By Scoop Jackson
Page 2

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – "Damn!!!

"It's been what, a couple of All-Star games ago?"

I feel like Dave Chappelle when he recognizes me. I hadn't fled to Africa or anything, but I had no idea it had been that long since we'd locked eyes.

"'Bout that," I say, time traveling.

Rasheed Wallace
Rasheed Wallace led Detroit to a championship last season, and it's up to him to lead them to the promised land again.

We dap, we hug.

In the past 15 months since he was traded here, I think I've done four feature stories on him. All saying the same thing: that he's the most valuable player in the League. No one understood. Not even him.

He stays leaned against the wall. Sony headphones in standard post-game position, covering his temples.

"So, what's been up with you?" he asks.

"Tryna stay outta jail." I answer.

"That ain't easy for a black man to do."

We both laugh.

I forgot how much I miss this brotha.

*****

He was supposed to make the guarantee. After Game 3, before Game 4.

But he didn't.

It was like the entire city of Detroit was waiting. The Pistons' backs against the wall, down a game. This was where and when he was supposed to vent after practice on Monday that his team was going to win, without doubt. Security has always come through his voice in these times.

"I guarantee we will win Game ... "

That's the way it's been since he got here, whenever the Pistons needed to get lifted.

But this time ... nothing. Terminator X.

He kept it low. Let his Air Force 1s do the talking.

Maybe he wanted to see what the team would do without a guarantee. Maybe he was saving it in case, at the end of the night, the series was 3-1. Maybe he was just tired of being the one who has to ignite the unnecessary extra pressure that makes his team play better. Maybe he's waiting for Game 7.

I don't know. I didn't ask him.

Instead, he holds up the wall preaching another gospel. This one, Shaquille 32:1-4.

"Dog I'm tired, I ain't gonna lie," he says, so off-the-record that this shouldn't be posted. "Guarding that dude is ... "

He doesn't use words to explain. At 6-foot-10, 240, there are no words to explain.

"After I leave here, I'm going straight to the crib and straight to bed."

I could see it in his eyes. The battle is won, but he's still in a war.

Before the game, all over Detroit radio, all inside the Palace, everyone is wondering who to put it on. The blame. It had to be placed on one of them. Coach Brown for the extracurricular drama that the Cavs have created. The Body (Ben Wallace) for having only seven rebounds in the last game. Tayshaun for not being Tayshaun. Dan Crawford, Joe Forte and Greg Willard, the Game 3 refs, for the 54 foul shots they allowed the Heat to take.

Who?

In the end, all eyes landed on him. Sheed. So when he opened the second quarter with seven straight points – including a 3, a breakaway dunk and a possession-changing rebound – it was all but known that who you put it on is a much different issue than whose responsibility it is.

That's why the guarantee was needed. It's his responsibility.

*****

It's never been easy to be a Rasheed Wallace fan. At times, he's made it more difficult than it needs to be.

Last year, I can't lie, I got caught up. When the trade went down and he grew his beard, stopped shaving to get into playoff mode, I did the same. My wife hated it. But I became Sheed. In Sheed mode. I'm a 40-year-old man. No one understood.

But to understand those who love him, you have to understand the theory of ryde or die. No one in basketball typifies that motto more than him.

But do the Pistons get that chip without him being him last year? Will they get it without him being him this year? Therefore ... MVP.

He's been called everything from an enigma to a case study. Most media use him as the symbol of what's wrong with the American athlete, especially the African-American ones.

Rasheed Wallace & Shaquille O'Neal
It can be downright exhausting to deal with Shaq over a seven-game series.

If it weren't for Kobe, Rasheed might be the most hated (and misunderstood) basketball player collecting a seven-figure check.

Even Mitch Albom called out his paradox.

"It's not enough for you to play half a game," he wrote in his Tuesday column. "Not enough to be a highlight here or there. You are a dominant player. You need to be one all game long. Stop shooting those 3-pointers and get in the middle and mix it up. Otherwise, that belt you carry will be wrapped around Shaq's waist."

Ryde or die?

Detroit rode last night. The whole city, the whole team. And were willing to die with him if they had to.

He played only 22 minutes in a game where they needed him on the floor for more than 40. But in that short period of time, he dropped 20. Seven more than the game before, when his (and Chauncey Billups') "behavior" was said to cause the Game 3 loss.

He did what he was supposed to do. Spoke loud, said nothing. Willed his team to even the series. Now read the papers today, watch "SportsCenter," see who they give the credit to for this victory. Then overstand that they are right, but they still missed it. Hating someone can blind most people from acknowledging the truth. Truth that the brotha with the most segregated fan base in the NBA is the DNA of the world champs ... it's not an easy pill to swallow. Last year, he was simply the difference. This year, he's the reason.

Which is why he leans on the wall, in his flip-flops, outside of the green room in the Palace where Magic Johnson's mom has cooked barbecue for damn near everyone. Trying to get this hour-old victory out of his head and on to the next one.

"Can you will two more?" I want to ask. But I can see it in his face. He'll have no answer, no guarantee.

He has only one more day of rest before he has to face the Wrath again. And this time, on the road, he has to play more than two quarters.

Because as well as Rip has played and as unbelievable as Ben was on the boards and as effective as Chauncey was at controlling the game, this team survives with how well Rasheed balls.

And he knows this. As does the team. As does the coach. As does Miami.

This column was supposed to be an open letter to Detroit Piston fans. Instead, I opened it up to him. He with whom this city is dying to ryde.

"That's why I give you love," I say to him, subliminally trying to Jedi him into understanding my MVP ideology last year. "Most cats in the league run away from what you're running towards."

He looks at me, trying to make sense of my words.

"Dog," I say, "It takes a man to even take on the responsibility to guard Shaq."

"It takes more than one," he says, fully understanding.

It takes a team.

He adjusts his headphones.

"That's why I'm taking my black --- home."

We dap, we hug.

Then he mumbles to me, and sorta to himself: "'Cause I gotta do this again in two more days."

Damn.

Scoop Jackson is an award-winning journalist who has covered sports and culture for more than 15 years. He is a former editor of Slam, XXL, Hoop and Inside Stuff magazines and the author of "Sole Provider: 30 Years of NIKE Basketball," "Battlegrounds: America's Street Poets Called Ballers" and "LeBron James: the Chambers of Fear." He resides in Chicago with his wife and two kids. You can e-mail Scoop here.



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