While Syracuse’s iconic number 44 jersey is mostly remembered for the running backs who donned it, a uniform with that same identifier hangs in the rafters of the Dome for an Orange basketball legend. Forty years after Jim Brown ran wild on the turf, John Wallace dominated on the hardwood.
Wallace grew up in Rochester and attended Greece-Athena High School, where he led the Trojans to an undefeated record and state title his senior season. He received numerous All-American honors, as well as the “Mr. Basketball” award for the state of New York.
When Wallace came to the Hill in 1992, Syracuse had a vacancy at the forward spot, as Dave Johnson had exhausted his years of eligibility, and was headed to the NBA. SU already had a star in sophomore guard Lawrence Moten, but needed a physical presence to pair with Conrad McRae down low. And that’s exactly what Wallace provided. The 6-foot-7 freshman started every game his freshman season, averaging 11 points and 7.5 rebounds, and was named to the Big East All-Freshman team. Unfortunately, Syracuse’s 20-9 record wasn’t enough to sneak the Orange into the NCAA tournament.
Wallace took an even larger role in his sophomore campaign, as he led the front line with 15 points and 9 rebounds per game on the way to second team All-Big East honors. He also drew more fouls, shooting almost double the amount of free throws compared to his freshman year. Although SU never cracked the top 10 in 1993-94, Wallace played a big hand in defeating two of the nation’s top ranked teams. Syracuse beat both number four Kentucky and number five UConn at the Dome. Wallace had 18 points and 13 rebounds against the Wildcats, and 25, 10, and 6 blocks against the Huskies. This time the Orange would reach March Madness, but only to lose in an overtime finish to Missouri.
In 1994-95, Wallace’s junior year, his scoring and rebounding stayed consistent, and he added great passing as well. The All-Big East first teamer averaged three assists per game for the Orange, who were a top 25 team all season. Wallace, along with now-seniors Moten and Luke Jackson, helped SU rip off a 14-game win streak in the early going, only to lose six of their last eight Big East games. Syracuse only made it to the Round of 32 in the 1995 NCAA tournament, but put up a heck of a fight, losing 96-94 in overtime to eventual champions Arkansas. Wallace contributed 29 points and 9 boards in the defeat.
Although many thought Wallace should enter the NBA draft, he decided to return to Syracuse, where he starred on a roster full of role players (and some freshman walk-on named McNabb). He did so admirably, averaging 22 points (at that point an SU record), and 9 rebounds per game, developing a three-point shot (an amazing 42% from behind the arc), and turning in big performance after big performance when the Orange needed it most. SU upset ninth-ranked Arizona, thanks to Wallace’s 26 and 9. He played all 45 minutes and scored 31 points in an overtime loss to Villanova. He put up 25 and 13 when SU spanked Allen Iverson and eighth-ranked Georgetown in the Dome. The Orange played their best basketball in the latter half of the season, as Jim Boeheim went with the 2-3 zone full time, and carried that into the postseason.
Wallace’s pull up three to win the Sweet 16 game over Georgia is the lasting image in many fans’ minds of the 1996 season, even though the Orange fell in the title game to Rick Pitino and Kentucky. Wallace was named a second team All-American his senior year, and finished his Syracuse career ranked third in both scoring and rebounding. He was picked 18th overall in the ‘96 NBA draft by his hometown Knicks, and had a seven year career in the Association.
Wallace was named to the SU All-Century team, and had his number 44 retired in February of 2020.