Alone, with rage, Rasheed Wallace fights his demons. Together, with love, Sheed and his teammates battle. Divided he stands.
Talent has never been an issue for Rasheed Wallace. Ever since bursting onto the scene as a high schooler with a diverse set of skills in the early 90’s, Sheed has played at the highest level at every level. From high school and college All-American accolades to multiple All-Star games and a ring in ‘04 in the pros, the Philly native has proven that he can do it all as a player. What he’s also shown, though, is a tendency to lash out when calls don’t go his way. During the 2000-01 season, when Wallace amassed a league record 41 technical fouls, refs would blow the whistle if he shot the wrong look in their direction. But that less than stellar rep has slowly been patched up over the years, as Sheed has increasingly become viewed as one who plays with incredible passion and unfiltered emotion rather than the loose cannon he once was. As he brings his game back east to Boston next year, teaming with KG’s fervor and game, in pursuit of a second championship, we can only assume the 14 year vet will continue to remind us why he’s been one of the best at his position for so long.—Adam Fleischer
by Lang Whitaker
Love is patient, love is kind. Love is not rude or self-seeking, love is not easily angered, love keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
Love is not Rasheed Wallace, at least not when there are several e-mails waiting on his Timeport pager.
The Portland Trail Blazers are making their entrance onto the seventh-floor basketball court at the New York Athletic Club, where they’ll practice before their game later that day against the New Jersey Nets. Most of the Blazers immediately begin stretching and loosening up on the court. Dale Davis takes a few fitness supplements. Shawn Kemp tells someone about clubbing with Davis, taking the ATL by storm last summer.
The Blazers have a strong squad, and they go deep like Janet, but, perhaps most important, they look like they’re having fun, joking and bullshitting and seeing who can hit the first shot from halfcourt. Even Arvydas Sabonis is smiling. Yet Rasheed stands removed, off the court, plucking away on his pager. A lone man lost on his island of solitude, Wallace appears comfortable, his Prada beanie pulled snug against his head, a gray Trail Blazers sweatsuit draped over his 6-11, 230-pound frame.
I hate to disturb him, but flesh must be pressed. I’m introduced. “Rasheed, this is Lang from SLAM. He’s writing the cover story on you.”
Now this is key, because Rasheed knew I was coming. In fact, I offered to fly out to Portland to spend time with him, but he told me not to bother, that he’d be glad to talk to me in NYC. So, I hoped to begin the deconstruction here at the shootaround, to start getting inside his head, to find out what drives him, where his simmering intensity is drawn from.
I hold out my hand. “What up?” Without looking up, Rasheed extends his hand in my direction. It’s my job to find his handshake. I can do that.
“Yo, can we talk after the game tonight?” he asks, still not looking up. This is the first time we’ve ever met. Is he disrespecting me? Is he trying to break me down? I don’t know. But two can play this game.
“Yeah, sure,” I answer, looking at the floor. I’ll be damned if I’m going to look him in the eyes. I speak softly, hoping to make him try and listen up. “But you guys are flying out after the game tonight, right?”
“Huh?” he asks.
“But you guys are flying out after the game tonight, right?”
“And I need at least 15 with you, so don’t make me wait all night. Don’t stay in the shower for an hour like your boy J.R. does.”
He laughs and says he won’t. He demurely holds out his hand again, and I resist the urge to kneel down and kiss it. I hold mine back out, as limp as a dead fish, and somewhere in the middle, our hands meet. Shake. I sneak a look and notice ’Sheed glancing at me.
Rasheed Wallace is harder to understand than AI’s schizo Reebok commercials, tougher to unravel than Pervis Ellison’s dreads. Either he’s the monster you see on the court, or something totally different, or something in between. Yet Wallace never lets an outsider close enough to know what’s going on inside his nappy head.
