- Ric Bucher, NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer
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Rasheed Wallace is free. He can get up in the morning and kiss his wife, play with his three sons or drive to a Portland radio station to host his Saturday night hip-hop show. Later, he can cruise to the Rose Garden to get in some NBA-style exercise. He can do all that, thanks to the Blazers' continuing CTC efficiency, knowing $17 million will come to him by season's end, rounding out an $80 million payoff over six years. No one is going to pay him anything like that again, but unless something dramatic happens between now and August, he's sure to find another team with CTC (Rasheed's shorthand for "cut the check") abilities that will let him continue his career next season.
Eddie Griffin, conversely, is not free. No one other than his immediate circle knows where he is, but it has been reported that he was admitted into a Houston hospital for unspecified treatment since a preseason incident at his home that has since resulted in felony charges being filed against him. His NBA career is in jeopardy, since the Rockets opted not to extend the three-year, $9,422,965 contract he signed as the No. 7 pick. A near $9.5 million starter's kit no doubt sounds like a life's worth of financial stability to the average Joe, but said Joe isn't expected to keep up NBA appearances or take care of extended family and friends in perpetuity. Said Joe also isn't getting that bankroll as a early 20-something, when EF Hutton is little more than a cute commercial. I don't know about you, but fiscal prudence for me in my 20s was hitting dollar-draft night or returning the keg on time.
So why, if forced to choose between 'Sheed's or Eddie's life, would I roll the dice with the 20-year-old's bleak prospects? It has to do with hope. Eddie still has one.
For anyone who already filed away Wallace as a lost cause, my apologies. I've always had high regard for 'Sheed's combination of being able to run the floor, hold his spot in the post, shoot with range, defend both bigs and smalls and get teammates open shots. I saw someone who punished Kevin Garnett inside, took Tim Duncan outside, outmuscled Chris Webber and reminded Jermaine O'Neal who raised him. Debate all you want about who the best power forward in the game is. I always knew who it should be.
Having seen Wallace with his family and teammates, I figured one day that generous, somewhat shy guy would consume the crazy-eyed dude collecting technicals and losing focus. One day, I thought, he'll realize what he has and that time doesn't stand still and make the most of it.
It's hard to envision that day now. A guy saying he just cares about getting paid is a long way from the 'Sheed who wore practice shorts under his jeans just in case he saw a pick-up game. The CTC 'Sheed isn't the same one who told me, "Real ballers don't golf," when I asked if he'd ever swung a club.
It's not that he doesn't still have all that talent and versatility. He continues to put together nice-looking boxscore lines without breaking a sweat. It's how irrelevant he has become, on every front. He's 29, in what should be the prime of his career. Instead, his last All-Star appearance is two years behind him and his days as a go-to guy at crunchtime are over. His 7.7 rebounds are misleading because he's also averaging 40-plus minutes and anything less than a rebound every four minutes is sub-par for a power forward. He's also only shooting a free throw every 10 minutes, which diminishes the value of his 17.8 scoring average.
The Blazers, of course, know all this. They have a team of bad acts and no leadership, reflected by their winless road record and horrendous defense, which are usually the earmarks of young, inexperienced squads. They have wasted no time in trumpeting that Zach Randolph is their best player, their go-to guy and lone franchise cornerstone. Meanwhile, 'Sheed has been in several trade scenarios -- all of them legit -- and the Blazers are open to letting him walk this summer if they can't deal him.
Wallace doesn't even register with the referees anymore. In a game last week against the Rockets, he chewed on the officials, particularly Bill Kennedy, the entire night. They listened, partly amused and partly puzzled, and didn't even bother to T him. When Wallace went off inexplicably in a previous game, cameras caught a player on the opposing bench glancing at a teammate and either holding an imaginary joint to his lips or playing the world's smallest kazoo.
Even his beloved attachment to all things Philly has lost some of its luster. Qyntel Woods taunted Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley during the final minutes of the Rockets' loss, prompting Mobley to go looking for Woods after the final horn. Wallace bearhugged Mobley from behind and kept whispering in his ear, "It's me, Cat! It's me!" as Mobley struggled to break free. With Wallace and Mobley both being from Philadelphia, Wallace played the homeboy card. Mobley could have cared less, insisting Wallace get off him and refusing to acknowledge 'Sheed even as he walked off the court.
Later, in the Blazers' locker room, Ruben Patterson cackled when Rasheed swept by a camera crew. "You should know better than to try to interview him," Patterson said. Wallace paused at the locker room door and, before walking out, shouted angrily, "No one (expletive) asked you, Ruben!"
Patterson smiled and continued getting dressed.
And that's just it -- no one really cares anymore what Rasheed does. He can squander his talent however he chooses. He can shoot 3s whenever the mood strikes him. He can loaf on D or pick up costly fouls. He's already had his share of off-the-court scrapes, but nothing his bankroll couldn't resolve.
Griffin, though, has no such luxury -- or bankroll. If he wants to regain his freedom, much less resume his career, he's apparently going to have to make some changes. The good part is he has both legal and economic daggers at his back as motivation and he's only 20. He may never match 'Sheed's All-Star appearances or max contract, but he has something that Wallace doesn't -- a chance still to overcome his difficulties, rather than be marginalized by them.
Some guys just have all the luck.
48mMichael C. Wright