- Eric Adelson, ESPN The Magazine
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LISTENS TO HIS HEAD
Coach Sheed. Say it out loud: Pistons head coach Rasheed Wallace. Imagine him pacing the sideline, snarling behind the salt-and-pepper beard. Maybe he's loosened his tie or taken off his sport coat, the trademark headband long gone. There's Coach Sheed teaching rooks to read picks, defend bigger men, clog passing lanes. He's as hands-on with his players as he is with his summer campers, and he's always mentored them one-on-one.
It was during a game against the Jazz earlier this season in which a vision of the power forward, injured and wearing a blazer on the bench, first got GM Joe Dumars to wonder: How would Wallace be as a coach? Dumars has since gone so far as to suggest to the big man that he stay with the team and grab a whistle after he retires.
Coach Sheed. Give it a minute before you think your world has been turned upside down.
"He is bright and insightful," says Dumars. "He'll lead the league in techs, but he also knows where everyone is supposed to be at all times." Says coach Flip Saunders: "He has all the makings of a great coach. He sees things before they happen." Bill Guthridge, who was an assistant at North Carolina when Wallace came through, sees it too. "He absorbed everything. He'd be listening even if what was said wasn't directed at him. He had great savvy—almost a point guard savvy." Even an opposing coach, Stan Van Gundy, agrees. "He's extremely smart, ahead of every play. He doesn't miss helps or rotations. He knows when it's time to shoot and time to pass. I've never understood why he isn't a perennial All-Star."
Wallace is not a perennial All-Star because he's a perennial pain in the eyes of NBA suits and refs. But just watch the man play. His outlet passes—arms extended overhead—are straight out of an instruction manual. His picks are perfect, feet planted wide and parallel every time. And considering one of his responsibilities is to guard the league's best bigs, he rarely gets into foul trouble (personal foul trouble, anyway). He has always absorbed nuance quickly. "We were working on a press-breaker," recalls Bill Ellerbee, Sheed's coach at Philadelphia's Simon Gratz High. "I told him to let the guards use him as a light post. I never had to tell him again."
More recently, Wallace, 33, mentored two of the quietest people he's ever met—former teammate Ben Wallace and current teammate Amir Johnson—in the extroverted art of court communication. "He teaches me," says Johnson. "You gotta see the floor, gotta be the guy who talks." Nobody (including Saunders) is louder on the bench than Wallace, whether he's calling picks or telling forward Jason Maxiell to stand "straight up" or assuring Rip Hamilton that his move to the basket will work "all day."
Years ago, on his campus visit to North Carolina, Wallace didn't ask for directions to the best diner or the top sorority. He wanted to meet Chuck Stone, the Tuskegee Airman who helped found and was the first president of the National Association of Black Journalists, and who wrote hundreds of columns challenging the status quo and taught at Chapel Hill. Wallace's mind has always roamed far beyond the game.
So to answer Dumars' question: How would Wallace be as a coach? Probably pretty good, and possibly even better than he is as a player. Wallace is hyperaware to everything that goes on around him. It's a talent that would pay big dividends for a coach, but it can sometimes work against a player whose primary mission is the execution of a limited bundle of tasks night after night. Saunders, for one, says Wallace is "too smart for his own good."
Chauncey Billups once told Jim Rome that Wallace "is so good he gets bored playing against some guys who aren't up to his level." He was never going to be satisfied leading the block-to-block life of a big man. Although he hardly shot threes in high school or college, Wallace started to take them in Portland—"an experiment," he called it—and that changed his game. Suddenly, he was a threat from anywhere. But it also made him a potential threat to his own team.
These days, that team is a member of the NBA's elite. But it goes into the playoffs with one serious flaw: post play. Detroit has yet to replace the likes of Ben Wallace and Mehmet Okur, and it will not win another title unless someone clears the glass and lifts an offense that is suddenly close to the bottom of the league in points in the paint. That someone is Wallace.
The Pistons have plenty of shooters. And though Sheed considers himself a "shotter" ("a shooter takes shots, a shotter makes shots"), that isn't about to replace a daily diet of 12 boards. "Late in the game," says former Pistons coach Larry Brown, "I'd like to see him on the block more." Dumars agrees, admitting the sight of Wallace with his back to the basket makes him think, Why can't he do that 82 nights a year? Ellerbee says he once warned him never to leave the post. "If I was his coach, I'd demand more. More rebounds, more blocked shots. We need a center, not the other crap." Sheed himself admits, "I wish I would have listened to him."
So maybe the best question is how Wallace would coach himself. Well, he says he'd spot up at the 4 and direct himself to play the post and shoot from the arc. But that's Sheed, the player, talking.
