These are the nights that Jerry Stackhouse still cherishes. A loud and rambunctious arena. Teams trading buckets. A basket as big as the ocean. Maybe these nights are fewer and further between, but that’s fine with him. He can see the finish line now. It’s not just that Stackhouse chipped in 14 points, drilling four out of five 3s to will the Brooklyn Nets to a November overtime win over the Knicks in the first matchup of their reborn rivalry. He isn’t satisfied with a single shot or a solid game. Jerry Stackhouse isn’t truly content until he’s had a conversation with his mother, Minnie, later that night.
“There’s nothing like having the game I had last night and calling my momma and hearing her voice,” Stackhouse said the next day. “She has good and bad days. She’s 83. She’s battled a lot of different things with her health, but I could hear it in her voice last night. She was telling me, ‘I couldn’t believe you could kick your legs up that high.’ They came back down, but I still got them up there.”
Stackhouse hasn’t played in a playoff game in nearly three years. Across his 17-year professional career, he’s made just one appearance in the NBA Finals, with Dallas in 2006, when they fumbled a 2-0 lead to Miami and lost in six games. He has few regrets, but he still wants to win.
“Would I trade having a championship ring or being able to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy over what my momma said last night on that phone after watching that game?” he said. “No way.”
Rasheed Wallace, once Stackhouse’s running mate at the University of North Carolina, was on the losing end of that first Brooklyn–New York battle. Wallace missed nine of his 11 shots. It’s true, the ball don’t lie. Nor do the lasting careers of two of the league’s locker room sages. They’ve been allies, All-Stars, contributors, opponents, retirees, returnees, lightning rods, and — perhaps most importantly — chameleons, adept at adapting to their ever-evolving NBA roles. Both 38 years old, both hoping for one last playoff run, it’s been nearly two decades since Sheed and Stack first met at Chapel Hill.
“You’re not going to beat Father Time,” Stackhouse said. “He’s going to catch up with us all. But I think we can manage him. I think that’s what I learned to do. Playing less minutes, absorbing a little less of a role than I would customarily want … taking my wants out of the equation and putting other people’s at the forefront. When I was pushing, pushing, pushing for what I really wanted, it seemed like I never really got it.”
Both Wallace and Stackhouse have become known within NBA circles for their distinct personalities. Wallace’s teammates have always loved him, but he is often aloof with those he doesn’t know or trust — particularly reporters and officials. Stackhouse is poker-faced, but approachable — and yet he’s always been considered an old-school tough guy who shouldn’t be crossed under any circumstances. Even after all these years, Wallace still defends well in the post; Steve Smith, his teammate in Portland, calls him a “middle linebacker,” the lead communicator on defense. Stackhouse lives on the perimeter, resigned to outsmarting opponents over out-quicking them. Both can drain a timely 3, both are utterly fearless, and both are valued for their locker room contributions as much as what they can still do on the court.
“I think people can see that I go hard,” Wallace says now. “I’m just out there trying to go hard. I only know one speed. When I was in my heyday, of course I had those who hated me. They were supposed to hate the opposition. But it’s good, though. It feels good.”
“I’m here right now because of who I am,” Stackhouse says, “not because I’ve succumbed or had to settle. I’ve changed my roles. I understand the importance of having to change roles. I look at a guy like Allen Iverson. There’s no way, from a talent level or what he’s done for the game of basketball, he shouldn’t be on somebody’s team right now. But we know why. We know why.”
Rasheed Wallace was called for one technical foul in high school. Just one. Bill Ellerbee, Wallace’s coach at Philadelphia’s Simon Gratz High School, borrowed some thinking from General George S. Patton in his coaching philosophy: “The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in battle.” He later conducted coaching clinics in which others asked how he dealt with talented players. “It’s not what you do,” Ellerbee would respond. “It’s what you don’t do. And what you don’t do is kiss their ass.”
That’s why Wallace received his one and only high school technical during his freshman year. Ellerbee told his players that they could dunk whenever they wanted. But if anyone missed a dunk when an easy layup would have sufficed, he’d yank them from the game. During one game, Wallace missed a thunderous slam — and immediately knew he was coming out — so he punched the basketball stanchion in frustration. A referee blew the whistle. His first tech. “I tried to explain to him that [Wallace] would be taken out of the game and everything,” Ellerbee said. “He actually ended up giving me a technical foul, too.”
The rest of Wallace’s high school career was largely drama-free. He rose to prominence as a freshman when the varsity team traveled to Las Vegas for a tournament. Harry Moore, the team’s center, had been shot in the leg just before the team departed. The team visited Moore at the hospital before leaving, and while there, Moore called Wallace to his bedside to tell his teammate that he would have to do whatever he could for the team. “Rash had tears in his eyes,” said the team’s assistant coach, Nate Smigel. Wallace scored 25 points in the first game of the tournament. “That’s when I watched Rasheed blossom,” said Aaron McKie, a senior on the team who enjoyed a 13-year NBA career. “That game he pretty much carried us. I knew he was going to be special. He jumped into the limelight.”
