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Person of Interest: Rasheed Wallace

What, you didn't know?

The week before the All-Star break, several news outlets reported that Rasheed Wallace had come out of retirement to play with the Lakers. That news turned out to be nothing but another Internet rumor, but it got me thinking about Rasheed’s career.

Over two years in Chapel Hill and 15 more in the NBA, Rasheed Wallace was a study in negative space. His histrionics provided fans and media with a very sports-talkable, “polarizing” figure, but the fascination with Rasheed, especially in his later years, usually didn’t come from what he did on the court, his various “off-the-court troubles,” or even what police officers might have found in his car. Because there was such a profound, seemingly meaningful distance between the “Ball Don’t Lie” Rasheed — a gregarious, hysterical guy who probably cared about basketball the exact right amount — and his reputation as a technical-fouling, weed-smoking, Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals-choking, towel-throwing malcontent, his fans sought him out in the chatter accidentally picked up by courtside microphones, in the appliances he put in his bathroom, in the glowing testimonials from teammates about the intelligence of Rasheed Wallace. His image, perhaps more than any other athlete of his generation, was fueled by wild speculation. “Both teams played hard, my man,” Rasheed’s go-to response to ward off reporters, brought his fans closer, and, for those with perhaps too much faith, cast a skeptical eye on just how much beat reporters and columnists could actually tell you about a basketball player. But outside of those video snippets and the occasional funny anecdote, Rasheed never really gave you much more than the wink, the nod, and the “both teams played hard.”

And yet, he gave just enough to become one of the most beloved players of the past 20 years. His in-your-face humanity takes most of the credit for that feat, but the fact that all it took was a couple jokes, one championship, and a whole lot of technical fouls shows the wariness and outright contempt the NBA’s younger fans felt toward the traditional sports-talky model of the athlete as role model and ambassador for all bland, generic virtues of sportsmanship and dignity.

You can’t be an NBA fan without building up a straw man or two. Just as the SABR nerds shake their fists at something called “Murray Chass,” which, in truth, may or may not exist, the generation of basketball fans who grew up with Iverson and the Fab Five have built their own golem: the crusty old sportswriter who hates hip-hop, only lionizes white players, talks mostly in racial euphemisms, and truly believes, in his heart, that four years in college is God’s greatest gift to mankind. Rasheed, even more than Iverson, became the hero for young NBA fans who wanted their players to stonewall the golem with, “Both teams played hard, my man.” He was the liberated, talking man in a league obsessed with the creation of relatable, worldwide brands.

Before he became the dude who launched a thousand basketball blogs, Rasheed Wallace was the bogeyman of my middle school. In Chapel Hill, all moral lessons ultimately get distilled through basketball, and so I can remember seeing photos of the Tar Heels’ 1993 freshman class and hearing talk about a different breed of recruit. I remember watching the generic yet faithfully repeated hand-wringing over who had said what about staying all four years and all the little raptures that might get set into motion if Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse, or Jeff McInnis decided to leave school early for the NBA. The previous spring, a group of overachieving upperclassmen had beaten Michigan and won a national championship. While the town’s old lefty academics tried to wrangle cultural significance from the spectacle of the Fab Five, their children flocked to the Tar Heel Barbershop and ordered “The Montross.”

Two months later, Rasheed, Stackhouse, and McInnis arrived to a Chapel Hill overrun by adolescents with high-and-tights and a fan base that conflated the blackness and the youth of their new recruiting class with the freshly vanquished Fab Five. It was a strange marriage from the start — Eric Montross, Derrick Phelps, Donald Williams, Brian Reese, and a gangly 7-footer named Kevin Salvadori were all back from the championship team, along with a sweet-shooting, lushly coiffed sophomore guard named Dante Calabria. The Dean Smith basketball factory always mirrored the liberal, academic, yet thoroughly Southern politics of its host city. Smith, the first coach at a major Southern university to recruit and play a black player, promptly stuck Charlie Scott and all his offensive firepower within the confines of the Four Corner offense. Smith famously refused to play freshmen, until a very talented freshman named Michael Jordan forced his hand in 1982. And so, as the early reports began to filter through Chapel Hill in the summer of 1993, all of them saying that the freshmen were already better than the upperclassmen, the usual divide opened up between the town’s staunch basketball traditionalists and all the transplants who secretly wanted to see the Fab Five take down the profound stiffness of Phelps, George Lynch, and Montross.