His basketball pedigree speaks for itself: Played high school ball at Simon Gratz in Illadelph, where he won two mythical national championships and claimed national Co-Player of the Year honors as a senior; did two years at Carolina, where he set an ACC record for field goal percentage (.635), led the Heels to the Final Four and was named a first-team All-American; was the fourth pick in the ’95 draft by Washington, where he averaged 10.1 ppg and 4.1 rpg as a rook; was traded (for Rod Strickland) to Portland, where he finished his second year averaging 15.1 ppg; spent a few years as sixth man, and then last year busted out, averaging 16.4 ppg and (almost) single-handedly beating the Lakers in the Western Finals.
“All I can say is this,” Kemp states. “When they talk about Shaq and Garnett, there’s no way you can not mention Rasheed Wallace’s name.”
Blazers’ coach Mike Dunleavy agrees. “Rasheed plays many facets of the game very well. He shoots the ball well from the outside, he blocks shots, runs the floor. He can do just about everything, even play point guard. And as a player, you love playing with him.”
“Yeah,” echoes Portland 2G Bonzi Wells. “Rasheed’s great because since he’s on our team, we don’t have a dress code,” he says, alluding to ’Sheed’s ever-present work boots and Prada beanie. “Rasheed just has his own style. However he feels when he wakes up in the morning, you can tell when he comes in. But after getting to know him, Rasheed’s a great family man and a good guy off the court.”
Friendliness aside, Wallace’s game has progressed to a point rarely seen, the place where highly developed skill meets innate understanding. Knowing his full arsenal and how to consistently, perfectly utilize it is what puts Wallace’s name in the same category with Garnett and Shaq. Like Garnett, he can play outside, or, like Shaq, he can bang inside.
“That versatility makes him unstoppable,” Dunleavy says. “At 6-11, he can get his shot off against most people. He can go out to the three-point line, or he can go in and post you up. If you’re slow, he can run the floor on you. And if you’re smaller and quicker than he is, he can get you in the post and shoot over you. He really, truly, can be unstoppable.”
Even with their malleable greatness, Rasheed’s skills too rarely overshadow the sinister face he wears on the court. He runs the floor as if his heart is two sizes too small, and he’s quick to spout off when he disagrees with a call. And Wallace does get T’d up faster than most guys in the League. It probably doesn’t help that he fits David Stern’s and George W.’s racial profiling standards: a black man with tats and a love for hip-hop (he hosts a hip-hop radio show in Portland). What could be worse?
Maybe ’Sheed knows he’s an easy target, so he plays with a chip on his shoulder. And this is what causes problems. Though he only fouled out of two of the 81 games he played last year, he racked up 38 technical fouls, breaking Charles Barkley’s single-season record of 32. This season, he had seven in his first 15 games.
Kemp thinks there’s a logical explanation for Rasheed’s perceived misbehavior: “He’s not going to smile and do some of the things a lot of guys out front do to try and make his image look great. His job is to go out there and play basketball every night, and he plays his heart out. He doesn’t really care about what people think of him, because he plays so hard.”
And since, as Kemp says, Rasheed doesn’t try to project a whitewashed image, what we see is what we get. So despite Rasheed’s yearly improvement, and his status as the rare lottery pick to reach his potential, his on-court demeanor has kept the world, and the media, at arm’s length.
Random acts that are consistently repeated are dubbed a pattern, and so this is what Rasheed Wallace’s chip is: a ticking maelstrom of explosive, unexplainable bearing. “When I used to watch him play at North Carolina,” says Wells, “I thought that motherfucker was crazy. He’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—when he’s on the court, he’s crazy.”
Wallace’s coach knows the subject even better. “Well, uh, you’d like for him to be able to control that a little bit better,” says Dunleavy, visibly nervous talking about Wallace’s temper, “particularly to the point of not getting thrown out of the game, because it’s tough to go to your go-to guy when he’s sitting in the locker room. If there’s one area he needs to work on, it’s staying under control, because ultimately, when you’re thrown out of the game, however it was precipitated, they basically win.