Ellerbee insisted that his players participate in other sports, so Wallace played outfield and pitched for Simon Gratz’s baseball team. “He could really fire,” said Smigel, who doubled as the baseball coach. “He would sidearm it and have great control. But he was afraid of hitting people, so he’d take a little bit off.” In those days, it wasn’t hard to spot the 6-foot-9-and-growing Wallace, also a member of the track team, galloping through the Philadelphia streets. Cars honked at him as he ran. Drivers, hollering from their windows, would ask if he’d chosen a college yet.
“To be truthful, I was rooting for one of the schools in the area,” Ellerbee said. “Villanova, Temple, all the local schools were recruiting him. I was kind of hoping for him to stay close. But once Dean Smith came into town, that was the end of it.”
North Carolina’s recruitment of Wallace actually started much earlier, when Stackhouse and Wallace starred at the 1992 Nike All-American Academic basketball camp in Indianapolis together, overwhelming lesser talents like Randy Livingston, Dontonio Wingfield, and Rashard Griffith, who never quite made it to the next level. “Everybody was talking about us,” Stackhouse recalled. “We won and I had a good game, [but] Sheed actually closed the game out better. He was unstoppable.”
Stackhouse and Wallace remained friends and loved arguing about who would win if their high school teams ever played. North Carolina had already locked up two of the state’s best players — Stackhouse and point guard Jeff McInnis, teammates who had led Oak Hill Academy to a 36-0 record — when the 1993 McDonald’s All-American Game rolled around. McInnis and Wallace bunked at the game. Stackhouse often joined them, and they put together a full Tar Heel press. “I worked him the whole McDonald’s game,” McInnis said. “I talked about Carolina the whole entire time.”
Smith ensured Wallace’s commitment by flying into Philadelphia just one day after North Carolina captured the 1993 NCAA championship over Michigan. “He never did that type of thing,” remembers Dave Hanners, an assistant coach at North Carolina. “That was really unusual from the way we recruited back then.” But Smith knew they had a chance to dominate the mid-1990s, mixing a championship core with one of the best freshman classes of the decade. Teammate Pat Sullivan believes Wallace and Stackhouse “changed the culture a little and brought an edginess. They didn’t bring a toughness. We already had that. But those guys talked a little bit during games and let people know they were going to play hard and do everything they could to win.”
“Those guys were coming in, trying to take positions,” adds Donald Williams, the hero of that 1993 title game. “We had some great practices, more competitive than a lot of games.”
Stackhouse loved playing for Smith. One of 11 children, he grew up with a routine just as rigid and predictable as Smith’s famously controlled practices — church on Sunday, Bible study on Monday, and choir practice on Tuesday.1 “At Oak Hill, he’d always be the one cooking the food, getting us up,” McInnis says now. “He was always acting older. Hanging around him at 16, you would think Stack was 20.” Stackhouse always played to win, consequences be damned. Charlie McNairy, with whom he grew up, was a teammate at North Carolina, but that didn’t stop Stackhouse from elbowing him in the chops during practice after tussling for a rebound. “I’m not telling you how to live your life,” Hanners recalls whispering to McNairy. “But if that was me, I wouldn’t let him get away with that. I would go back at him.”
Stackhouse purchased a church for his mother, a pastor, in 2006.
“Thanks for the advice,” McNairy replied. “But I did try to go after him in high school once and he ended up beating me up for the next two weeks.” Says McNairy now: “If you weren’t prepared, he would come after you. You knew he cared about you. But he was kind of a ‘take no prisoner’ type of guy.”
Wallace was always more complicated: competitive, but lighthearted and always testing his coaches. In practice one day, Wallace took an ill-conceived 15-foot baseline shot too early in a possession for Smith. The famed head coach blew his whistle and halted the practice immediately. “Do you think that’s a good shot?” Hanners remembers Smith asking Wallace. Wallace replied that he did. “Well, let’s see you make 10 of them in a row,” Smith challenged him. Wallace drained eight straight from the same spot before Smith told him to stop.
Another time, the team traveled en masse to Durham one Thursday before a showdown with Duke. “They were having a party,” McInnis said. “So we go down there just to be cocky.” Students had already started camping outside the stadium to secure game tickets. “On our way back to the car, it was probably about one in the morning, Rasheed was pulling their tents back up and then when people come out, they’d see Rasheed Wallace going crazy,” McInnis said. “All the people coming out the tents and they basically walked us to our cars, chanting, ‘Let’s go Duke.’ It was just the craziest thing. Rasheed stirred up this whole big thing on campus, pulling people’s tents up.”