Coach Sheed would surely know better.
FOLLOWS HIS HEART
Now that he's sitting in an opposing locker room, Ben Wallace can speak freely on the subject of Rasheed Wallace. "Did his outbursts bother us?" he repeats, looking up. "Not at all. When he got excited, I got ready. Sometimes the team didn't get started until he got a T." Current teammates, if they were being completely truthful, would have to admit that there were also times when those outbursts signaled the end—like when Sheed stormed off after being ejected in Cleveland from Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals last season. That lack of self-control was tolerated when Rasheed came to Detroit in 2004 as the final piece, but it won't fly now that he's the biggest one. Wallace is the Pistons' emotional generator, with the power to leave the team cold, heat it up or short it out.
You don't have to look too far to see where he gets his spark. Before her youngest son took a shot in the high school gym that today bears his name, Jackie Wallace brought him to the basketball coach at Philly's Simon Gratz High and said: "If he gives you any trouble, punch him." She was a single mom who was too poor to install a shower in her bathroom, but she was plenty rich in her sense of right and wrong. And her brand of justice leads Rasheed like a polestar. "She should have had better," Rasheed says. "Life ain't fair, period." Rasheed's brothers, Mohammed and the late Malcolm, are namesakes of two righteous outcasts who were vilified before they were appreciated. But Rasheed plays as much to that type as either.
Though he has more money than even wealthy people can grasp, Sheed has been seen walking down the street with holes in his sweats—hence the nickname Homeless Harry. And when teammates wear fancy clothes, he has been known to remove the apparel from their lockers, hang them on the dry-erase board, draw an arrow to them and write in mock disgust: "Are you serious?!" He lets his hair grow, getting it cut only when he's back in Philly, by the same barber he has gone to for years. He rarely does commercials. "I could have had the soft drink contract," Wallace says, "but it's not me." He refused to be photographed for this story, saying he'd rather share the spotlight with the team's other stars, and during the 20 minutes he gave for an interview, he hardly made eye contact.
But while he doesn't pamper or pimp himself, he is obsessed with children and charity. Wallace heads back to the old neighborhood in the summer to run a basketball camp, where he buys every kid lunch every day. When the Pistons were recording a holiday greeting of "Jingle Bells" for the JumboTron—a clip that still gets hits on YouTube—Wallace was quick to volunteer. In it, he starts off in the background, dutifully singing the lyrics. But before long, he's shoving teammates aside and moving to the front to yell, "Remix!" before becoming a human beat box for the duration, all the while jutting his head like a turtle on Ritalin: "JINGLE! Buh-Buh-Buh-BELLS!"
If only that Sheed—happy, almost blissful, the way he is during his traditional pregame dance in the huddle—were the only Sheed. Instead, that guy is often wrestled into submission by another who looks hard for conspiracy. When Wallace took his wife to Italy last summer, he prepped her for encounters with racism—"I expected to get treated unfairly"—then found it in the wary looks of store attendants as he browsed the aisles of a boutique. Never mind that what might have been drawing attention was his 6'11" frame or his worldwide fame. Wallace went looking for discrimination, and he found it. Sometimes his paranoia is justified … Wallace was called out for comparing his fellow NBA players to slaves in 2003, but New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden has received praise for his book Forty Million Dollar Slaves, about the same subject.
Wallace has a reputation for speaking his mind—look no further than this season's 11 technicals, a number that puts him among the league's leaders—but he might as well be channeling Jackie's justice. Who else could have inspired his theory that the NBA has "baby dolls" it protects at all costs? "I can take losing," he says. "But don't BS me. Give me a fair shake. We make up this league too." By "we" he means his teammates. Last anyone checked, most of them were former champions, not pariahs.
Most athletes seek praise and recognition; Wallace loathes both. In the 2005 Finals, each player was told to stand on a podium during the pregame intros; Wallace refused to do so before Game 1 and lasted on one for less than a second before Game 2. "Rasheed was totally embarrassed," says Larry Brown. "I had to beg him to do it. I almost had to hold his hand." His reaction to being named to this season's All-Star team was similar, with him displaying almost as much frustration at having to cancel a family trip to the Bahamas as at being forced to confront the possibility that he'd become one of those "baby dolls" he despises.
Fact is, Wallace should be a Hall of Famer, but it's not in him to dominate—to be the once-in-a-generation star his talent supports. Maybe this explains why he lingers on the perimeter instead of being more of a force down low. He's always been more comfortable on the outside looking in.
The Pistons coach on the floor can outsmart anyone in the NBA. Including himself.