by Lang Whitaker | @langwhitaker

Over the last 48 hours, I’ve seen reports that Joe Johnson is definitely going to sign with the New York Knicks, he is surely going to Dallas in a sign-and-trade, he could be going to Houston in a sign-and-trade, and he’s almost certainly staying in Atlanta.

Welcome to the summer of 2010. I said something about the ridiculousness of all these Joe Johnson rumors yesterday on Twitter, and my main man Sekou Smith responded that as a Hawks fan, I must be nervous.

The truth is, I’m not. The way I figure it, the next couple of days are going to be completely insane. Rumors will begat rumors which will begat more rumors. And maybe ten percent of what we hear will actually be true. I know a lot of NBA writers and columnists have been gearing up for this strange season — stoking their sources, emailing and texting, staying glued to the internet.

Me? I’m celebrating the start of free agency on July 1 by leaving on vacation. Partly because Wifey and I haven’t taken a vacation since Christmas, but moreso because there’s about to be a media battle royale to figure out who’s signing where. I think it might end up being like the fight scene between all the news teams in “Anchorman.”

So I’m just gonna get out of the way until the dust settles.

But you know what I’m waiting to see? I’m waiting for one of these guys to leave some money on the table.

Back in the summer of 2003, Jason Kidd was an impending free agent and probably the hottest target on the market. He led the Nets to back-to-back Finals, and underwent a barrage of questioning about what his free agent plans were going to be. I had a chance to sit with him just before that summer kicked off.

What’s your answer about next year, because you’ve been asked about this every day for three months.

Yeah, it’s just…you know, I’ve enjoyed New Jersey, it’s been great, and we’ll see what happens July 1. Hopefully I can end my career as a Net.

Do you wish you’d never agreed to even answer these questions?

Yeah, I can’t do anything. So the big thing is, Jersey’s been great to me. Hopefully I can stay in Jersey.

What’s going to be the deciding factor in where you sign?

Well, the chance to win a championship, that’s what we play this game for, to be able to win and legitimately have a chance to win a championship, and I feel I can do that here.

So why don’t you take a million and sign with the Lakers?

Well, you still have to have that challenge too, You don’t want to take the easy way out. Because it’s never guaranteed it will work out. It’s never guaranteed that you’re going to win a championship.

Kidd nearly signed with the Spurs, but he eventually re-signed with the Nets for six years and about $100 million. They got rid of Byron Scott, then started shedding salary, and they never made the Finals again.

My point is, NBA players love to talk about sacrifice. They may lay their bodies on the line night after night, but very few, if any, of them are going to put their own money on the line. They play a limited number of seasons and they are very aware that their earning clock is ticking.

Maybe winning really is the most important thing, and maybe LeBron or Wade or Bosh or Amare or someone will take less than what’s on the table for a better shot at winning a title.

But I’m done with the rumors. Call me when it’s official.

• You remember last year when the guys from 0484 Creative out in SoCal did a street art project they called Represent Kobe? Well, they’re at it again, this time with a more avant garde theme, where they depicted Kobe as Batman. They sent me a shirt which I wore out jogging the other morning, and I got so many double-takes that it was pretty hilarious. You can check that out here.

• Finally…

Last week during the NBA Draft, news broke that Rasheed Wallace was going to retire. Dude played 15 NBA seasons, scored over 15,000 points, won a title and played in four All-Star Games. He won two national titles in high school and was a first-team NCAA All-American as a sophomore.

And yet to a lot of people, Rasheed Wallace never became the player they thought he could become. Instead of doing work in the post and dominating the boards, he hung around the three-point line shooting threes and yelling at refs. He had size, mobility, skills (I always thought his outlet passing was underrated), fundamentals, finesse, power. Fans thought he was a waste of talent or a waste of money or maybe both.

In the largest context, Rasheed Wallace never seemed to make sense in the NBA. I am not here to defend Rasheed Wallace, to try and convince you that you should have appreciated him for what he was, for being always honest and frequently hilarious, even if unintentionally. All I can tell you is that I enjoyed the Rasheed Wallace experience. This is the man who gave us the phrase “Ball don’t lie” and made “Both teams played hard” immortal. When he won an NBA title, not only did he get wrestling championship belts made for his teammates, but he got his championship ring re-sized to fit his middle finger.

Who was Rasheed Wallace? I asked him that question once, in the fall of 2000.

Before we get to his answer, fast-forward a decade to earlier this season, when we were working on “How To…” issue of SLAM and we realized that we needed to speak to Rasheed Wallace. This is a more difficult proposition than you may realize.