Before another Duke game, Wallace pulled aside McNairy — whom he had already nicknamed “Air McNairy” because he once dunked in the waning moments of a nationally televised game. Wallace told McNairy he noticed the two of them were dressed before everyone else, so he asked his teammate to warm up with him before the game. McNairy left first and Wallace trailed him. But by the time he hit the court, McNairy realized that Wallace was nowhere to be found.
“In unison, the crowd starts chanting, ‘Who are you? Who are you?'” McNairy said. “I’m feeling two inches tall. Nervous as can be. I shoot a shot and it’s a brick and I go up and try to shoot a layup and the kids are taunting me. I hit my layup and then go back. Rasheed is in the tunnel and he’s just dying laughing.”
No moment reflects the difference in Stackhouse and Wallace more than one of Michael Jordan’s returns to Chapel Hill. Working himself back into shape for his post-baseball comeback, Jordan ran with the second team one afternoon. He stuck around after practice and played one-on-one with any and all comers. Wallace was already back in the locker room by the time the games commenced, his shoes off and his feet soaking in ice water. He wasn’t about to put them back on, either. Not even for His Airness.
“Rasheed said he wasn’t playing. And it’s not that he’s not a competitor or anything,” Hanners said. “He didn’t want to give Michael the satisfaction. But Jerry was up there playing until they couldn’t play anymore. Michael won them all. It’s just the difference in the two. Jerry, I don’t know if it was the ego or not, but he wanted to prove to Michael that he was as good as him. Rasheed knew he wasn’t and didn’t care one way or the other.”
“Jeff McInnis was the smartest one,” Sullivan said. “Jeff played him last. He had the most success against him because Michael was just so tired by then.”
North Carolina never made it to the NCAA championship game with Stackhouse and Wallace — they were stunned by Boston College in the second round of the 1994 tournament, then lost to Arkansas in the Final Four the following spring.2 Coming off a sterling sophomore season,3 Wallace told Stackhouse that he was declaring for the NBA draft. Stackhouse leaned toward staying before ultimately following suit. “My mom and dad worked their whole lives,” Stackhouse said. “I didn’t feel like we were poor or underprivileged because the most I ever needed was sneakers. Whatever I needed, they went and got it for me. But in reality, we were at the poverty level.”
Stackhouse scored 18 points against Arkansas, but he’s still haunted by a thigh contusion he suffered in the first minute of the game. “I don’t know how in the world I got kneed on the thigh in the first play of the game,” he said. “I still wound up having a pretty good game [and we had] an opportunity to win the game. It was just the weirdest thing. Wallace was banged up earlier with his ankle. I got kneed in the thigh. [Dante] Calabria, who had led pretty much the nation in 3-point shooting, couldn’t buy one.” Calabria missed all seven of the 3s he attempted that night.
North Carolina went 28-6 during their sophomore season. Stackhouse averaged 19.2 points and 8.2 rebounds. Wallace averaged 16.6 points and also grabbed 8.2 rebounds.
Bullets GM John Nash owned the fourth overall pick and wanted Stackhouse. But being a fellow Philadelphia native, he also found himself intrigued by Wallace. He interviewed both Tar Heels, as well as Joe Smith and Antonio McDyess. “Jerry showed up for the interview in a suit,” Nash remembers, “looking very corporate, looking like he was applying for a job on Wall Street. Rasheed was more laid-back and came to his interview wearing a warm-up suit.”4
Nash also liked Kevin Garnett, then a string bean high-schooler, but says now that “At that time, it wasn’t customary to draft high school players and [Bullets owners] Abe Pollin was a little uneasy doing that. He asked me not to draft Garnett. I think Abe was personally opposed to taking kids out of high school.” Garnett went to Minnesota with the fifth pick. The irony here, of course, is that Washington infamously drafted Kwame Brown out of high school with the first pick in 2001, just six years later.
Philly grabbed Stackhouse with the third pick, hoping he’d follow in the footsteps of Wilt, Julius, and Barkley as The Next Great Sixer and maybe even The Next MJ someday. (As fellow Tar Heel and future Sixers coach Larry Brown points out, “When Jerry went to Carolina, the career he had in high school and the expectations were unbelievable, especially following Michael and what Michael accomplished — not only in college, but in the pros.”) The Bullets followed by taking Wallace fourth, even though they were already building around two other prized young forwards, Chris Webber and Juwan Howard.5 Stackhouse immediately became the leading scorer for an 18-win Sixers team; meanwhile, Wallace learned to stretch his game away from the basket and play all three frontcourt spots on a Washington team bound for another lottery.
The previous November, the Bullets traded three first-round picks and Tom Gugliotta to Golden State to reunite Fab Five members Webber and Howard, slumping to a 21-61 record and that fourth pick when Webber couldn’t stay healthy.
