The Rarity of Rasheed

Questions, questions. There always have been questions for Rasheed Wallace. When Sports Illustrated came calling at 14 years old, Wallace probably had a pretty good indication it would be difficult to hide from all those questions for the next, oh, 20-30 years.

When The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News began a college-choice vigil on the lanky 6-10 center from the City of Brotherly Love when he was 15, he probably knew he could throw normalcy out the window.

And when the Inquirer magazine ran a Wilt-Chamberlain-sized article about his daily life at 16 — Who’s your Algebra teacher, Rasheed? What do you talk to your girlfriend about, Rasheed? How are your grades, Rasheed? — well, let’s just say it’s enough to drive a man to silence.

So if you have a question for media-tested Wallace these days, he will answer it for you on the court. Because that’s about the only place you can be sure to find him eventually.

For Wallace, home is where the ball bounces. Literally. Growing up on West Tulpehocken Street in Philly, Wallace’s bedroom in apartment 3F was a basketball court sans referees, complete with foul lines drawn on the floor. A poster of Patrick Ewing looked on as he honed the natural talent that prompted observers to label him the best thing to come out of Philadelphia since cream cheese and Chamberlain himself.

“The basketball just takes care of itself with him,” said Wallace’s coach at Simon Gratz High, Bill Ellerbee, who saw Wallace help Gratz to a city championship at 14 and a top national ranking his senior year. “Rasheed is a great basketball player, and he’ll become even more fundamentally sound under Dean Smith. And he’ll be even more so when he moves on to the next level.”


More anecdotes from the Friends of Rasheed Club:

Whenever Shelley Henderson of Gratz answers a call from a Chapel Hillian looking for The Man Who Coached Wallace, the first thing she says is, “Oh, how’s Rasheed?” And then she proudly identifies herself: “I was his SAT coach. Thank God for me, huh?”

Although it is true Wallace struggled to make the minimum 700 required to enroll in school, it is a misconception that he never worked hard in a high school classroom. His mother, Jackie, saw to it that her youngest son had interests beyond athletics, also advising him that anyone who is worthwhile can build things with his hands as well as with his mind. He was never great academically, but never too bad either. He was, like most of us, just average. And while we’re on the subject of misconceptions, Philadelphia Inquirer photographer Ron Cortes has one to clear up about Wallace. Cortes, who spent a great deal of time around Wallace, said he wasn’t always so brash.

“He was always really quiet in high school,” Cortes recalls. “He would just go out and play his games and keep to himself on the bus. As soon as he started to get that attention in high school, he was a little more vocal. He’d question the refs, etcetera, like he does now, but he didn’t do it until he was a senior. He was really quiet at first.”

No more.

A sample conversation from the higher elevations of the Dean Dome:

“You know Coach likes this guy,” Fan X says to Fan Y. “Hmmm … what is that, satisfaction on Dean’s face? Yes, yes, I believe it is. Can’t really tell from all the way up here, though. What’s that? Another blocked shot? Not bad. Reverse stuff? He could knitted a sweater from the twine on that one, his hand was so far into the net.

“What did you say? Wait a minute. You’re telling me Rasheed roared,actually threw his broad shoulders behind his lithe frame, spread his arms wide and roared into the Dome rafters when he was introduced at Midnight Madness? Well, I bet Coach Smith had a few things to say … Dean what? All he did was smile? You’re kidding?

“You’re not? kidding?

“I don’t think you can do that in an argyled uniform. Somebody get the NCAA rulebook. Yeah, see, right here. Page 30. ‘Thou shalt not roar in Carolina Blue.’

“I guess there must’ve been an amendment last season.”

Call it Amendment No. 30. Wallace has more court personality than a homecoming queen after a six-pack of Jolt cola. The proof is in the comparisons. Perhaps you’ve seen some of Rasheed’s center-playing counterparts lumbering down to the basket. Big feet, big steps, big landings. Wallace, he’s more of a skipper. Skips backwards up the floor after an alley-oop. Skips into the basketball office. Skips to the scorer’s table for a substitution. A bundle of energy. Make that a bundle of energy with soft hands, a sweet shooting touch and a rather sizeable shot-blocking swat.

Like a ship’s flag in the breeze, his jersey flaps in a roll of useless material around his narrow waist, where his shorts hang only as an afterthought. That jersey just doesn’t want to stay in. And neither do Rasheed’s emotions. His vocalizations — after dunks, between dunks, before dunks — are becoming the stuff of fame in Chapel Hill.

And if, per chance, he does miss an interview, there’s one little element that would make even the saltiest of reporters forget about deadlines.