The NBA has a rule that NBA locker rooms are open to the media from 90 minutes before tip-off until 45 minutes before tip-off. This means if you’re a credentialed writer at an NBA game that starts at 7:30 p.m., from 6:00 until 6:45 you can be inside a locker room and can ask the players questions. At least, in theory, you are allowed to do this. In practice it’s never that easy. Some guys completely avoid the locker room. Other guys sit around but politely tell everyone they’ll only speak after game.

And a few guys sit there in the locker room and just refuse to talk to anyone. This is Rasheed Wallace. Headphones on, rapping aloud, head down. He was there but he wasn’t there. But for some reason that remains unknown to me, ever since I wrote my first story on Rasheed, he would always speak to me; I guess I’d passed his unspoken test or something.

For the “How to…” issue, I went to a Celts/Knicks game, went into Boston’s locker room and talked to Sheed for about five minutes about how to shoot off the glass. We finished, and I got up and walked away. Another reporter immediately walked over and began asking Sheed something, and he responded, “Naw man, I don’t talk pregame.” Even though he’d just sat there and talked to me for five minutes in full view of the entire locker room.

Disbelief on his face, the reporter looked at me and then looked back at Sheed, who by that point was just looking back down at his iPod. I would’ve felt bad for the reporter if I hadn’t been put in the middle of the dichotomy of Sheed before.

Many moons ago when our company launched KING magazine, the editor, Datwon, wanted to include Sheed in the mag. There was a section in the book about things celebrities collected, so I was told to ask Sheed if he collected anything. (Anything tangible. Not technical fouls.)

So I asked him and he nodded yes, indeed he did have a collection, that he collected “nails.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Like, hardware? Nails that you hammer?

“Naw,” he said. “Fingernails.”

“Wait, you mean your own fingernails?”

Rasheed nodded.

“The entire nails? Wait, you must just mean the clippings.”

Rasheed nodded. I definitely wasn’t expecting him to collect his fingernail clippings. Then again, this was Rasheed Wallace I was talking to. I should have known to expect the unexpected. I pressed on.

“How do you collect them? I mean, where do you keep them?”

“In a jar,” Rasheed said.

I fell silent for a moment. As I thought of a way to ask him why in the world he collected his own fingernails, he said, “Hey…I’m just messing with you.”

Anyway, who was Rasheed Wallace?

We’d decided to put Sheed on the cover of SLAM 49. Russ assigned me the story, because I loved everything about Sheed, but mostly the controversy that seemed attached to his hip. I called the Blazers and asked if we could even get Sheed to do a sit-down interview, and they eventually said yes, he’d be willing to do it. I offered to fly out to Portland to spend a couple of days around the team, but the Blazers were coming to NYC a week later, so Rasheed passed along word that he’d be willing to do the interview when they were here. I said that was cool but that I’d need at least 20 minutes or so, and they said I’d get it.

I was told to come to Portland’s shootaround the morning of their game against the Nets — they were staying in Manhattan, so they had their shootaround on the Upper West Side at the New York Athletic Club. I got there early, and when the team finally arrived the PR person for the Blazers introduced me to Sheed. He was holding a two-way pager and had his eyes glued to it. I asked if we could talk, and he asked if we could do it that night at the game instead. I said OK, but reminded him I’d need time. He said OK.

A few hours later, I went out to Jersey and was waiting outside the locker room door when media time commenced. I charged in, found Sheed in front of his locker, and asked if we could talk. Sheed asked if we could do it after the game. I didn’t want to do it after the game because I just wanted it to be over with, but whatever. OK, I told him, and reminded him I’d need about 20 minutes. No problem, he said.

During the game that night, Rasheed got T’d up just before the half, and I briefly got terrified that he’d get tossed out and would leave the arena before I’d get to talk to him. But he didn’t — he calmed down, he stayed in the game and finished with 16 and 11, and the Blazers hung on to win it, 94-82.

After the game I ran down into the Portland locker room and staked out a place in front of Rasheed’s locker alongside 5 or 6 other writers from newspapers who were covering the game.

(ASIDE: Following games, newspaper writers are generally on tight deadlines to get quotes, write their stories and get their stories into their papers as fast as possible. Since us SLAM writers are usually working on stuff completely unrelated to whatever game we’re at, we let the writers on deadline go first and ask their questions, and once they’re done, we go to work.)

Rasheed emerged from the shower and stood in front of his locker getting dressed. And then this happened:

RASHEED: [TURNS AROUND TO THE REPORTERS BEHIND HIS LOCKER WHILE POINTING TO ME] “I’m only talking to him.”

ME: They want to ask you about tonight, first.