Rasheed Wallace, of course, became the central figure in Chapel Hill’s civil war between old and new. Stackhouse and McInnis were more traditional Carolina recruits — both had grown up in-state and played at prep powerhouse and ACC feeder Oak Hill Academy. Rasheed came from Simon Gratz, an inner-city high school in Philadelphia. Dean Smith had recruited players from big Northeastern cities before — Brian Reese, who started over Stackhouse, was from the Bronx — but none had come with Rasheed’s reputation. Before signing on at Carolina, Wallace had failed on multiple occasions to get the 700 SAT score necessary to compete as a student-athlete in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He was famously ejected from the McDonald’s All-American game. According to his legend, in an early scrimmage, Wallace dunked on Montross and Salvadori and screamed, “Your job is mine!” Stories like this kept popping up during Wallace’s freshman season, and, as so often happens in college towns that house major collegiate athletic programs, nearly everything said about Rasheed, Stackhouse, and McInnis was (a) distorted and (b) ubiquitous.

In a science class in seventh grade, my tablemates and I were asked to design a space station. For all the usual rebellious reasons, we created the Rasheed Wallace space station, complete with a bald spot loading dock. Our teacher, a very young, perpetually nervous woman who, among other traits noticed by the adolescent male, owned a dazzling collection of form-fitting skirts, asked us to redo the assignment. The reason? She didn’t think the Rasheed Wallace space station was “appropriate.”

I don’t think it ever changed much for Rasheed. In Chapel Hill, he sparked talk of wasted potential, anger management, selfishness, and how a lack of discipline could bankrupt a wealth of basketball talent. This line of discussion about Rasheed Wallace persisted for the next 15 years, through Washington, Portland, Detroit, and ultimately Boston. But it’s a mistake to think that this was just a product of media laziness (that came later), where an athlete can never break out of his original casting. Rather, Rasheed just kept finding ways to incense those moral watchdogs, who, for whatever silly reason, choose collegiate and professional sports as their medium for judgment and self-aggrandizement. This isn’t to apologize for Rasheed’s missteps, both off-court and on, but the discussion surrounding him always seemed to be amplified into something that reached past basketball and its vague code of conduct. As happened in Chapel Hill, Rasheed divided fans in the NBA because he found himself at the center of nearly every tired basketball argument. He arguably did not live up to his potential. He arguably did not take the responsibility of being a role model very seriously. He arguably placed himself over his team and derailed what could have been a championship team in Portland. He was arguably one of the most beloved players in the league, especially among the population of hoop heads who automatically celebrated anything that rankled the traditional pundits.

Allen Iverson will always be the league’s “hip-hop” (whatever that means) antihero, but his consistent excellence and the grim, machine-like style with which he played kept his fans at arm’s length. You didn’t love Allen Iverson as much as you appreciated him, respected him, or feared him. Rasheed, despite his troubles, was always more accessible, more open to discussion. This, in part, came from that aforementioned potential. With Iverson, there was never any doubt that he was playing at the height of his talents. However you might feel about his demeanor on the court, you recognized it as a necessary evil. Rasheed always left himself open to the frustrations of a public who continually fantasizes about how a tweak in “attitude” or “lifestyle” can lead to 25-point scoring averages, enhanced teamwork, and championships.

Portland didn’t help. Rasheed was arguably the best player on seven playoff teams for the Trail Blazers, including the 1999-2000 team that choked away Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. But like Chapel Hill, Portland is a city where basketball matters way too much. It’s unfair and simplistic to blankly state that race was the only factor in the Jail Blazers’ problems with their host city — Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter are still heroes in Portland. Kevin Duckworth had a port named after him. According to Ben Golliver, a Portland native who writes about the team at blazersedge.com, Rasheed’s problems with the city arose from a litany of very specific incongruities. “When you put Rasheed Wallace in Portland,” Golliver explained, “every player in Portland is under great scrutiny, for better or for worse. If you act like Clyde Drexler and shake everyone’s hand and talk to kids, you’ll be a god in this city. If you come in and don’t really care about that sort of stuff and have some minor baggage, you’ll get lambasted by fans who expect you to be a perfect gentleman.”