“I say this as a compliment,” says Jim Lynam, Washington’s coach at the time. “He’s been beating to his own drum since Day 1. A follow-up question is, when did Day 1 start? My dig would be maybe in the crib. You could always tell on Monday mornings whether the Kansas City Chiefs won the day before. If they won, invariably he would enter the practice facility that next day with a Kansas City Chiefs helmet on. His first jumper would be with a Chiefs helmet on.”
Still, his coach loved him. “He was one of my favorite guys,” Lynam said, a line echoed by all of Wallace’s former coaches. Wallace’s professional problems always came with officials. He had received only seven technicals in two years at North Carolina, but without those strong coaches who molded him over the years — not just Smith, but Ellerbee, too — Sheed routinely lost his composure on a precocious Bullets team. “You can’t quite explain why something would travel in the direction that it did,” Lynam said. “I think it took on a life of its own. It became something in Sheed’s mind that was a real issue. I would apply the same rule I did to Charles [Barkley] way back. Charles being Charles and Sheed being Sheed.”
Recognizing that Wallace, Webber, and Howard were all power forwards who couldn’t play together, the Bullets shipped Wallace to Portland for point guard Rod Strickland after his rookie season. “I remember telling him that he was going to get branded if he didn’t control his temper with officials, and I don’t think I made that much of an impact in my conversations with him,” Nash said. “It hurt him over the course of his career. Officials were tougher on him because he was so difficult.”
Stackhouse found himself in a similarly awkward situation, forced to coexist with Allen Iverson after Philly picked the former Georgetown star first overall in the 1996 draft. Although it was far-fetched to expect two headstrong alpha-dog scorers to mesh as teammates, the Sixers were losing ground locally and couldn’t resist trying. It couldn’t have worked out worse. The New York Post reported that friends of Iverson and friends of Stackhouse fought shortly after Christmas during Iverson’s rookie season, although both players denied the story. An incident they did not deny: The two fought at a shootaround later that season — although “fight” may be too strong a word. “It was a fight between one guy who didn’t know how to fight and another guy who didn’t want to fight,” Stackhouse told reporters at the time.
“[Stackhouse] was in a really bad situation when I got him,” said Brown, who arrived to coach Philadelphia in 1997. “He was an early pick, had a phenomenal year — ‘StackHouse,’ that’s how they labeled the arena in Philadelphia — and then all of a sudden, Allen came and they almost forgot about Jerry. That was tough, and we ended up trading him. I didn’t think it was a good fit for both of them. Not that they couldn’t get along or coexist. That’s just such a difficult thing. You have a great year, all the attention is on you, and then all of a sudden, Allen comes and you’re not relevant anymore.”6
More Brown: “I watched him grow, and being a Carolina guy, it wasn’t easy trading him and putting him in an environment where it wasn’t great for him.”
This was a volatile era for the NBA, with salaries skyrocketing and agents wielding more power than ever before. Across a six-year span of drafts from 1991 to 1996, an astonishing 16 top-five lottery picks switched teams within five years of being drafted by their original teams, including Wallace and Stackhouse,7 who was sent to Detroit with Eric Montross for Aaron McKie, Theo Ratliff, and a 2003 no. 1 pick on December 18, 1997. His reputation as the Next Michael Jordan followed him to Detroit, a comparison that made little sense to Stackhouse — someone who hadn’t even won one-third of the NBA games he’d played to that point.
The other players: Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Antonio McDyess, Kenny Anderson, Billy Owens, Jamal Mashburn, Shawn Bradley, Donyell Marshall, Steve Smith, Marcus Camby, Stephon Marbury, Joe Smith, Webber, and Jason Kidd.
“The hype helped me as far as coming into the league with endorsements. [I was] supposed to be this next, next, next, next,” Stackhouse said. “Cool. I’ll roll with it. But I knew in my mind, our games weren’t similar. We really didn’t do the same things. But I could dunk.”
And score. Stackhouse averaged more than 20 points for four straight seasons, including a career-high 29.8 points in 2000-01. But those Pistons teams never waded deep into the playoffs, not even during Grant Hill’s apex in the late 1990s. The lowest moment happened during the 2000-01 season, after Hill had fled for Orlando in free agency, when coach George Irvine called Stackhouse and Michael Curry into his office and told them they were doing “horseshit jobs of leading the team.” Enraged, Stackhouse fired back that Irvine was doing a “horseshit job of coaching the team.”
“I went right back at him,” Stackhouse remembers ruefully. “I bruised him. He was a guy who was really a true ally of mine — he really had my back. And because of a quick moment, a quick lash of the tongue, I lost him to where I don’t think he was real positive in anything he said after that. It was like he was almost against me, in a way. But that was probably one of the things I regret, because I really liked him.”
