After last night’s meltdown by the Detroit Pistons in the sixth and final game of the 2007 NBA Eastern Conference Finals, I wondered about the mindset of one Rasheed Wallace. Wallace was ejected from the game after receiving a second technical foul for arguing (or better yet, lambasting) with officials “over balls and strikes.” This was nothing new. Yesterday’s double were ‘Sheed’s sixth and seventh technical fouls of the 2007 playoff season. It’s been a long ride – and it may be over in Detroit.
Mr. Wallace is not without his admirers, especially his teammates. And if you’re even remotely anti-ownership, anti-establishment, his antics have to resonate with you on some level. Still, there is something basic that separates Wallace’s work from that of a player like Dennis Rodman. As incredible as this may sound, Rodman knew when to stop. Rodman’s histrionics were about riling up the opposition and his competitive drive to run a stake through the heart of that vampire in the other uniform. Rodman seldom, if ever, was ejected from big games where the outcome was in doubt. He stuck around long enough to block shots, take charges and rebound every shot that didn’t find the center of the rim. Rodman rebounded errant popcorn jumpers from 8-year olds in the front row. He picked off ill-fated cubes of ice headed for the floor of the United Center or whatever other arena he blessed with floor burns. Rodman stuck around long enough to enervate other “rebounders”, aggravate enemy fans and infuriate “their media” caught in a love-hate relationship they hated themselves for loving.
Rasheed is another story, altogether. In fact, Rasheed is such a different story, that if it were not for Kobe Bryant, his legacy would be embarrassingly different. Rasheed Wallace is one of the most talented players in the league. He has the talent of a Derrick Coleman (minus the handle) or Chris Webber – even a Tim Duncan. When Rasheed played for the Portland Trail Blazers, he was an unstoppable offensive juggernaut that commanded double teams and inspired his teammates. He was the same player when he first arrived in Detroit. But, somewhere along the way, something happened. Somewhere between Simon Gratz High School in Philadelphia and the University of North Carolina, ‘Sheed decided it was okay to get ejected from big games.
Regardless of what you think of the NBA, Czar Stern or any officiating crew, getting ejected from games is not pardonable in the context of playoff basketball for talented players. Only players with eroding skills and certified “pain in the ass” personalities like M.L. Carr or hockey’s Claude Lemieux can justify regular ejections from big games. Rasheed is simply too good to spend the balance of big games in the locker room kicking around coolers telling the towel boys about how he got a raw deal. In the simple parlance of this day, “That’s some ol’ bullshit.”
What the many media clips and soundbites may never reveal about Rasheed is his deep intelligence and his concern for the integrity of the game. Why the brakes don’t work in particular situations is another question, altogether. I thought I might be able to answer it – but it is beyond me. In the absence of certainty, I can only put forth a theory.
The Rasheed Wallace Combustible Integrity Theory
Preface: Every theory worth its salt has to have a few assumptions. The assumptions don’t have to be grand. They simply need to be simple and testable. Since water is wet, swimmers get wet. Maybe not ideal, but you get the picture. A theory also has to have a hypothesis. The hypothesis is the thing that makes people say the theorist is either an Einstein or an idiot. Of course, theories cannot be positively proven. If that were the case, we’d call them facts, not theories. And when theories pass from unproven to proven, that is no guarantee of permanent keys to the kingdom. Those keys can be revoked in five years or a hundred years or a millenium. After all, there was a time when Christians in the West believed the world was only 6,000 years old. Laugh now, but that wasn’t so funny when dumb dumbs with degrees could hang you by your thumb thumbs until you screamed.
Nuts and Bolts: Rasheed Wallace’s frequent in-game eruptions at NBA officials are purely expressions of anger directed at the “league” and ownership for what he perceives to be a dehumanizing (albeit enriching) experience. Here are my basic assumptions:
- Rasheed is a smart man with a demonstrated commitment to family and community.
- He is an excellent teammate (ejections, notwithstanding).
- Rasheed can focus and reign it in when he wants to. During the 2004 playoff run to a title, Rasheed was on the court and was absolutely lethal against the Lakers in bringing a title to the Pistons. He was universally regarded as the missing ingredient between that team and a title.
