If You Don’t Know Me By Now

Word is, Rasheed Wallace is going to be an assistant coach for the Detroit Pistons this season. Dope! Back in June of 2008, when ‘Sheed was suiting up for the Pistons, we ran the feature below, now online in its entirety. Enjoy!—Ed.

rasheed wallace

by Vincent Goodwill / @vgoodwill

Ali, Malcolm, Wiley, Chappelle, Pryor…Rasheed Wallace?

Ahead of their time, smart, possibly too conscious for their own good. Most times, true geniuses are considered quirky, crazy even. It isn’t until way down the line that their brilliance is discovered.

“Personality-wise, Rasheed’s a unique dude,” says Lamar Odom. “He gets a bad rep and bad perception. When you look from the outside in, you think he’s a crazy dude, but he’s down-to-earth. He’s one of those dudes I have respect for.”

Perception may be some people’s reality, but it ain’t always the truth. Sheed’s relationship with the refs is like Al and Jesse’s with the establishment, and his relationship with the League itself is…well, it’s not great. A few months after losing in six to the Cavs in the EC Finals, Rasheed said the outcome was set up by David Stern. Given the opportunity to retract recently, the four-time All-Star stands firm. “(It was) just what it sounded like, he don’t care about basketball,” Sheed proclaims. “He cares about ratings, that’s all he want. That’s why he tried to bring all that European stuff over here. That’s not basketball.”

Rasheed’s also not down with the new rule that keeps high school kids from declaring for the NBA Draft, an adjustment that has been applauded by most critics. He stops short of being offended, but…

“Not really disrespected, just ashamed,” he says. “They done sat up here and prevented a way for the majority of young black kids to get out of messed-up situations, by putting that age limit on there. So you tell me, read between the lines.”

“And the anger and the sorrow/mixed up leads to mistrust/now it gets tough to ever love again”—Jay-Z

Why should he explain himself to those who want his downfall? To those who call him an underachiever, who tell him he should be posting up on the block more often, who say the Pistons are better off without him. Would you?

As the Isley Brothers’ “Voyage to Atlantis” plays on his boombox—in case the Air Force 1s and ACE bandage weren’t enough, Sheed lets his musical choice confirm his old-school chops—Wallace sings along before taking time to explain what Odom meant. “I don’t kiss they (media) ass, I’m not a media darling,” he says. “Majority of them don’t like me because I tell it how it is. Hey, I’ma keep telling it how it is. I ain’t gonna lie to the people; I ain’t gonna lie to the young boys out here. They try to pull the curtain over a lot of these young guys’ eyes. I’ma tell them what goes on.”

Because the 33-year-old Wallace keeps the mainstream at a distance—so purposefully it’s damn near admirable—he’s like a riddle wrapped in an enigma. A Spike Lee joint disguised as an Oliver Stone movie. The skirmishes with coaches or referees stand out to the TV-viewing public, but they don’t define him. What about the things you don’t see? What you refuse to acknowledge? The unpublicized visits to Detroit hospitals, surprising sick kids. The time, money and energy he and his wife, Fatima, spend with charities. Why should he strip his layers of complexity so the majority can understand him?

Maybe because if you really knew Rasheed Wallace, his face would be plastered across billboards, Nike might try to turn his AF1s to Air Maxs. He wouldn’t be old-school anymore. He wouldn’t have his privacy, that “get the fuck away” mentality that works so well. Maybe you would judge him. Or, maybe you’d call him a decent fellow.

“Can’t see me skill for skill/or check for check/It’s the bow tie flow dog/I bring it to your neck”—Jay-Z

Then there’s his game, so aesthetically perfect that Maya  Angelou’s words should accompany video of his eight-foot fadeaway off the glass. It’s almost unfair someone 6-11, 230 can do what he does, so effortlessly he often blends right into the game.

You know the credentials: top-tier talent with an unselfish mentality, learned on the legendary Philly playgrounds and perfected at the feet of Dean Smith at UNC. Watching him on TV doesn’t do his game justice. You would think, given what’s said about players who come from the playground, Sheed doesn’t have fundamentals. But he knows every position on the court and does things even HD can’t translate.

Out of all the superlatives used to describe Wallace, the one most overlooked is this: He’s authentic. You could take Sheed and put him in a gym with the Big O, Russell, Magic and Michael, and he’d be just as much in his element as all of them. From the Palestra to the Palace, Sheed is genuine.

Charles Barkley: “If you put a Larry Bird, Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan brain in his body, (a guy) who wants to kill the other guy…We’ve never seen a player who’s (nearly) seven feet tall, can post up and shoot threes, we’ve never had a player like that in the NBA. If he had a killer instinct, this guy could be the best player in the NBA.”

This will mark the third year in a row and fourth of his career in which Sheed had at least 100 blocks and 100 three-pointers. Big deal, you say at first? Well, Sheed is the only player in NBA history to have more than one such season.

Chuck’s partner on TNT, Kenny Smith: “If he wanted to be the best player in the NBA, he could be. Rasheed Wallace is the X-factor, he has a box game that can create double teams. Then all of a sudden he steps out and starts hitting threes and he becomes unguardable. For a seven-game series, he can be just as good as Kevin Garnett.”