“Tell him that I have no hard feelings about that,” Irvine responded in a recent phone conversation. “He played hard and he competed and he has a lot of pride. As a coach, I was really competitive, and you’re going to have moments when you don’t see eye to eye. But I also knew he had my back, and he proved that, and that’s what I remember more than anything. I remember one time when there was pressure on me as a coach, when we were in Dallas, and we were struggling and there was talk about me getting fired. We won a game that we probably should not have won. Jerry played great and he came up afterward and gave me a hug and said something like, ‘I have your back.’ That’s what I remember better than this other episode.”
When Rick Carlisle took over the Pistons the following year, Stackhouse belatedly evolved into the centerpiece of a 50-win team that came close to making the conference finals. That happened much faster for Wallace, as Portland quickly became a legitimate contender after adding Scottie Pippen in 1999. Portland’s coach at the time, Mike Dunleavy, desperately wanted to take advantage of Wallace’s incomparable low-post game, but Sheed shied away from that go-to role.
“At times, he was unselfish to a fault,” Dunleavy said. “If I set the play up for him, he’d be totally against it.”
Dunleavy called crunch-time plays with Damon Stoudamire serving as the first option, Pippen as the second, and Wallace as the third. But, just as the huddle broke, he’d pull Stoudamire and Pippen aside.
“I said if either one of you guys shoot the ball, I’m going to shoot you,” Dunleavy recalls. “Invariably, that’s what would happen. We’d get the ball into the low post and throw it in and Rasheed would hit a turnaround jumper over his right shoulder and we’d win the game.”
That struggle manifested in the worst possible way when Portland blew a 15-point lead in Game 7 of the 2000 Western finals to the Lakers because nobody could take over when it mattered — including Wallace, who scored 30 points but was responsible for six of Portland’s 13 consecutive misfires as their lead evaporated. Wallace always gravitated toward blending in over standing out. “I don’t think he ever really embraced being The Guy,” said Steve Kerr, a TNT analyst who played for Portland during the 2001-02 season. “I think that was hard for him. He didn’t have the same qualities that Tim Duncan had or Kobe or Jordan or whoever. But he loved being one of the guys, and he was really fun to have as a teammate.”
Kerr loved how playful Wallace was, remembering one time when he drained a long 3 at practice in front of Wallace, then broke character and yelled out “Ass” — a shortening of “In your ass,” which was Kerr’s way of trash-talking him. Wallace nearly fell down laughing. Kerr rejoined San Antonio the next season; during a return match against the Blazers, he found himself guarding Stoudamire as he came off of a screen. Kerr trailed him and Stoudamire nailed a 3 by Portland’s bench, followed by Wallace joyously screaming “Ass!” at Kerr. “I looked at him and cracked up,” Kerr said. “It was a funny moment.”
By the 2003-04 season, those funny moments were few and far between for Portland. Not only did the talented Blazers fail to make the Finals, but the “Jail Blazers” were running amok as locals openly revolted against their once-beloved team. Wallace, Ruben Patterson, and Zach Randolph became the poster boys, blamed for making too much money and showing too much disdain toward the community (as this Sports Illustrated story detailed). It didn’t help when Wallace and Stoudamire were cited for misdemeanor marijuana possession, or when Wallace curiously told The Oregonian in 2003 that the NBA exploited young black athletes. He became famous for two quirky catchphrases: “Ball don’t lie” (which had been around forever, but he popularized) and “Both teams played hard” (in response to repeated questions from reporters during the 2003 playoffs). Before the 2004 season, Wallace was seemingly destined for a career as a Hall of Fame character, and that’s it.8 On the court, his confrontations with referees became less an annoyance and more of a career-threatening issue. He had 41 — 41! — technicals in 77 games during the 2000-01 season. One season later, he angrily confronted and threatened official Tim Donaghy after a game.
“A lot of pressure was put on Sheed because he got the big contract,” said McInnis, who played with Wallace in Portland for parts of two seasons. “He lived up to it. Then I think with Zach Randolph emerging, they wanted the young guy, probably to give the money to. Everything Rasheed was doing became worse and worse and worse.”
“I had a referee tell me he didn’t like coming to the Rose Garden because he knew it was going to be a battle with Rasheed,” remembers Nash, who took over the Blazers in 2003.
When asked for comment, NBA officials declined to speak for this story.
“Despite the fact he’s had a marvelous career, I think it could have been better,” Nash says. “But he was never about personal accolades. He was a team player, wanted to win, and coaches had a high regard for him, which is evidenced now. The fan base in Portland was probably equally divided. He had a lot of supporters because they liked his play. But he had a lot of detractors, too, because he wasn’t fan-friendly. He was also difficult with the media, so the media never portrayed him in a favorable light. That’s a shame in some ways, but it was his doing.”