- Thank you, Kobe. The 2004 season is the only season since 1998 in which either Tim Duncan or Shaquille O’Neal has not concluded the season with an NBA title, a summer parade, and bad singing by mediocre teammates. In 2004, Kobe Bryant played 1-on-9 and consistently had his water shut off by Tayshaun Prince and others. While that is the subject of another conversation, that debacle opened the window of opportunity for Sheed and the mighty, might Peace-tones. They have been unable to squeeze their rather large asses (er, egos) thru that window since.
- The league into which Rasheed was drafted is fundamentally different than the one in which he now plays. It is more international, more oriented toward offense and less physical.
- Rasheed no longer plays the same type of physical interior game for which his abilities are uniquely suited. In his second year, he played closer to the hoop and made about 56% of his shots. Since that time, he’s moved farther and farther away from the rim – and now, this 6′-10″ player has mid-40 percent accuracy. What was once unconscionable in the days of Chamberlain is now commonplace.
- Rasheed would kick David Stern’s ass in a New York minute if he believed two things: 1) it would be a fair fight…it would not; 2) it would change the heavy-handed manner in which the league is managed.
I believe Rasheed Wallace takes extreme umbrage at the way in which David Stern and the league have sought to demonize Black culture and the old school mores of the league for the sake of marketing. Whether you’re talking about the close refereeing of games, where every bit of contact is whistled, or whether you’re talking about a dress code, the league has sought to curtail or even preclude the possibility of another grand throw down. From the Miami melee involving PJ Brown and the Knicks to the Big Ben-Artest-ed Development, the league has sought to accentuate the positive. The public relations nightmare of large, angry, aggressive black bodies crashing against one another is enough to make a Desperate Housewife wet with desire, but it’s enough to make her husband cancel those season tickets.
Rasheed sees these things for what they are…marketing at the expense of basketball. Basketball used to be like football and baseball, in that when there were conflicts, they were handled on the court…then the refs jumped in. Hockey used to be that way too. Back in the day, pitchers beaned hitters to protect their lineups. Football players clocked the dog-shit out of one another to protect the QB or the star running back. Revenge was exacted between the lines…and faint of heart teams could seek no refuge from the men in striped shirts. If Kurt Rambis was tackled by Kevin McHale, it wasn’t Dick Bavetta’s job to make it right. It was Kareem’s job, and Magic’s job and Worthy’s job and Byron Scott’s job. If that Danny Ainge or Bird had to get jabbed up, so be it.
If Laimbeer or Mahorn got too far out of line, the Bulls usually just cried about it until the refs intervened – and that’s when it all changed. The days of putting a physical player on his ass because you’d had enough were basically done when the refs increased their engagement to protect players like Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant and BJ Armstrong and Steve Kerr and others who wouldn’t protect themselves. Jordan could protect himself and did…he didn’t get migraines. He didn’t need Stacey King or Bill Cartwright or Bill Wennington to rush to his defense. And no great players before Jordan could ever expect the assistance of referees to clear a path to the lane. Everyone else was hammered en route to the rack…that’s what made the NBA worth watching. It was a test of wills.
Now ‘Sheed may have been a UNC grad, and he may worship the ground that Jordan walks on (can’t say), but all the grace accorded to the Bulls didn’t do him one bit of good. You see, the referees over time increasing took the power of game policing away from players…and they did this in two ways: first, by having inferior referees oversee games during an era of expansion and mediocrity. Mark Cuban has hit on this before. And the evidence of the impact here is this: Bruce Bowen.
Bowen is the type of player who, had he played before the astral ascent of Michael Jordan would have had his ass kicked on a regular. How do I know this? Because players just like that routinely got that ass smacked in the years before 1991. Players like Danny Ainge, Bill Laimbeer and others were kicked, punched and grilled for doing stoopid shit. Remember when Robert Parish popped Laimbeer in the nose for being a byatch?!!? No foul, right. Damn right, it was revenge between the lines. Nowadays, no one lays Bowen out. Nope. Vince Carter leans his head against Bowen like he wants to snuggle (and the Nets wonder why Vinsanity is ring-less; shiiiit, I don’t). Ray Allen complains in the press. Back in the day, someone like Micheal Ray Richardson or Rickey Sobers or Ricky Pierce would had straight whupped Bowen’s ass on the court, in front of Duncan, Popovich, Stern and his mama – and the shit would’ve been too bad because if Duncan or someone else tried to get in the way, Bob Lanier or Maurice Lucas would put the fear of god in that ass – end of story. Instead, Bowen runs a muck…Amare goes to the press; Nash loses his mind and his team is out – all for the want of a devastating screen that draws blood and starts beef.