In the early aughts, Rasheed tried to reach out to the Blazer fan base by hosting a radio show on Jammin’ 95.5, Portland’s only hip-hop station. Wallace and a friend mostly played underground Philly hip-hop and spat freestyles over instrumental tracks. “There was a younger generation of Blazer fans who loved Rasheed and really wanted to get to know him,” Golliver said, “but how many people in Oregon really know how to process that? He’d try to find outlets to express who he was, but unfortunately, we’re just not the type of city to accommodate that sort of guy.”

Portland’s close and troubled relationship with marijuana made things even more difficult for the man whom Peter Vecsey unrelentingly referred to as “Rashweed.” The city has long since been associated with pot-smoking hippies, a fact not particularly embraced by its more conservative, wealthy base. “A lot of the season-ticket holders try to create a divide between themselves and the town’s pot smokers,” Golliver explained. “When the players are conforming to ‘hippie patterns,’ those season-ticket holders will react more violently. Honestly, if weed wasn’t such a polarizing issue here in Portland, I don’t think Rasheed would’ve gotten it as bad.”

Of course, nearly all of this would have been forgiven if Rasheed, who scored 30 points in that fateful Game 7, but who contributed six of the team’s 13 straight missed shots down the stretch, had been able to carry the Blazers to the NBA Finals. But the Blazers never achieved their expected level of success, and fans and media members who were looking for an easy scapegoat focused on Wallace and how everything that didn’t make him the prototypical, model athlete doubled as a reason for his team’s failures.

Rasheed played three more years with the Blazers. Those teams won 50, 49, and 50 games, but each lost in the first round of the playoffs. When he was finally traded to the Hawks for a game and then to the Pistons, Portland’s patience with their talented power forward and his supporting cast had run its course. “The city’s perception of a kid from inner-city Philly came from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” Golliver said. “We thought we could mold him. The reality, of course, was that Rasheed Wallace wasn’t Will Smith.”

In Detroit, Rashweed became ‘Sheed and displayed the unique talents that had been mostly hidden from the greater basketball public. His antics, which had once seemed menacing and petulant, took on a different tone with the team-first 2004 Pistons. Before Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Pacers, he became Guaransheed. His relationship with the media began to change, in part, because outside of his rookie season with the Bullets, Detroit was the first town where Rasheed wasn’t the center of all discussions about sports and ethics. When the Pistons beat the Lakers in the Finals and all his teammates began talking about the Rasheed Wallace that most people didn’t know, his legacy was recast. Where he once was the hip-hop bogeyman who would eventually destroy the integrity of the game, he quickly became celebrated for his former demons.

This swing from leader of the Jail Blazers to the most beloved, almost cuddly personality in the league explains why most conversations among basketball nerds never get too far before they get to Rasheed Wallace. But while the rapid conversion can tell us a lot about how we process basketball differently than other sports, it doesn’t tell us a whole lot about Rasheed Wallace the basketball player. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the public’s understanding of Rasheed Wallace, regardless of whether he suits up again for an NBA game, will experience a third edit. In 20 or so years, when the memories of Rasheed’s personality start to fade and we’re left with his statistical record and what has been written about him in newspapers and major media outlets, how will the list makers of 2030 regard a player who averaged 14.6 points per game over his career?

Over his 15-year NBA career, Rasheed never came close to the statistical landmarks that define a great or even a very good career in the NBA. He never averaged more than 20 points or 10 rebounds per game. Despite his reputation as an unselfish, defense-first player, his assist and blocked-shot totals never registered as anything but average. He never made the first or second All-Defensive teams. On Basketball-Reference.com’s Hall of Fame index, which rates Hall of Fame candidacy, Antawn Jamison, Larry Nance, Tom Chambers, and Larry Johnson all have better shots at enshrinement in Springfield.

Rasheed Wallace excelled at two basketball things. The first: He was an elite one-on-one post defender who could match up against Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett or Tracy McGrady without needing a double-team. Basketball’s ongoing love affair with Tyson Chandler has helped elevate the perceived importance of this particular skill, but there’s no reliable way to measure just how much impact this has on a team’s overall defense. The second: Rasheed Wallace, by all accounts, understood the pace and rhythm of the game. He knew when he should go on the block, he knew when he should shoot from the top of the arc, he knew when to defer to hot teammates. These instincts and the accuracy with which they are applied get lost somewhere in the vagaries of “basketball IQ,” the extremes of which are easy to spot.

