There was a time not too long ago when the mere mention of mental health was shrouded in taboo. The stigma left those afflicted feeling isolated and often incapable of leading fulfilling lives. For many, the burden of mental illness meant forfeiting careers, fracturing relationships and, in more tragic instances, succumbing to suicide as the weight of their struggles became unbearable.

Some athletes conceal their struggles to maintain an invincible image, leading to silent suffering. Some find themselves adrift in unhappiness despite their athletic prowess. One New York basketball legend has made it his mission to empower individuals contending with mental illness and help them reclaim their lives.

John Wallace, a seven-year NBA veteran from Rochester, began to make waves on the basketball scene as a freshman at Greece Athena High School. Despite initially aiming to study engineering at Cornell University, Wallace's dedication and tireless work ethic in basketball led him down a different path.

“I got my first letter when I was 14 from Jeff Van Gundy,” Wallace recalls. “He was an assistant coach at Rutgers University. I was at a camp at Oneonta College in Oneonta, New York, called the Big Man Point Guard Camp. I wasn’t that good at all; I was just pretty athletic. I just remember Van Gundy telling me to keep working hard and that I had a lot of potential. But that letter, I pinned it up on my wall. It was the first letter I ever got!”

Taking Van Gundy's counsel to heart, Wallace diligently worked to improve his game, and the recruitment letters continued to pour in. One year later, at the age of 15, Wallace’s breakthrough moment came at the Delaware Shootout.

“Anybody who was a player back then, especially in the Northeast or in the South, played in that tournament, and it was the best teams and the best players all around. I played pretty good that weekend and when I got home, I had like 50 letters waiting on me,” Wallace remembers. “I’ll never forget when I got back from that tournament, the coach of Cornell reached out to me saying, ‘I heard you played pretty good, you’re probably not interested in Cornell anymore.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, coach, I don’t think Cornell is going to happen.’”

Wallace was named to the 1992 McDonald’s All-American team and ultimately chose to attend Syracuse University on a full scholarship. From 1992 to 1996, he left his mark on Syracuse, emerging as the program’s third-highest scorer and third-highest rebounder of all time. His name graces the top 10 lists in various statistical categories, including points per game, rebounds per game, field goals made, minutes played, total blocks and true shooting percentage.

During the Sweet 16 in 1996, Wallace made national headlines when he made the game-winning three-pointer in the final seconds of overtime against Georgia to help Syracuse advance to the Elite 8.

“That’s the first time I cried on the court from pure elation – it’s beyond being happy. It was so incredible to hit that shot because you think you’re going to lose because you’re down. And we come back, and you hit the shot… it’s that moment. It just felt so good! I probably get asked about that shot more than anything else. The way it happened, the way we came back, playing with four fouls, going to overtime… the shot, the pass to Jason Cipolla from the baseline. There were so many moments from that game that made it an incredible game… unless you’re a Georgia fan,” Wallace said with a laugh.

The Orange would ultimately advance to the 1996 NCAA Championship Game against Kentucky. Wallace finished with 29 points and 10 rebounds in the 76-67 loss.

In February of 2020, Wallace's No. 44 jersey ascended to the Carrier Dome rafters, cementing his legacy among the Orange's greatest players. Wallace, who wore the No. 44 in Derrick Coleman’s honor explained how “The Magic No. 44” holds profound significance in Syracuse lore.

“The number is just so special, especially at Syracuse. And it started with Jim Brown. Jim Brown wore No. 44 because at the time, he couldn’t get a full scholarship because black players couldn’t get a full ride back then. So, 44 people donated money for him to go to Syracuse,” Wallace explained, “The last football player to wear it is Rob Konrad, and I’m the last basketball player to wear it.”

As John entered the 1996 NBA Draft, little did he know that a familiar figure from his past would significantly influence the start of his professional career. Van Gundy, the former assistant coach from Rutgers University who had sent John his initial recruitment letter, was now the head coach of the New York Knicks, who drafted John with the No. 18 overall pick as part of “the greatest draft of all time,” according to Wallace.

“That’s the best draft ever! You bring up the ’84 draft because of Jordan, Barkley, Stockton and Olajuwon. You bring up the ‘03 draft because of LeBron, Carmelo, Wade and Bosh. But both of those drafts, the guy who went No. 2 closed their draft down,” Wallace said. “We got a guy like Derek Fisher, who went 26th and won five rings with the Lakers. Between him and Kobe, that’s 10 rings right there... it’s not even close.”

At 22, Wallace stepped into the limelight of the NBA as a fresh-faced rookie amidst a star-studded Knicks roster that included Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley and John Starks. Basking in the afterglow of the NCAA Tournament, his selection by his hometown team and a lucrative signature shoe deal with Karl Kani, Wallace entered training camp brimming with confidence. Yet, the harsh reality of what it would take to become a successful player at the NBA level struck him like a thunderbolt from the heavens on the first day of camp.

“We were doing three-on-two and two-on-one drills, and I didn’t get any breaks,” Wallace recalls. “After about 30 consecutive trips, I’m throwing up. Van Gundy is closing out on me, yelling, ‘Get your ass back in line once that last drop of throw up hits, and no washing your mouth out!’”

