By Jaimie Julia Winters
Wallace “Wally” Choice Jr., a veteran, NBA basketball player and Harlem Globetrotter, and local public advocate, passed away on Sunday, Sept. 9. He was 85.
A Montclair native, Choice returned home after college, opening two local businesses and creating programs for the young and seniors.
Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renee Baskerville’s first job was with the Montclair Grass Roots program that became Choice’s passion.
“They taught us about the importance of economic development before many had subcommittees,” she said. “They understood how economies grew and created jobs for us in our community. They taught us about maintaining a clean and green environment, the importance of educational equity and how important it is to plant seeds that will move our community, our state and the nation to a thriving harvest. Mr. and Mrs. Choice always had a potent cadre of individuals with passion for our children and our community who understood that an early start and a healthy start could move any child onto and through the pathway from cradle to career. At Montclair Grass Roots…no child has ever been left behind. Children have always been their special interest group.”
Choice grew up in Montclair’s Fourth Ward and graduated from Montclair High School in 1952.
After becoming the first Montclair High basketball player to be named a New Jersey All-State performer in basketball, he received a full athletic scholarship from Indiana University, where he majored in education and business. Choice played on the Indiana University basketball team, and was captain of the team his senior year in 1955-56, becoming the first African-American to be named captain of a Big Ten basketball team. That season, he averaged 21 points per game and was named team Most Valuable Player.
After graduation, he played ball with the Harlem Globetrotters until he was drafted into the Army.
After the Army, he taught school in New York and played basketball for the Eastern Professional Basketball League’s Trenton Colonials. In 1963, he received the “Mr. Basketball Award” from the City of Trenton. Choice received the Most Valuable Player award in the 1959 New York vs. Philadelphia Rucker Championship Game. He was also inducted into the Brooklyn USA Hall of Fame and the Rucker Professional Hall of Fame. In addition, he received the National Pro-Am Achievement Award.
After retiring from basketball, Choice owned and operated Choice Pharmacy on Bloomfield for 10 years.
He then spent two years in Los Angeles as director of the Rosey Grier Giant Step Entrepreneur Training Program, which trained young adults in the silk-screening industry.
Choice returned home again in 1986, and his family opened and operated the Lackawanna Shoe & Parcel Service until 2006.
In 1968, Choice and a small group of Montclair residents formed an organization called Montclair Grass Roots, Inc. to meet the recreational and educational needs of youth in the community. Located in Glenfield Park for more than 50 years, it has been a resource for children of working parents providing after school programming, as well as providing programs for adults and senior citizens.
Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo Jr. has worked with Choice for 40 years.
“The one thing about Wally Choice is his love for this community and the children of this community. And he puts that first all the time,” said DiVincenzo. “We can build it, but it’s [the community] that has to run it.”
In 2008, Essex County named the Glenfield Park House the “Wally Choice Community Center” in his honor. In June, Choice attended the center’s ribbon cutting of the renovated and upgraded center.
The park has become the home for Montclair Grass Roots’ summer day camp for children, which has served more than 18,000 children during Choice’s time as director, as well as for numerous adult and senior-citizen programs serving thousands.
Fifty senior citizens meet regularly in the community center for lunch, socialization and field trips.
The goals of Montclair Grass Roots are the same today: ”To save tomorrow by making a long-term investment in our Grass Root children today.”
At the ribbon cutting in June, Mayor Robert Jackson said “Mr and Mrs. Choice have poured their heart and soul” into the center that positively affected thousands of children and seniors.
Choice met his wife Celine at Indiana University and they were married after graduation. They have one son, Wally Anthony, who was captain and Most Valuable Player of his basketball team at Penn State University before graduating in 1984.