C.