In those post-Jordan transition years, there were only a few teams capable of winning a championship – but the temperature in the league went up to 212 kelvin. The league either didn’t notice or didn’t care because the Knicks were competitive, the Heat were on the rise, and the Lakers were the brightest lights in the universe. They beat a one-dimensional Nets team, a one-dimensional Sixers team and a one-dimensional Pacers team. Good for you if you remember the order. Fights broke out all over the place. New refs, more refs, mediocre refs…busted ass teams; retread coaches and weak benches. It was ugly (but is was beautiful)…and then came the final nail in the coffin…
“The Bullshit Call.” Everywhere you go, if you’re a lip-reader, you’ll hear players complain about “the bullshit call.” Rasheed said it last night. What is “a bullshit call?” It’s when one of a few things happen:
- a ref makes a call based on what he thinks you must do (based on his experience and the physics of the play);
- a ref makes a call but is out of position and a better positioned referee makes no call;
- a ref calls a minor infraction which has no bearing on the play; or
- all of the above.
Now, if you’ve played ball in the street, you know any one of these things (in games without refs, where players call their own fouls) can lead to fights. In street ball, one of the first rules is that if you’re not actually involved in the play, “be quiet.” A second rule, which actually precedes the first, is “no harm, no foul…play on.” These rules are essential to the game because basketball is a rhythm game…it is all about flow and harmonics…about the synchronicity of five as one. Basketball is not about size or speed or quickness or any of that…it is really about flow – and playing great basketball means working in harmony with teammates. That doesn’t simply mean passing the ball all the time. Sometimes it means rebounding or great team defense. Sometimes it means taking over and having your teammates feed you the rock in the right place at the right time. Sometimes it means setting a devastating pick that rattles teeth and starts beef. It’s different from play to play and game to game. That’s why basketball is attractive to the 10-year old white kid in Indiana, the 22-year Black kid in Harlem, the 65-year old Jewish cat in Long Island and the 14-year old upstart in China and Serbia. In this respect, basketball has a great deal in common with hockey and futbol. Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm.
So, officials (at the behest of the league) made significant inroads to seize the rhythm of the game – and this killed the game, for a time. The league, though, realized the error of their ways and introduced new rules to accelerate the pace of the game and improve the flow…but that old vestige of the bullshit call remains – and it is the source of most of the tension in the league. Small, incidental, ticky-tack fouls called on men who are 6’10” tall and 265 pounds amount to micro-managerial insults akin to telling a grown ass man how to dress. Now, a grown ass man with intelligence, a family and a love of community will sharply resent intrusions into his world by micro-managers. We all know that most micro-managers should be lined up before firing squads (as a teaser), then fed to piranhas for lunch. We know this, but we don’t react with the disdain of a Rasheed Wallace.
We know that micro-managers are responsible for most of the great blunders in the world, yet we accept their intrusions because of rules and policy. We abide because of concerns that Rasheed Wallace does not have – like how to feed his family. This man has been to the mountain top in his profession. He has hardware, the respect of his teammates, and his sense of dignity. Not unlike Mark Cuban, he views Stern and his minions (the league office and the refs) as evil-doers, anachronistic parents trying to pull the plug on his Gemini mixer – trying to send everybody home in the middle of Frankie Beverly singing “Before I Let Go.”
In his mind, Stern and the league are all about the whistle, the ticky-tack, the minor infraction, intensified policing, the bullshit call. Remember, the law is for the criminal, not the law-abiding citizen – and believe it or not, Rasheed has been a law-abiding citizen on the court. No cheating, no nonsense, no dirt – just true grit. Somewhere deep inside, or maybe right on the surface, I think he figures, “What’s the point? I might as well jack threes. These refs are calling flops in the post. A man can’t do his thing down there. Why bother. I’ve got my ring – I’m going to the perimeter.” – if not the edge.
Rasheed Wallace is the Big Temperamental, but his temperature may be just right – and the rest of us are ice, ice, baby…too cold, too cold.