Thursday, Jan. 3, 2008 | midnight
After considerable stalling, UNLV freshman guard Kendall Wallace is finally shifting into the correct gears with considerable help from Aunt Joan.
Riley Wallace, the former Hawaii hoops coach who is Kendall's great-uncle, quit that task weeks ago and is threatening to visit his chiropractor.
Now Joan helps Kendall with the clutch and gears as he drives a greenish-brown 1983 Datsun 280ZX turbo on the roundabouts of Summerlin. She OK'd a jaunt to the Thomas & Mack Center the other day, and he stalled out a dozen times in the arena parking lot.
“We move about, chug, chug, chug,” Joan says, laughing. “Getting out of first is the tricky part, but you sort of have to figure it out yourself, right?”
On and off the basketball court, the Wallaces are competitive and demanding. Hailing from a rich line of athletes and coaches, with roots in a tiny southwestern Illinois town of about 8,000, Kendall Wallace is not a typical out-of-state athlete.
Having relatives in Las Vegas has eased the former Arizona high school star's transition to Division I basketball and improved his ability to get out of first gear.
Thanks, Aunt Joan. She's Kendall's great-aunt, but he has always preferred the informal title.
“She just took over,” Kendall says of his stick-shift exploits. “I'm not being criticized as much with her. That helps. She's as calm as can be.”
For clarity, everyone in this story is related to Kendall Wallace except for the UNLV coaches.
Joan Wallace even keeps her great-nephew keen in the classroom, as she did with Riley and his older brother Loren when they attended Centenary College in Louisiana, and with former Centenary center Robert Parish, who later starred for the Boston Celtics.
About 90 members of the Wallace family gather every July 4 for a reunion in Jerseyville, Ill., and the men shift into overdrive when they drift off to the A-frame on Reelfoot Lake.
Boccie balls are tossed, fishing trophies are awarded, poker games are played, but basketball is the main theme.
“Can't tell you everything we do, like how they wake you up in the morning,” says Loren Wallace, who won more than 700 games in a storied coaching career that landed him in the Illinois high school hall of fame. “Some guys never go to sleep.”
Kendall was first taken to the A-frame when he was 4 or 5.
“I was in shock,” he says. “I don't think I was ready for it.”
The Wallace drive, fire and spirit, however, come from Loren and Riley's mother, the former Barbara Riley, who married Carl Wallace and bore seven children.
In 1961, Carl Wallace was killed in a head-on collision with a drunken driver on a highway outside Jerseyville.
Barbara, who earned her bachelor's degree in her 60s, died in 2000. Before she passed away, Loren Wallace promised her the reunions would continue.
“It's where we got our competitive nature,” Riley Wallace says of his mother.
He had a winning record in 20 seasons at Hawaii when he retired after last season and settled into his Summerlin home.
Kendall can turn to either parent for sage roundball advice, too.
Jeff Wallace, Loren's 44-year-old son, met the former Barbara “Tot” Barham when both were guards at John Brown University in Arkansas.
That first meeting turned into a game of H-O-R-S-E, and Tot won two out of three games. They married in 1985.
Tot's brother David played football at Alabama. Another brother, Andrew, played golf at Louisiana Tech. Rufus Alexander, Kendall's cousin on his mother's side, played linebacker at Oklahoma and is on the Minnesota Vikings' roster.
Jeff Wallace coached high school ball in Illinois for 19 years, then moved his family to Mesa, Ariz., where he's a high school golf coach, after Kendall's seventh-grade year.
“Kendall gets a lot of help,” Jeff says, “from a lot of resources in the family.”
Loren Wallace relocated to Arizona to watch Kendall develop. During Kendall's sophomore season at Mountain View High in Mesa, Loren saw an old friend, Lon Kruger, sitting in the gym.
The UNLV coach was scouting someone from Desert Vista, Mountain View's opponent.
Loren Wallace told Kruger to keep an eye on No. 12, Kendall, that he was better than the player Kruger was scouting. You're right, Kruger told Loren after the game. I'll be on him.
Kendall Wallace led Mountain View to three consecutive state championships.
Kruger coached the University of Illinois for only four seasons, until 2000, but the Wallaces speak of him in glowing terms. An honest person, Loren says, and a great coach.
“He's legendary in Illinois,” Kendall says of Kruger. “I really wanted to play for him. He's a calm coach, and we had some things in common.”
Riley Wallace has attended UNLV practices with former Rebels coaches Jerry Tarkanian and Charlie Spoonhour, and staying so close to the game has eased his retirement.
“He's even helped me scout teams he's played before,” Kendall says. “I think he really enjoys it.”
Riley obtained a Slingbox system, rigging his TV and computer before he leaves his home, so Kendall's mother, Tot, can watch her son's games at home in Arizona.
Riley and Loren's sister, Myrna Landon, and her husband, Harold, live in Illinois but will winter in Arizona so they can travel to Las Vegas with Loren and his wife, Barbara, to watch UNLV.
They and other friends and relatives from Illinois who will periodically travel west will get to see Kendall become a more important Rebel.
A stress fracture in his right fibula slowed him at the start of this season, but Kendall has moved into Kruger's rotation over the past couple of weeks.
He'll get better and better, Loren says of his grandson. He's confident and very smart.
Soon enough, Kendall might even be zipping around Las Vegas in that 280ZX like it's an automatic.
Rob Miech can be reached at 259-4087 or at [email protected]