Significant Moments in Black History: Jamal Wallace loses a game to prove to white people that they can’t beat him and lives to tell the tale 

OPINION: The Bronx, New York, basketball phenom got a scholarship to an elite private school, stuck it to them, and they still paid for his education with a smile.

Stephanie Berry and Rob Brown as Janice and Jamal Wallace in "Finding Forrester." (Courtesy of Sony Pictures)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Jamal Wallace was just a regular kid from the Bronx whose life met at the intersection of basketball, elite society and literature. Smarter than most, better at basketball than most and more well-read than the vast majority of people, Jamal stumbled upon a literary icon at the most important time in his life — right when he was about to attend a prestigious private school (Mailor-Callow) in Manhattan that only wanted him for his basketball skills. 

Jamal, though, was smart enough to know that he could use that school for his education just like they could use him for the (presumed) championships he could bring them. The literary icon —William Forrester, author of “Avalon Landing” — took Jamal under his wing and helped him become a better writer, upending the myth of the crazy recluse in the apartment overlooking the basketball court. 

None of that is significant for the Black community. What was significant for me and you, your momma and your cousin, too, was what happened next. 

Jamal had a professor, Professor Crawford, who had a burr in his saddle about Jamal, viewing him as nothing more than an athlete with nothing to offer academically. One can never know for sure if Crawford didn’t like Jamal because he was Black, an athlete or a Black athlete, but the tension was palpable and the underestimation was a frequent part of their interactions. 

Forrester used to help Jamal work on his writing in his apartment and told Jamal that everything written in the apartment stayed in the apartment and that Jamal should hide Forrester’s identity at all costs. But because of Crawford’s prodding and disrespect — he even made Jamal write a paper IN FRONT OF HIM — Jamal grabbed a paper he wrote in the apartment and turned it in. Crawford searched high and low (this was before Google was a thing) and found that Jamal used the title and first sentence from one of Forrester’s pieces and was threatened with expulsion. 

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But you see, Jamal was a real G, and stayed true to his integrity. He didn’t say that he knew the legend, William Forrester, or that William gave him permission to use his words. The school board was truly concerned but they ALSO had a championship game coming up. The school was willing to drop the charges of academic dishonesty against Jamal if he brought home the championship. And Jamal then did a thing that lives on in infamy in New York City and beyond. 

Jamal was good at many things on the basketball court, but he was LEGENDARY for not missing free throws. I heard one dude say that Jamal once hit 789 free throws in a row and only missed because somebody started shooting. It was firecrackers but you could never be too sure. Anywho, the game came down to two free throws. One free throw to tie and two to win. Everybody had seen or heard of his legend. So Jamal, pissed that the school tried to use him for their own gain but was willing to only forgive something he didn’t even do wrong if he won a game MISSED THE TWO FREE THROWS and cost the school the championship. 

A lesser student would know that he’d reached the end of the line of his education at such a prestigious institution, but Jamal showed up to school the next day, head held high for a writing symposium where William Forrester showed up and cleared his name! Jamal not only stayed at the school, he kept his scholarship, won the respect of the student body and administration and became one of the most popular students Mailor-Callow had ever seen. Jamal Wallace of the Bronx lost the game but won the world, leaving him as one of the few Black teenagers to ever get more out of a racist white institution than it got out of him. To our knowledge, Mailor-Callow never won a championship, but Jamal went on to become a successful businessman. 

Panama Jackson

Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things, drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest), but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said: “Unknown” (Blackest).

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