That’s just Sheed being Sheed — he never cared about what anyone thought other than his teammates and coaches. You can’t blame Portland for cutting bait and sending him to Atlanta, who quickly rerouted him to Detroit after one game. On the other hand, you probably can’t remember what Portland got for him, either.9
Nash remembers Wallace’s agent, Bill Strickland, promising that Wallace would leave for free agency that summer, leaving him handcuffed. But here was the trade: Wallace and Wesley Person for Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Dan Dickau, and Theo Ratliff.
Beyond talent and durability, there are specific reasons why some NBA lifespans exceed others. Maybe it’s an opportunity that presents itself during those fleeting years between “star” and “contributor.” Maybe the player loses a half-step but gains a few points in basketball IQ. Maybe he matures a little late, or maybe he finds himself enchanted by a specific chance to resuscitate his career. The ones who evolve and accept a lesser role stick around. The ones who cannot are shuttled out. There’s a reason Stackhouse and Wallace are still playing in the NBA, just like there’s a reason guys like Iverson and Kenyon Martin can’t find a team.
Stackhouse found himself flipped to Washington (for Rip Hamilton), then Dallas (in a four-player deal for Antawn Jamison). His numbers steadily dropped and injuries cost him 109 games over a three-year stretch. Thanks to Philly’s 2001 Finals trip and Detroit’s 2004 title, he was also developing a reputation as something of a loser’s salvation — teams were better off after trading him, or so people believed. “People said, ‘There’s no way he can be a sixth man,'” Stackhouse said. “Nobody had ever asked me. It’s just because of my persona and my confidence in the starter role, nobody fathomed that I would accept being a sixth man. Don Nelson just basically came to me and said, ‘On my team, I’ve got six starters. But only five of them can be on the court at the beginning of the game. But to me, you’re a starter. You’re going to play starter minutes. And I value you as a starter.’ ‘All right, cool, Coach.’ Enough said. All that matters to me is impressing my coach.”
Stackhouse knew that the Dallas crowd cheered just as loudly when he came off the bench as it would have if he were starting. Both Nelson and Avery Johnson had no problem drawing plays for him and letting him loose. That first Dallas season also featured the defining Jerry Stackhouse, Tough Guy story. It happened after Utah rookie Kirk Snyder took a cheap shot at him under the basket during a game. Stackhouse retaliated with one of his own. Both men thought they were even. Nope. They bumped into each other a few plays later and well, Stackhouse can explain the rest.
“Boom, he punched me in the stomach with an open fist,” Stackhouse said, incredulously. “I was like, ‘OK, I can go crazy right now and get suspended for two or three games and lose this money.’ The smart side of me said, ‘No, I’m not going to do that. But I’m going to get this boy.’ You don’t put your hands on me. I can deal with a lot of verbal stuff and wolfing and all that, but you put your hands on me, no. And I thought I had cleaned it up, but obviously I hadn’t.”
When the game ended, Stackhouse recalls asking the training staff for a warm-up suit, then waiting on the docks where Utah’s bus would depart. “I ain’t even shower,” Stackhouse recalls. “I put on some sweats, some sneakers, and I went and stood in the tunnel. As soon as [Snyder] came out, I fired on him. I got in a couple. That was it. I don’t know where all these security people came from. It probably lasted 20 seconds. Everybody pulled me off and that was it.”
And that’s how an NBA urban legend is born. Only, in this case, it actually happened: the time Jerry Stackhouse saved a few bucks by beating up Kirk Snyder after a Mavs-Jazz game. They ran into each other again the following year, after Snyder had been traded to New Orleans. Again, he approached Stackhouse in the tunnel. “He started walking to me,” Stackhouse remembers. “I closed my fists, wondering what’s this fool up to, thinking we’re about to go in. He just came in and opened his hand out to me and said, ‘Man, I really needed that.'” Snyder told Stackhouse that he had been struggling to get onto the court and wanted to impress his coach, Jerry Sloan. “I was just like, ‘Damn, next time just get my number. You want to talk to somebody, we can do that without me having to pay a $1,000 fine. But it was the weirdest thing I had ever witnessed. You get into some knuckles with someone and they come back and tell you, ‘I needed that.'”
Stackhouse’s toughness proved to be a crucial piece for Dallas, who won their first two 2006 Finals games before falling apart. In Game 4, Stackhouse flagrantly fouled Shaquille O’Neal and drew a suspension for Game 5. Miami barely squeaked out that game on the final possession — getting help from Bennett Salvatore on an infamous push foul on Dwyane Wade in the final seconds — stealing the momentum and the series. It’s the closest Stackhouse has come to a title.
“When Jerry went to Dallas, his personality, his attitude changed so much,” Larry Brown said. “He became an unbelievable team player, a mentor, somebody that everybody would want on their team for a veteran guy. I think when he went to Dallas, he just figured out how he could help.”