It’s the smile. Infectious. Wider than the collective keys on a baby grand. Except he plays his pearlies better than Beethoven tickled the ivories. He takes the microphone from the local television guy at media day and perches next to teammate Jerry Stackhouse. “So Mr. Stackhouse,” he begins, grinning with mischief, “how do you feel about the season? Oh yeah? You’re a fine young man, Mr. Stackhouse. You’re going to go far.”

Oh yes, he is having fun. Just ask Ellerbee. “Oh yeah, he loves it down there. He gloats about how great it is.”

Well, Carolina basketball is sort of fond of Wallace, too. Just witness the Tar Heel coaches on the sideline, twisting into contortions when Wallace is all alone under the basket. Without a ball. One thing you don’t want, it’s Wallace under the basket without a ball.

“There’s Rahsh! There’s Rahsh!” Phil Ford and Dave Hanners scream in unison as Jeff McInnis passes off to another Carolina player on the right wing.

Shot, miss.
Same possession: “There’s Rahsh again! Jeff!” Yep, he’s under the basket. Looking a little lonely.

Oh no, not again.

“There’s Rahsh!!!” Finally, McInnis to Wallace, the man-child. Under the basket. It’s another slam, another roar.

Ho hum.

So it goes for Rasheed Wallace — “Rahsh” if you’re a coach, “Rah” if you’re a player. “The ‘Sheed” if you’re with the media. And if you’re a fan up in the nosebleeds, just plain “Wow” will suffice.

Historically, of course, centers haven’t drawn as many “Wows” from the Smith Center as they have simple “Good Shots.” And that’s why some basketball pundits scoffed at the idea of Wallace on the court in an Alexander Julian uniform, saying he had a little too much personality for the Carolina system.

One article called fellow UNC recruit Stackhouse a playmaker; but Rasheed, it read, was a program-maker. Since Smith has had that program thing covered for 30 years now, that assessment may be a trifle inflated.

But what Rasheed may indeed be is a program-changer.

To find out why he could be the future of Tar Heel basketball, you have to study the past. The 1993 national championship team is remembered as the crystallization of all that was right with the Carolina program. But in 1994, a season filled with expectations, the memorable images changed. They turned from Henrik Rodl and Travis Stephenson and Scott Cherry doubled-over and holding hands on the bench — their chins nearly restingon their knees and their eyes focused on a common purpose — to an assembly line of veteran and newcomer substitutions who barely looked one another in the eye. This curious mix of old and new was like adding Pepsi to corn flakes. Some fizzle, but not enough pop.

What Wallace’s lightening-quick slams and bouncing-ball enthusiasm mean to a 1995 Carolina squad purged of the Old Guard and filled with new blood is pop. And a lot of it.

“He’s very emotional.” Ellerbee says. “I don’t know if they’re used to that from a Dean Smith player, but it could be that it’s just the shot of adrenaline everyone needs. He’s a lot different from what you folks are used to down there.”

Roaring aside, you get the feeling that Wallace the college sophomore has finally found the measure of peace that has been lacking in his life ever since he realized as a 6-8 high school freshman that his knees weren’t just aching from the grind of the game. Back then, each new hundredth of an inch he grew brought a dozen new calls from college recruiters. But the days of opening up the Wallace’s Germantown-apartment phone lines to prospective coaches every Sunday night are over. He is past the questions about a college choice, about SAT scores, about playing time and freshman usurpations in the Carolina system. He’s answered the questions about Boston College. And the NBA? Forget about it. Rasheed already made it clear earlier this year that he’s not going anywhere in June.

What that leaves is a little something called freedom – a quality he’s learning to share with those shorts that slip from his slender hips. The only place Rasheed Wallace has to show up these days is practice, games and classes. So maybe, just maybe, he has more time now to be the child the constant media barrage in Philadelphia — the city where freedom was born — never truly allowed him to be. Maybe he’s at the student union, playing video games. And maybe, finally, there are no more questions to answer off the court.

Well, almost none …

“Hey Rasheed, will you sign this?” a boy squeaks in the chilled Chapel Hill twilight.

“Sure,” he mumbles, scribbling his future million-dollar scribble. And then, faintly smiling, the 6-10 child from Philly walks into the Smith Center parking lot, leaving behind all the pundits and broadcasters and newspapermen to consult one last source for a quote.

BEEP! “ThisIsRasheed.I’mNotInRightNowButIfYouLeaveAMessageI’llCallYouBack.


No further questions.

Copyright 1994 UNC Athletic Department

Published in Carolina, the UNC basketball gameday magazine, December 1994. (Sophomore year)

This article also appears on the Rasheed Wallace fan website Elevatorman.