In honor of Rasheed Wallace’s second and presumably final retirement, I present this profile of him I wrote for Slam in 1999 or 2000. Lots of classic moments in here, including a convo with Sheed’s mother and a good interview with Dean Smith.
The Portland Tail Blazers just lost a tough game to the Knicks and the postgame sea of reporters is buzzing in the hallway outside Madison Square Garden’s visiting locker room. Talk focuses on Rasheed Wallace, who just celebrated his first-ever All Star selection by getting tossed from his fourth game in 10 days, then throwing both a towel and a wrist band onto the court before being escorted away by an anxious coach Mike Dunleavy.
The locker room doors open and the reporters bumrush Wallace, who sits at his locker, legs spread, head bowed between his knees, hands clasped behind his skull, fingers gently rubbing his hair. The reporters ready their tape recorders, uncap their pens and flip through their notebooks, preparing for what appears to be Wallace’s imminent interview session. Understand that a player needn’t be sitting at his stall; NBA locker rooms have more backrooms than a political convention. Being there postgame generally indicates a readiness to talk.
For long minutes Wallace sits silently, the only player in the room, as the reporters shuffle their feet, clear their throats, sneak glances at one another and look around the room praying that another Blazer will emerge. Where the hell is Scottie Pippen when you need him?
Finally, Wallace runs his hands vigorously through his ‘do and stands up, exhaling loudly. He looks around at the gathered masses, waves his hands in front of him, says, “Let me take a shower first” and shuffles out of the room, his flip flops flipping and flopping. The journalists let out a collective exhale and disperse in search of Pippen, Brian Grant or Steve Smith. Meanwhile, Bonzi Wells sits in front of his locker, rubbing cocoa butter into his arms. No one gives him a second glance, even though his 18 fourth-quarter points just single-handedly kept his team in the game. He asks what I’m working on.
“I’m waiting on Rasheed.”
“You gonna be waiting till your wheels fall off.”
“Sheed’s cool; he’s my man. We hang all the time. But he’s kind of to himself.”
A few minutes later, Wallace is back, silently dressing at his stall, his back turned to the re-gathering reporters. I’m standing just to his right. “Uh, Rasheed,” I say, more quietly than is my norm. “Got a minute for Slam?”
He doesn’t so much as glance sideways at me. “Go ahead, man.”
So we talk as more and more reporters gather behind his back, patiently waiting their turn. I ask him about his foundation for kids, his record company, his All Star selection, and his days at North Carolina running with Jerry Stackhouse. He speaks in something of a monotone. His answers are short but thorough, and he actually doesn’t seem in any particular hurry for me to shut up.
All the while the press corps behind us is growing increasingly agitated at me for violating the postgame locker room etiquette of talking about tonight’s game first and foremost. Finally, one guy can’t stand it anymore. “Hey, Rasheed,” he says, “how about a question about tonight’s game?”
So I melt away and he turns around, mutters something to the effect of “tough loss” and walks out of the room.
So it is with Rasheed Wallace. You want to talk to him, move quickly when you have a chance and hope for the best. You want to appreciate his talents, just watch him play. You want to know more about him, talk to any of his teammates or coaches, who are quick to say that the Rasheed seen on court is nothing like the Sheed they know at practice, on the bench or at home hanging with his wife and three kids.
Wallace is unusually close with his mother, Jackie, who resigned her 23-year job with the state of Pennsylvania and moved to North Carolina when he enrolled because “I didn’t want my baby to be alone and we have no family down here.” She now runs his foundation with her two other sons.
“I’m damn proud of Rasheed as a ballplayer but I’m way more proud of him as a person,” Wallace says. “He is a great father and he was determined to give back to the community which is why he set up his foundation, which will be his legacy in Philly long after he’s gone. He’s very dedicated and if you know him, he can be silly as a rabbit. Put a Dreamcast or a paintball in his hand and you’ll see just how funny that boy can be. And I know that no one would think that from the way he acts on the court.
“Part of that is a result of how competitive he is –he hates losing – and partly, I actually think he thinks that if something is obviously wrong and he expresses his opinion, they will change the call. And there he is dead wrong. I’ve discussed this with him since high school, but this is one area where he doesn’t listen to his mother. He actually tries very hard to not react to a call, but it just gets to him. He gives 100 percent and he just gets a little twisted, a little bent out of shape, in the heat of battle.
“He wants to give the outward appearance that he’s a tough guy. Growing up and living in Philadelphia, when I walked out of the house, I would have a set face on that said, ‘Don’t mess with me.’ It was just a façade. That’s what he’s doing, and a lot of it comes from growing up in such an urban environment.”
Says Dean Smith, who coached Wallace at the University of North Carolina, “I was delighted to be his coach for two years and I’m sure everyone who’s had him would tell you the same thing: the guy’s a jewel. He puts the team first, practices hard and is a great influence. In fact, Portland’s Tates Locke called me about him when they had a chance to make the trade [with Washington, in 1996] and I said, ‘If you’re lucky enough to get him, you better jump on it.’”