RASHEED: Naw, I’m answering you, man.

The reporters all looked around at each other, sort of bewildered. Then they all looked at me like I’d stolen their wallets. I figured I’d try to ask something about the game that night so Rasheed would talk about the game and hopefully say something these guys could use in their game stories.

ME: Alright, tonight, what was the best part of your game?

RASHEED: Um, we played a pretty good team game, overall. Oh, hold on… [HE RUNS AWAY FOR ABOUT 10 SECONDS THEN RETURNS]

When Rasheed walked away the other reporters moved on to other players, leaving just me there. So when he returned I started asking some of the stuff I wanted to know for my story.

ME: Where did your shot come from, because your shot is more textbook than most guys your size.

RASHEED: Just hooping in the schoolyard.

ME: Back in Philly?

RASHEED: Yup. You know, watching my older brothers when they played. When I was younger I tried to be like them. [HIS ELBOW KNOCKS MY NOTEBOOK OUT OF MY HAND] Oops, my fault.

By this time the other writers were back and were all standing there waiting to ask Rasheed questions.

ME: Don’t worry about. [AS I BEND DOWN TO PICK IT MY NOTEBOOK, I TURN TO ONE OF THE BEAT WRITERS AND SAY, "You wanna go?"]

BEAT WRITER: You guys have won four in a row…

RASHEED: [CUTS WRITER OFF, LOOKING AT ME] Go ahead man.

At this point I figured, screw it. He doesn’t want to talk about the game tonight, he’s not going to talk about the game tonight. And I had about 25 questions in my notebook I wanted to ask him, and I was going to have to write a cover story based on this.

ME: Tell me about balling at Gratz.

RASHEED: Shoot, we was the best high school team in the nation. Two out of my four years there, my sophomore year and senior year, we finished first in the country.

ME: Your senior year you got player of the year, right?

RASHEED: Co-player of the year, with the Bull, Randy Livingston? He went to LSU.

ME: Before he tore his knee up.

RASHEED: Yeah, yeah.

ME: Why UNC? What did you learn there?

RASHEED: I just learned to play more of that team game. You know, Coach Smith had a bunch of McDonald’s All-Americans down there, and he just brought them all together, figured out a way to make them play under one roof.

The other writers were still hanging around, wanting to talk to Rasheed. I could guess at what was going to happen, but I gestured for one of them to ask a question.

BEAT WRITER: Tonight you guys were really…

RASHEED: [CUTS HIM OFF, SAYS TO ME] Go ahead, man.

At this point the other writers all walked away, angry. I felt a little guilty for monopolizing his time, though I knew if I hadn’t been there, Rasheed wouldn’t have stood around to answer anything. Anyway, Rasheed was dressed and he slung his bag over his shoulder, as though he was ready to go. I’d been planning on trying to build some sort of rapport and gently work my way toward some more serious questions, but it was evident that time was running out. So I went straight to the meat of what I was hoping to get him to talk about…

ME: What do you think people don’t understand about you? Or, what do you want people to think about you?

RASHEED: Honestly man, it don’t matter to me what people think about me, as long as my wife and my kids and my mom think cool of me. As long as my inner-circle thinks cool of me.

ME: Not at all?

RASHEED: Nope, because them the people I gotta face every day.

ME: Do you think you’re misunderstood by the rest of the people?

RASHEED: Um…as far as what?

ME: Just their perception of you. A lot of people think you’re crazy. Do you think that’s a misperception?

RASHEED: Well, that’s good then. That means I don’t need their negativity near me if they’re scared of me.

ME: What about your attitude on the court, the way it’s so — not that it’s negative — but that it’s so up-front and loud. Does that project negatively?

RASHEED: Um…

ME: Because you get T’d up a lot, too. That doesn’t reflect negatively?

RASHEED: I’m not worried about it. It’s all out there on the floor. That’s where I leave it at. So, it’s cool with me. People can say whatever. People can say that I’m “this,” I’m “that”…it don’t matter. As long as I’m there to get the job done. Hey, I gotta go, man…

My twenty minutes had become four, and my four minutes were apparently up. Time enough for one last question. I skipped directly to the last question I’d written on my list…

ME: Last thing: Who is Rasheed Wallace?

RASHEED: Um…the person or player?

ME: Person.

RASHEED: I’m an everyday person just like yourself. I go to the supermarket, make sure the kids are at school, make breakfast, this and that. I’m just a regular dad. On the court, I just try to go out there and play, be a monster, be a beast, be a goon. And that’s me.

As Sheed memorably said, God bless and good night.

OK, I’m out. Catch you guys next week…