Meanwhile, his buddy Wallace became the missing cog on a memorable Pistons team, helping them to the 2004 title and hounding Tim Duncan to a surprisingly inefficient series in San Antonio’s hard-fought 2005 NBA Finals win. He labeled Brown “Pound for Pound” for Brown’s initials (L.B.) and his belief that Brown was the league’s best coach.10 And on an unselfish squad of veterans who loved playing defense and playing for each other, Wallace had finally found basketball nirvana. He didn’t have to be the man in Detroit — just one of the guys.
“Coach Brown never told the players this, but he told the staff that anytime Rasheed gets a technical, ‘I’m going to get a technical because it’s not fair,’” said Sullivan, Wallace’s college teammate, who had joined Detroit’s scouting staff.
“Every minute I was around Rasheed, I was excited to be there,” Brown said. “He plays the right way. He makes his teammates better. He respects the game. He respects coaching. And when the average person sees him, they don’t realize that.”
“That’s a guy who has the pulse on the team,” said Darvin Ham, a teammate of Wallace’s in Detroit. Ham and Wallace became close. “I would consider him a brother. Not only a friend, but a brother.”
“The one thing that you can say about Rasheed Wallace and the Detroit Pistons, when he came to the team, if there was any selfishness on that team before, it was gone the day he walked on the court,” said George Blaha, the Pistons play-by-play announcer since 1976. “People realized, if a guy this talented doesn’t care about anything other than what’s on the scoreboard, we can’t have any issues, either.”
Brown and the Pistons parted ways after the 2005 Finals. Detroit remained an Eastern Conference mainstay for another three years before finally blowing up that team. “There’s no question Rasheed and I butted heads at times because he was very open in things he wanted to do and did not want to do,” says Flip Saunders, who replaced Brown. “As coaches, you have to be demanding at times as far as what you want players to do and not do. But you always knew where he stood. That’s what I loved about him. He always let you know where you stand, whether it’s teammates, coaches, media. Even referees. That’s pretty much who he is, and that’s the number-one thing as a coach that you respect, because you always know where he’s coming from.”
And the technicals? Saunders, like Dunleavy, found that Wallace played passively at times. The technicals revved him up.
“There’s no question people would push his buttons to get him,” Saunders said. “But from a coaching perspective, that was usually a benefit, because he’d really play at a higher level. It was almost a Catch-22 in that the emotions of him going off, on the outside, would be frustrating for people watching. But on the inside, players, coaches, everybody knew that when that happened, you could probably start running some plays for Rasheed.”
For a player to hang around, there’s one final checkpoint: He can become a clubhouse leader, dispensing advice to younger players and serving as a guru of sorts. Stackhouse, thanks to a mixture of bad luck, injuries, and being in the wrong place at the wrong time, never quite took to that role. He fell out of favor in Dallas after Avery Johnson was fired in 2008. “I kind of got lost when they fired Avery because I was looked at like kind of one of Avery’s guys,” Stackhouse believes. And he bounced from Memphis to Milwaukee, where the 2010 Bucks made the playoffs with Stack coming off the bench.
“They decided not to bring me and Kurt [Thomas] back — which is fine,” Stackhouse said. “They haven’t made the playoffs since. I get a call from [former Milwaukee coach] Scott [Skiles] every season. He lets me know that they miss what I brought to the team. That’s the best compliment. You ain’t have to sign me back. You ain’t have to do nothing. But in my phone, I get a text from the coach that he misses the intangibles of what I bring to that team. I take some satisfaction in that. And I take some satisfaction in that I’m going to always be me.”
Stackhouse made a pit stop in Miami before landing on NBA TV for a few months, then riding the pine for the Atlanta Hawks last season, to be near his children. “Now, I feel like I can relate to everybody,” Stackhouse said. “I feel like I can relate to a franchise player. I can relate to being a starter who, for the team to take another step, needed to remove himself a little and become a sixth man. Now, I can relate to a guy who needs to maybe be an eighth man. And lo and behold, I can even relate to a 15th man. From a coaching standpoint, that gives me an outlook and perspective that I don’t know too many people coaching right now have ever had.”
Wallace retired after the 2010 Finals, eventually assisting Ham with the D-League’s Albuquerque Thunderbirds. (Says Ham, “Everything about him as a player translated into the temporary hat that I put on his head as a coach. The mental jewels that he gave the D-League guys, it resonated. He gave them enough knowledge to really understand what the whole picture is about.”) Wallace also played in the NC Pro-Am the last two summers, catching Stackhouse’s attention because “He played in every summer league game. I said, ‘If you play in every summer league game, you might as well come on back and play.’ I understood where he was at. You get a little bit older, you don’t want to get banged up. Recovery is always the thing. His back was bothering him a little bit. I could tell that he still really loved the game.”