“His demeanor on the court is that he’s a real hard-nosed guy, but off the court, he’s totally different,” says Jermaine O’Neal, along with Wells probably Wallace’s best friend on the team. “He’s very smart, a real family man, loves video games and listening to music. He’s a real down-to-earth guy. Everybody’s missing that about Rasheed. I think in order for him to play well, he has to be the way he is on the court. Once he gets to the locker room, all fun and games are over, but that’s not the guy his friends know.
“When I got here, it was a tough transition coming right out of high school in South Carolina to being a professional in a city so far from home, with a totally different culture. The very first night I got here Sheed took me out to dinner and we started talking and he helped me tremendously with all my adjustments. And we’ve been great friends ever since. He’s like a big brother to me.”
Adds Jerry Stackhouse, Wallace’s UNC running mate, “Sheed’s a great guy who’s a lot of fun to be around. Basically, everyone who knows him loves him. He’s excited all the time, he’s always upbeat and positive and he doesn’t let anything bother him. That rubs off on the people around him. You see him on the court and he’s so emotional that you would think he has a lot of turmoil pulling at him, but that’s just not the case. He’s just happy-go-lucky Sheed, and he really never has a bad day.
“I think the reason he’s the way he is on court is that he thrives on being the villain, especially when the fans are nagging him. He gets into it and it fuels his competitive fire. Then it’s not just you against the guy you’re guarding or the team; it’s you against the whole arena. A lot of guys in this league struggle to find motivation each night and that’s something that he uses to get himself going, whether it’s the fans or the officials. But while he may appear to be a volatile guy, he’s not. You just have to get to know him.”
Yet, how can anyone but Wallace’s closest friends ever know him if he refuses to speak to the press? From all appearances Wallace is a dedicated family man, who fought long and hard for custody of his son. He’s also a budding rap entrepreneur with his Urban Life Music record company, and an involved community uplifter through his Rasheed Wallace Foundation, which is run by mother and brother and sponsors kids activities and rec centers, primarily in Philadelphia and North Carolina. Rasheed personally runs two weeks of free basketball day camp in Philly every summer. But none of that explains why reporters have been dogging him since he was a 14-year-old North Philadelphia resident with a basketball court painted onto his bedroom floor and a poster of Patrick Ewing watching his every move. The reason so many try so hard to elicit so few words is simple: The guy can flat out play.
As a UNC sophomore in ’95, he shot a remarkable 65 percent from the floor in teaming with Stackhouse to lead UNC to the Final Four. Both then went pro, and were chosen back to back, Stack going third to the Sixers and Wallace going next to the then Washington Bullets, who incredibly gave up on him after one season and sent him to Portland for Rod Strickland. Over the course of his five-year pro career, he’s shot 52 percent and averaged 13.6 ppg , 5.9 rpg and just over one block. But the numbers only begin to tell Wallace’s story.
“What really makes him such a valuable asset is his versatility,’ says Dunleavy. “He can play three positions – the 3, 4 and 5 – at a very high level, both offensively and defensively and that gives me great flexibility.”
Indeed, for the last two years, Wallace, a natural power forward, logged most of his minutes at the 3 and in the Knicks game alone, he was matched up at various times with Latrell Sprewell, Patrick Ewing, Marcus Camby and Larry Johnson.
“Defensively, I don’t really worry about who I’m playing against,” says Wallace. “I just go out there and play team defense. But on offense I always know who’s on me. If it’s someone as small as Spree, I’m going to the block. If it’s Patrick, I’m going outside. You got to know that. That’s just basic basketball.”
But there’s nothing basic about Wallace’s ability to excel in so many different ways, which puts him in rare company.
“I think Sheed, Webber and Garnett are the best power forwards in the NBA,” says Blazer pg Damon Stoudamire. “They are the new breed of forward. Sheed’s 6-11 but can really move and shoot, so he can take you outside or inside.”
Knicks forward Kurt Thomas acknowledges that Wallace presents serious matchup problems and notes that while this season marked his first All Star selection, he has been widely respected by players for years. “Just look at the guy,” says Thomas. “He’s 6-11, he jumps out of the gym, he has a great touch, he runs the floor well and he plays defense. His height and length alone – he must have the wingspan of someone 7-5 – make him very tough to guard. He’s easily one of the top power forwards in the league and is a great asset to the team; anyone would love to have him and Portland is lucky that they do.”
Don’t think they don’t know it.
Says Dunleavy, “Rasheed always gives us a mismatch in our favor because he can guard anybody and score on anybody. The one way I know people can stop him is if he’s not in the game. We need to have Rasheed on the floor.”
Which brings up the problem; at the halfway point of the season, he led the league with 21 T’s in the team’s first 43 games. O’Neal says that Sheed is acutely aware of the game situations and would never jeopardize the team by picking up a T in a bad spot. “I’ve never seen him get one in crunch time of a close game,” he insists.