“As a competitor,” Dunleavy adds, “which he is, you hate to capitulate and throw your hands up and say, ‘Hey, you guys win.’ Whether it be another player doing something to entice him, or in the rare case he thinks he’s getting baited by somebody, some way, you don’t want to get into that.”
But Wallace does get into that, and while that behavior confounds the world, at the same time, that’s what many of us like about Rasheed Wallace. Despite having P.R. skills that make J.R. appear as media savvy as Kobe, ’Sheed is honest, true to himself, straight-up. No national ad campaigns, no big shoe deals (he still wears Air Force 1’s), nothing extraneous, except for perhaps the headband he always sports.
So maybe the headband is too tight, or maybe he just gets too excited. Maybe he’s missing that gland inside him that is supposed to calm him down. Maybe he has some ulterior motive, or maybe he never wants to be recognized for his numbers. Maybe he just wants to win a championship, and he doesn’t care whether or not people understand him.
One thing is certain: No one knows exactly what is going on inside Rasheed Wallace except for Rasheed Wallace himself. And that means that we will probably never know what’s going on inside Rasheed Wallace.
How good is Rasheed Wallace? Good enough that I didn’t even see it coming, although it wasn’t the first time Rasheed has put a SLAM writer in an inconvenient position (Scoop Jackson & Alan Paul—much love).
Or maybe it was my fault. I assumed that after the Blazers knocked off the Nets, 94-82 (and after ’Sheed contributed 16 points, 11 boards, four blocks, two steals and one technical foul for yelling, “That’s fucking bullshit!” at a ref), we would sit down and talk and finally get to the bottom of the conundrum that is Rasheed Wallace. But that’s not how it happened.
When it was over, the other writers in the locker room were mad at me for dominating the interview, I was mad at Rasheed for not giving me much time, and Rasheed was mad at the world because he’s Rasheed Wallace.
Just moments before, I stood in front of Rasheed Wallace’s locker with nearly a dozen reporters, waiting for him to get dressed. After a fast shower, he came out, got dressed, and then…
Rasheed Wallace: [Turns around and points to me.] I’m only talking to him.
Lang Whitaker: I think they probably just need one or two quotes.
RW: Naw, I’m answering you, man.
LW: All right. Where did your jump shot come from? Your shot is much more textbook than most guys your size.
RW: Just hooping in the schoolyard…
LW: Back in Philly?
RW: Yup. You know, watching my older brothers when they played. When I was younger, I tried to be like them. [His elbow accidentally knocks my notebook out of my hand.] Oops, my fault.
LW: Don’t worry about it. [As I reach to pick it up, a beat writer speaks up.]
Beat Writer: You guys have won four in a row…
RW: [Cuts him off and looks back at me.] Go ahead man, just you.
LW: Tell me about balling at Gratz.
RW: Shoot, we was the best team in the nation. Two out of my four years, my sophomore and senior year, we finished first in the country.
LW: Why UNC? What did you learn there?
RW: I just learned to play more of the team game. You know, Coach Smith had a bunch of McDonald’s All-Americans there, and he just brought them all together, figured out a way to make them play under one roof.
Beat writer: Tonight you guys were really…
RW: [Cuts him off and looks back at me again.] Go ahead, man. I’m just talking to you.
LW: What do you think people don’t understand about you? Or, what do you want people to think about you?
RW: 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.
LW: Not at all?
RW: Nope, because them the people I gotta face every day.
LW: Do you think you’re misunderstood by the rest of the world?
RW: Um…as far as what?
LW: Just their perception of you. A lot of people think you’re crazy.
RW: Well, that’s good then. That means I don’t need their negativity near me if they’re scared of me.
LW: 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?
RW: Um…[Looks angry.]
LW: Because you get T’d up a lot, too. That doesn’t reflect negatively?
RW: I’m not worried about it. 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…
LW: Last thing: Who is Rasheed Wallace?
RW: 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.