Rasheed spent a lot of his time on the court making explicitly “low basketball IQ” plays. He was an average passer at best. He spent much of the second half of his career launching ill-advised 3-pointers. He racked up technical fouls at bad times and turned referees against his teams. He threw a towel in Arvydas Sabonis’s face. And yet, he never once played on a team that finished with fewer than 39 wins. This fact can be attributed to the surrounding talent, but Rasheed never played with a truly elite talent in his prime. In their two successive trips to the Western Conference Finals, the leading scorer for the Blazers averaged 13.9 (Bonzi Wells in 1998-99) and 16.4 (Wallace in 1999-2000) points per game. Given that those years approximate the peak of Wallace’s career, it’s worth questioning whether he might have scored more on a bad team. The record will show that he was a very efficient scorer, but he probably would have been a more effective player if he had shot more and been more aggressive in the post. He was, I believe, the best player on seven Portland teams, each of which made the playoffs. But that’s a pretty vague way to evaluate a player, especially when those claims can’t really be backed up by numbers, and when the print record is so overrun by talk of marijuana, technical fouls, leadership, and pretty much everything but basketball.

Would we remember Rasheed’s untrackable strengths differently if, say, he had averaged 20 and 10 over his career? If we weren’t faced with the question of “How did this guy become one of the most important and roundly discussed players in the league?” would we look at his skill set differently? This brings up something I call the Bruce Bowen problem. It’s what happens when we, who have been brought up to evaluate athletes through their numbers, fail at explaining why a certain player is held in high esteem. There’s no question that Bruce Bowen was an elite defender, but I also believe that if he could do something more than launch 3-pointers from the corner, his defensive skills would be looked at in a diminished light. The fact that Bowen could play 38 minutes for a championship team and only score, say, six points and grab four rebounds demands some explanation. And, fair or not, we tend to fill those explanations with “intangibles.” The late-career Rasheed Wallace, because of his centrality in basketball discussions and his lackluster stats, became defined almost entirely by his qualities as a teammate, his post defense, and his basketball smarts. I’m not saying this is right or wrong, but it always struck me as a bit of an overcorrection. Say what you will about the validity of the All-Defensive NBA team, but it’s still damning that Rasheed Wallace never made one. Every other elite-level defender in his era (Garnett, Duncan, Ben Wallace, Bowen, World Peace) made multiple first and second teams. He did make four All-Star teams, including in 2008, when he averaged 12.7 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. Chris Webber, who averaged 20 and 10 for his career and was clearly the best player on the Kings, only made five All-Star Games.

Those All-Star Game selections are the only hard evidence that Rasheed Wallace, basketball player, was something more than Otis Thorpe with range. All-Star Game selections, of course, are also highly subjective, and these say more about Rasheed’s standing within the league’s fraternity of players and coaches. Which brings us to a somewhat frustrating conclusion: There’s no real way to define Rasheed Wallace’s career, and, as such, he probably won’t be remembered as the outsize personality who put a urinal in his house in Portland, helped supplant the Kobe-Shaq dynasty, and single-handedly redefined the public perception of what makes a great NBA teammate. Those moments will ultimately be forgotten. His statistical record tells us even less. When evaluated within the context of basketball history, every player takes on some unwarranted or un-evidenced baggage — the negative space must be filled in with something. I can’t think of a player whose negative space shaded more positively. At first, Rasheed Wallace was given absolutely no rope, and then he finished his career with the benefit of every single doubt.

But maybe we’re right to side with Rasheed. Yes, the younger generation of NBA fans has probably pumped up his actual accomplishments and might remember him a bit too fondly, but that impulse came out of a collective frustration with the media’s inability to look much past the polarity of players who must either be “well-spoken” or “thugs.” By simply not caring what the media had to say about him, Rasheed forced a reevaluation of the characteristics that make a good basketball player, and, by extension, some necessary reflection on the type of thinking that would create a term like “Jail Blazers.”

Filed Under: Los Angeles Lakers, NBA, Sports, Teams

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