Ham tried to map a return for Wallace to the Lakers, where Ham currently works as an assistant coach. “For whatever reason, it didn’t work out,” says Ham. “I thought he could help us, not just from a skill standpoint, but from what he brings to the table, his whole aura and presence. Rasheed is a Hall of Fame talent.” Wallace landed somewhere else with a Detroit connection — with Mike Woodson, who worked as an assistant on Brown’s Pistons — giving the veteran Knicks quality minutes off the bench before getting injured two weeks ago.
“When we got him in Detroit, he was the same way,” Woodson said. “I knew exactly what I was getting when we made the move to bring him over.”
“Woody and I are close,” Brown said. “I speak to Woody almost every day. I’m just so thankful that Rasheed decided he wanted to play again, because Mike’s having a ball with that team.”
Which is exactly how Johnson felt about Stackhouse — the coach gushed about their reunion a few weeks ago, during their first losing streak, before Brooklyn fired him. “Especially during times like this,” Johnson said three weeks ago, “Jerry really does a great job of leadership, reminding the guys of who we are and what we want to accomplish.” It’s unclear what Johnson’s ousting means for Stackhouse. But whether he’s sixth man or 15th, the league knows what they’re getting with him at this point.
Wallace? That’s a tougher one. Knicks fans have already adopted him, but it wasn’t that long ago when his time with the Celtics ended so ignominiously.
“He’s misunderstood because he takes his job so serious,” McInnis said. “He loves basketball to a fault. He’s so serious about playing basketball, it got him a bad reputation. But off the court, he’s a father, a friend. He’s one of the greatest people you’d want to be around.”11
Grantland spoke with McInnis the same day that Wallace was ejected just 85 seconds into a game against the Suns. He drew his second technical for screaming, “Ball don’t lie!”
“I saw that on my phone,” McInnis said. “I’m definitely going to be texting him today.”
You hear Wallace still text messages Blaha out of the blue with pictures of a Notre Dame helmet that says “Go Irish.” You hear he’s great with kids. You hear Ham say he consults Wallace with all his life decisions. You hear Chauncey Billups call him his “brother.” You hear Kerr say he loved playing with Wallace even though that was the unhappiest season of his career. But you don’t hear anything from Wallace. He almost never talks. But then, that’s the Rasheed Wallace brand.
“The most fun, bighearted guy,” Stackhouse says. “But that’s what it takes for him to be Rasheed Wallace on the basketball court. If he took that approach off the court, he wouldn’t be as good. He has to almost find that fuel to get him going. He’s almost like a big kid and he’s still got the same Bronco that he had his first year in college. He’s as frugal as they come. He’s always talking about, ‘I ain’t got no money.’ He’s made more money than all of us put together, but that’s just Sheed.”
Saunders calls Wallace a “perfectionist,” adding, “when there isn’t perfection, that’s when he would get frustrated. When he would say something to the referee, he would be right and the referee would say that he was definitely wrong and he would get more frustrated because he knew that he was right.”
Maybe that’s why he doesn’t waste time talking to writers. A Knicks public relations official told us that Wallace is showing no interest in long conversations with reporters (not that he ever really has). Still, Grantland persisted in its requests. Bill Strickland, Wallace’s respected agent, agreed to e-mail Wallace to chat about Stackhouse. A few days passed. Nothing. Even Stackhouse tried to help, asking, “Have you talked to Sheed yet? I texted him. But man, that’s Sheed.”
On the day of the second Nets-Knicks game in December, Wallace finally talked — barely. Asked if he was proud of his and Stackhouse’s longevity, Wallace responded, “Hell yeah. We just know how to take care of our bodies doing what we do.12 We’ve had damn near every injury you can have happen to us throughout our career. But you’ve got to stay with it, know how to take care of your body. You can’t take it for granted.”
Wallace credits Cliff Robinson with teaching him how to take care of his body from their days together in Portland. “I was fortunate to come in on a team that had a bunch of veteran players, such as Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey, Buck Williams, Terry Porter — you can go down the line,” said Robinson, who had an 18-year NBA career. “They instilled into me that keeping your body in good physical shape was the key to having longevity. I was just paying it forward with Rasheed and the other young players.”
Nor will Wallace take his comeback for granted. “I’m glad to see that I still have a lot of fans left in the basketball world,” he said. “There’s been a lot of people on the streets, when I’m out at restaurants or off of the basketball court, a lot of people say they’re glad to see me back — to see, I guess, real basketball, post play and this and that, depending on who the fan is. It’s a good thing, though. I’m not downplaying it or anything. It’s definitely good.”
That night, Wallace sank a couple of 3-pointers and grabbed five rebounds during New York’s victory. Afterward, when asked about his sore foot, he said that he’s “good money.” Stackhouse didn’t play as well, struggling defensively and fouling Jason Kidd on his game-winning 3-pointer. Stackhouse’s leg was sore where Kidd kicked him on the attempt, so he sat out the next couple of games.
The ball bounced Wallace’s way that night. It tends to have a mind of its own. But it never lies.