He quickly learned a valuable lesson from the veterans, which was to shut up and play.

It was that welcome-to-the-NBA moment that made John quickly realize what it would take to earn the respect of his peers: “The only way you’re earning respect with a seasoned vet team like that is by working your ass off every single day. Every day!”

During Wallace’s rookie season, he was selected to participate in the Schick Rookie Game as part of the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Star Weekend celebration where he was surrounded by the 50 greatest players of all time.

“That was incredible,” he said. “It was awesome to see all those guys and just being part of my very first All-Star game festivities with my family and friends… it was incredible.”

After Wallace’s rookie season, the Knicks traded him to the Toronto Raptors. The trade presented Wallace with an opportunity for increased playing time as well as the chance to become more of a team leader among a younger group of players.

“This is a business. You can’t take this personal. Anyone could be traded. You’re either a glass-half-empty or glass-half-full person. I’m half full. So, when I got traded to the Raptors, I would never say the Knicks didn’t want me. I would say Toronto wants me,” Wallace said. “So, I was happy, and I was looking forward to it.”

Despite the Raptors' challenging season, finishing with the league's worst record, Wallace seized the opportunity. His playing time skyrocketed from 11.6 minutes per game as a rookie to 28.8 minutes per game as a sophomore. Additionally, his scoring average surged from 4.8 points to 14 points per game.

After two seasons with the Raptors, Wallace returned to the Knicks as a free agent in 1999. Following that season, Wallace went on to have one-year stints with the Detroit Pistons and Phoenix Suns. In 2002, Wallace played overseas in Greece for the Panionios before returning to the NBA in 2003 as a member of the Miami Heat. In 2005, he concluded his professional basketball career overseas in Italy, playing one final season with Snaidero Udine.

“Being that far away from my kids and needing to get back to the States weekly… that last year of basketball took the last bit of love I had to actually get up and work out and play…” Wallace explained. “I didn’t have it in me anymore. The things I used to love doing that I did all the time… it became a process and a chore.”

Upon retiring, John's top priority was spending time with his five kids since he couldn’t always do that due to his demanding basketball schedule.

“I was just Mr. Mom at first… making up some lost time with my kids,” he said. “Doing all the things that you really don’t get the chance to do all the time when you’re travelling and playing basketball so much.”

Several years later, life came full circle for John when he interviewed for an ambassador role with the Knicks’ fan relations. He was offered the job on the spot and still maintains the position 15 years later.

“I can’t emphasize enough how much the Knicks organization and Mr. [James] Dolan have done for myself and my family ever since I got drafted in ’96,” Wallace said. “I am forever indebted and grateful to the Knicks organization.”

Off the court, John has been engaged with the Heavenly Productions Foundation since 2010. HPF, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, is dedicated to aiding distressed children in need.

“It’s been incredible giving out backpacks with school supplies to kids in impoverished neighborhoods,” he said. “You’d be shocked at something as simple as a backpack, how much joy that could bring to a kid, how much stress it takes off of a family that needs to buy a backpack and buy some school supplies. The founder is Dr. Kathy Reilly Fallon. Her and her husband, Jay Fallon, do a tremendous job. I’m just one of the pieces that tries to help whenever I can. We’ve given out backpacks in Rwanda. We’ve given out backpacks in the Dominican Republic. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York, we went out to Staten Island and gave out 5,000 backpacks... Being a part of something like this has been awesome.”

Alongside his responsibilities within the Knicks organization and the Heavenly Productions Foundation, John has embarked on a new venture as a business developer for Counslr – a mental health app designed for schools, businesses and organizations.

“Counslr is a mental health app that you could access if you’re part of a school, college or company.” Wallace said. “You have therapists at your fingertips 24/7, 365 in all 50 states ready to deal with any problems you might have. If it’s something that’s a real serious matter, there is a function within the app that lets the therapist know exactly where you are so they could contact the right center to get some help out to you immediately… You don’t need to call to make an appointment. You don’t need to drive anywhere. You could just hop on your phone and get therapy help.”

Today, the discussion surrounding mental health is no longer taboo. Wallace notes that it is now openly discussed on a regular basis.

“It’s a topic of discussion that could be found in most houses across the world now,” Wallace stated. “It’s not something you keep hush-hush and you only talk to your therapist about. You talk to your family, your friends, whoever.” 

Wallace explains one of the best functions of the Counslr app is “you could get right on your phone and get some help immediately, and you can call 50 times in a day if you need to. There is no limit.”

How did Wallace get involved with Counslr?

“I wanted to be a part of that solution,” he explained. “If people have issues going on, I want to be a part of that. Whatever issue they may have, I want to help resolve them and alleviate some of those problems that people are dealing with from all walks of life.”

Wallace gives a lot of credit to the NBRPA for creating job opportunities for retired players.

“They provide us with workshops, teaching us about various fields of work… But honestly, the healthcare package we have is enough. They go above and beyond,” Wallace stated. “Just the fact that we have the best healthcare and it’s free is enough.

“We all feel like Michael Jordan when we call the NBA office, or the NBRPA office; they help us immediately. I was never an All-Star, but I feel like [one when I call]. The way the NBA and NBRPA conduct their business is why we are all happy we are a part of it.”