Yet Wallace himself says that he refuses to alter his game or style to avoid whistles, even after he’s been whistled for one technical. “I don’t let it alter my approach,” he says. “I’m still going to go bust my ass and do what I do.”
Many of Wallace’s teammates insist that he has become a marked man, receiving technicals for things that would be ignored if committed by other players. Smith says this happened in college, as well. “He had nine or 10 technicals in two years here which is probably a record under me,” Smith recalls. “It was strange because his demeanor was so different in practice, but he also got a lot of them for virtually nothing because he had the reputation, which can be tough to overcome.”
Still, while few will say so publicly, this is an area of concern for some of Wallace’s teammates. One not to afraid to admit it publicly is Pippen.
“We try to talk to him on the court, but it goes as far as he wants it to,” Pippen says. “He feels that he’s not getting the calls, but he can’t keep letting us down by getting eliminated from the game.”
Ironically, in all other respects, Wallace is a consummate team player. In fact, any complaints about his game have tended to focus on his lack of assertiveness and his willingness to go with the flow of the game rather than demand his touches.
“When Rasheed says he’s more interested in the team winning, he means it,” says Smith. “He actually takes the team-first mentality too far sometimes. Every once in a while, I used to call a timeout and remind everyone that we had a guy down low shooting 65 percent and we had to get him the ball. He was content not to have it, to take whatever shots came his way and focus on rebounding and playing defense. I think Mike’s trying to talk him into being more assertive offensively right now, in fact.”
Pippen says that with a little more aggressiveness and impassioned commitment, Wallace could make the final leap from greatness to superstardom.
“He has so much talent and he might never scratch the surface of it,” Pippen says. “If he would just put a little more effort into perfecting a few things it would change his whole game and make him a much better player. He’s a great player — he has so many tools –and he should use that to his advantage. If he worked at it, he could be one of the best players in the game. But I’m not sure if ‘Sheed wants that. He doesn’t even want to be an All-Star, but, hey, he is.”
Pippen is entitled to his opinion, but it seems likely that he is confusing Wallace’s contentment with playing a non-starring role to a lack of dedication. Like most of his teammates, he could be averaging much higher numbers in a different setting but is happy winning in Portland.
“This is a great situation,” says Wallace. “I don’t mind being a decoy or whatever. If the teams are concerned or worrying about me, that’s going to leave someone else out there. And you have to respect them all. You have to respect Damon’s and Steve’s j’s. you have to respect Pip’s slashing and Brian’s rebounding capabilities. It takes a whole lot of pressure off any one person.”
Wallace was named Portland’s lone All Star despite solid but not gaudy numbers – halfway through the season he was averaging 15.5 ppg and 7 rpg. He insists that he doesn’t care one way or the other and would have just as soon had a few days rest to prepare for the second half of the season.
“I don’t care about being selected,” Wallace says. “It’s all favoritism and politics. Actually, it surprised me that they selected me because of my rep. Anyhow, I’d rather have the respect of my peers than be named an All Star by the league.”
But Rasheed’s closest friends say that his non-chalance about his All Star selection is a false modesty.
“Sheed said he didn’t care about making All Star?” asks Stackhouse. “That’s baloney. It’s a great honor, and it’s everybody’s dream to be an All Star in this league.”
O’Neal too doesn’t quite believe Wallace’s claims of indifference, though he says that his friends’ team-first attitude makes him somewhat embarrassed to be singled out. “Plus,” adds O’Neal. “He’s a hard-nosed guy so he’s not going to admit that he’s happy he made it, but everyone wants to play in the All Star game. I can tell you this: every single person on this team was extremely happy for him; when we heard the news we were all jumping up and down and hugging.”
O’Neal is talking before a game with the Celtics at Boston’s Fleet Center, a few days after the Knicks debacle. The team is back on track, winning fairly easily, with Sheed going for 13 and 5, as well as three swats.
Afterwards, he sits at his locker scraping down the calluses and blisters on his feet with a mean-looking device that looks frighteningly similar to a bottle opener. Teammates Stacey Augmon and Gary Grant look on in disbelief.
“That is too nasty,” Grant says, as Augmon adds some hoots of derision.
Sheed quickly fires back, “I’m a runner and this is from running,” he says to his seldom-used teammates. “Y’all wouldn’t know about that.”
He goes off to shower and while he’s gone a none-too popular reporter from another magazine appears. Apparently, he’s been chasing Sheed for months and I immediately know that his presence just as I’m making some inroads is not a good thing. Sure enough, when Sheed returns, he is even less forthcoming than normal, giving us each a few brief quotes before heading for the bus.
As he leaves, I recall something my junior high coach always screamed whenever someone talked smack or argued with a ref: “Let the ball do the talking!” How ironic, I thought, that someone who disobeys that missive so thoroughly on the court should follow it so religiously off of it. Go figure. In any case, if you really want to know about Rasheed Wallace, the ball has plenty to say. Learn to listen.