- Frank Hughes
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As much as I love conspiracies, I'm not saying it's a conspiracy. What I am saying, however, is that human nature often appears to be somewhat conspiratorial.
And so when Detroit Pistons forward Rasheed Wallace is on the bench for almost all of the first halves of the first two games of the NBA Finals, I am not suggesting that the league's referees gathered in a room somewhere and collectively agreed, "Let's Get Rasheed."
But after all the grief Rasheed has caused the officials during his career, it is not too much of a stretch to say the officials aren't going out of their way to give Rasheed a break in what is the biggest series of his career.
It's only natural for men to be vengeful in such an instance. While officials are supposed to be impartial and unbiased, it would be considered abnormal if they did not hold some sort of grudge against a player who publicly admitted his strong dislike for them.
I am not defending Rasheed. I am not chastising the officials. But ye reaps what ye sows, and 'Sheed has sown a whole field of antagonism over the years.
At least in the early stages of the NBA Finals, it has cost him dearly.
One of the NBA's most difficult jobs is to make a fair call on a play involving Shaquille O'Neal. His mammoth body makes it virtually impossible to accurately determine whether he is being fouled or whether he is administering a great deal of punishment to the unfortunate player guarding him. Mark Madsen ate Shaq's elbow several times in the conference finals, and yet Madsen was called for fouling the elbow with his now-loose upper tooth, apparently.
Having said that, the early fouls called on Rasheed seem awfully ticky-tack to me. The first two fouls in Game 1 were reach-ins on Shaq, like a gnat grazing against a rhinoceros, and yet the officials sent Rasheed to the bench before he could even break into a frothy sweat and get his best pots of vitriolic soup boiling.
Rasheed stayed around a little longer in Game 2. But when he picked up his second foul, on Karl Malone, with 3:07 left in the first quarter, it meant Wallace had played all of 17 minutes in the first halves of the first two games because Larry Brown chose to sit him the entire second quarter of each game.
It's funny, because we have not heard a great deal about Wallace's volatile personality the past couple years, ever since he seemingly had as many T's in a game as he did points.
But there are two things to point out: First, officials have long memories, and don't think every one of them doesn't remember Wallace threatening an official on the back loading dock of the Rose Garden.
Secondly, while Wallace may have toned down his act some, he certainly has not stopped altogether. He still glares. He still curses. And he still doesn't give the officials much reason to like or respect him.
In the second half of Game 2, after 'Sheed had fouled Malone and Malone had missed the first free throw, Wallace could be heard yelling at an official, "The ball never lies. The ball never lies."
What that means, given Kobe Bryant's incredible shot at the end of regulation, I don't know. But it is just a stupid, playground thing for Wallace to say to an official. If there is one thing refs -- or anybody, for that matter -- don't like, it's to be shown up, particularly on national television during the sport's biggest showcase. Interestingly, when Wallace was asked about the officiating after the loss, he virtually ignored the question.
"I'm just out there playing," he said. "I could care less about how they call it."
Which clearly is not true. He cares very much. Or else he wouldn't go into his I-hate-the-refs schtick every time a call is made against his team during a game.
His coach, however, came to Rasheed's defense.
"I don't understand," Larry Brown said. "We throw the ball inside to Rasheed, and he goes to the line one time and he's out of every game early."
Larry? C'mon now. You don't understand? All you have to do is look at the guy's history to gain a considerable understanding of why he is being relegated to a $17 million cheerleader.
It's called tit for tat. It's as if the refs are saying, "Rasheed, remember that time you told me to go do something physically impossible with myself? Bam, take that foul." Or, "remember that time you called my mother the daughter of an Indonesian sewer rat? Bam, have a taste of your second foul and go take a seat.
"Oh yeah, and leave my mother, and Indonesia, out of it."
I know, I know, Brown is pulling one of the oldest coaching tricks and calling attention to a perceived injustice, hoping that it will partially solve the issue.
The problem is, technically speaking, Rasheed probably is committing fouls, which the officials can always point out to anybody accusing them of inaccurate game-calling.
Of course, technically speaking, a pipe bomb and an atomic bomb are both bombs, though they have drastically different effects.
For Rasheed, though, there is no difference -- and no benefit of the doubt.
Frank Hughes, who covers the NBA for the Tacoma (Wash.) News-Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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