Best player in the game? Those guys don’t average 13 and 7, like Sheed is this season. Well, who’s the best PF in the game? Tim Duncan, maybe? Sheed put 23 and 15 on him when the ’05  Finals adversaries met in January, adding three steals and two blocks. Against last year’s MVP, Dirk Nowitzki? Twenty-one and 9, with four swats and three thefts in a February Motown matchup. Oh yeah, and he held Diggler to 3-18 in a 23-point drubbing.

At one point, after abusing Dirk in the post, Sheed could be overheard yelling at the Maverick bench, “He can’t guard me!” Wearing wry smiles were Dallas coach Avery Johnson and Sheed’s former Tar Heel teammate, Jerry Stackhouse.

If the Pistons are to win their second title in five years, the man they call Roscoe doesn’t have to be just a big contributor—he has to lead this team to the promised land. Tayshaun Prince can play his long-armed D, Rip can continue scoring with his increased range and Smooth Billups can play like Zeke, but it’s on the big fella. He knows this, whether he admits it or not.

“He’s the key, I don’t care what nobody says,” Chauncey states. “Myself and Rip (Hamilton), you know exactly what you gon’ get. Sheed? He’s always the wild card. When he’s excited about the game and ready to rock, can’t nobody keep him from getting 25 and 15.”

“Even when I’m wrong/I got my point across/they depicted me the boss”— Notorious B.I.G.

His well-publicized disagreements with coaches throughout his 13-year career have never actually been looked at from this standpoint: What if Rasheed was right?

Sometimes observers get caught up in the messenger and the volume instead of the content. Mike Dunleavy and the Hack-a-Shaq routine? Hated it, and the strategy didn’t work. Playing zone defense? Disliked it more, and helped lead to last year’s flameout in the EC Finals. Rasheed has the ultimate respect for the coaches who command it, the ones with jewelry: Larry Brown and Dean Smith.

As far as his beefs with coaches, Rasheed holds no grudges, takes no prisoners. “I just leave it at that, ’cause they’re not gonna change my views of how I think the game should be played,” he says. “We’re the ones out there playin’, seeing it from a different perspective. From always sitting on the sideline, compared to being out there on the floor, you’re gonna see different things.”

Making it clear that he takes nothing personal is paramount to Wallace. Last season, a national writer made waves when he wrote that Sheed “hates” Saunders. When Sheed saw said writer, he set the record straight. “He said that off of starting something,” Sheed says. “Me and [Flip], we ain’t never had problems, as far as players and coaches, but you got some of that with other teams, so that makes for good news. We’re not like that. He tried to come out here and start some shit about saying I hate this man. So I had to come out here and cuss his ass out.”

When you come from certain places, the word “hate” has definite meaning. It’s not something you throw around, or use to describe a player-coach relationship. “It’s not like I hate [Flip], or wanna blow his car up,” he makes clear. “When you say ‘hate,’ that’s some kill-or-be-killed shit.”

Captain Chauncey puts it in perspective: “I think people put a lot of extra on it. Every player on every team at some point is gonna get into it with the coach. We’re prideful guys. A lot of times, that pride gets in the way and you gonna say, Naw, fuck that, this is what we supposed to do, what we gonna do. That’s just the nature of the beast. Anything going on with him, it’s 10 times worse.”

“His crew’s your crew or they might be next/Look at they man eye, big man they never try so we roll with him stole with ’em/I mean loyalty”—Notorious B.I.G.

When his teammates look in Rasheed’s eyes, they see the leadership he exudes, a loud man with quiet confidence. During crucial timeouts, while TP22 and Smooth discuss strategy, Sheed sits in front of the scorer’s table, sometimes looking at the stat sheet, making sure the straps on his kicks hang properly off the back. Nonchalant.

He’s not the type to flex muscles at his teammates or to blast them in the papers when they don’t perform. He takes a more cerebral approach. Call it unconventional charisma. You may call him big-mouthed after he does it, but his swag gives his teammates confidence while putting the bulls-eye on his own back, making himself the target of the fans while the other four are free to just go out and play.

“I’m the team megaphone,” he says. “I don’t see myself as the leader. We got a team full of veterans that know what we gotta do to win.”

When Sheed screws up, his teammates defend him to the end. They know he makes the game easy, covers their mistakes, so it’s only fitting they cover his. You can’t buy that loyalty with words. Respect is the ultimate currency in a real locker room with veteran teammates.

Jermaine O’Neal and Zach Randolph learned from Sheed, and now Jason Maxiell and Amir Johnson are his pupils. He even gives Dwight Howard advice during games. “Gotta stay in they ear, so they can learn the game the right way,” he says. “All the flashiness, throw that shit out the door. Learn this game, play it the right way.”

As for The D’s chances at a ring this spring, Wallace won’t guaransheed anything, but he knows the doubters are there, hears them loud and clear. “We gon’ be there, shit. We always there, they always count us out every year. They say this team is better or that team is better, but we always there in the end.”