Hurts So Good

If the Detroit Pistons’ talented forward Rasheed Wallace ’97 is such a heel, why is he the basketball valentine of so many Carolina alumni? The fans, the sportswriters and one infamous list explain why love doesn’t always feel like it should.

You can have your Joe Namaths, if you want to be obvious, if you want some good old-fashioned, Brady-Bunch-approved chutzpah, the kind of boasting you can see coming from a mile away. If you want a drama queen, you can have the guy who promises a win in the Super Bowl. In the Olympic 100-meter dash. In Game 7 of the World Series. Go ahead. Pick your favorite glory hound.

Me? No thanks. I’ve got my eye on somebody else. Somebody less predictable. He’s standing over there in that corner of my brain that summons what I know I’m not supposed to love – like a boy with a fast car and a late curfew – with the kind of nasty attitude and inked skin that doesn’t exactly spell e-n-d-o-r-s-e-m-e-n-t-s, giving me that come-hither scowl. From the moment he reared back his head and roared into my life at Midnight Madness in the fall of 1993, he has promised me something different from all the rest: the Montrosses and the Lynches, the Jamisons, and yes, even Vince and Stack.

He promised that Carolina would never lose to Duke on the Blue Devils’ home court while he was a Tar Heel – for all two seasons that he was a Tar Heel before he left for the NBA draft in 1995.

I know this last assertion because of The List.

It started innocently enough. A handful of Carolina students, suffering from the withdrawal that only an unsuccessful Final Four season can bring, started an e-mail conversation during final exam week in spring 1997. Yes, Antawn Jamison would be national player of the year the following season, and Vince Carter was Michael Jordan’s second-coming, but a hole the size of Serge Zwikker’s head had opened up in their hearts, the kind that only comes from having the one you love leave you too soon.

Their antidote? To ask the question: Why do you love Rasheed Wallace? The answers – some true, some “the stuff of legend,” as the list’s preamble cautions – streamed out like an unauthorized biography.

Reason No 1: “Got thrown out of the McDonald’s (high school) All-American game.”

Reason No. 2: “Allegedly made prophecy after the Cameron game in 1994 to (Duke’s Eric) Meek that “As long as me, Touche (Jeff McInnis) and Jerry (Stackhouse) are here, we ain’t ever losing here.”

And so on. There are 98-plus more of these, a compilation known as the “100 Reasons We Love Rasheed Wallace,” which now lives on a Web site operated by a group of Carolina alumni that calls itself Team Elevatorman.

I ended up on the list when word reached Team Elevatorman that Wallace, as a sophomore, had refused to talk with me during my senior year at UNC for a friendly and rather compulsory game-program profile – despite my having his home number and the benefit of an Athletics Department official’s note reminding him of our scheduled meeting. (No. 6: “Reporter had to go to the student union arcade to try to find him to do an interview because that’s where he always was, playing NBA Jam or Mortal Kombat II.”)

As a measure of its respect for its idol, the identities of Team Elevatorman itself are as elusive as Wallace. Only one of its founding members, Michael Wintrob ’97, would discuss the list, which has such an underground following that it received a mention in a November 2000 issue of ESPN the Magazine.

During Wallace’s years at Carolina, the list’s authors assembled a loose network of eyes and ears across campus and at games dedicated to charting his progress as both basketball player and human being. You, too, may be on there, if you fit the description in reason No. 32: “In his first few weeks as a freshman at UNC, he walked up to a student in the Granville cafeteria and ask(ed) that student if he would please fill up his glass of Coke. It should be noted that Ra was within a few steps of the Coca-Cola machine when he asked the question.”

Clearly, the love for Wallace isn’t all about basketball. Some entries are about the plumbing accoutrements found in a tour of Rasheed’s home on MTV (he has a urinal in his house), and many others are about his childlike forms of rebellion (Reason No. 39: “As a freshman, made Jerry late for an interview in his Granville room because he wanted to go to KFC.”)

But all of them serve to remind us that the face of fandom is changing – at Carolina, and everywhere else.

The 6-foot-11 Wallace is a two-time NBA all-star and is widely lauded as the reason the Piston’s won the NBA championship last summer – his trade from the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2004 spurred Detroit emotionally and completed it athletically. He earns raves as a teammate. No one would argue he isn’t a gifted player.

But Wallace’s rap sheet is as long as his wingspan: arrests for marijuana possession and misdemeanor assault, suspensions for threatening referees, an NBA-record 41 technical fouls in one season, and, of course, fines for being uncooperative with the media. After seven and a half turbulent seasons in Portland, management finally dealt him.

In many ways, then, he’s not what people have come to expect from a Dean Smith-coached player. Wallace himself admits he attracts as much vitriol as he does admiration. He’s been called a “bad boy,” a “Jailblazer” and a “cancerous lesion” on the league by his detractors.

His supporters say he’s misquoted, misunderstood, a marvel – and possibly the greatest basketball player Carolina has ever produced.

So do you dare to love Rasheed Wallace? And if you don’t, should you?

Reason No. 57: “Said, ‘I don’t know of any law that says you can’t have fun on the court if you play for Carolina.’ “

Some observers say that when Wallace set foot on campus, he promised UNC fans much more than never to lose to Duke; in some ways, he unwittingly promised to shake up the Carolina basketball environment.

First, with his size and agility. Dave Hanners ’76, now an assistant coach with the Pistons, was one of the first people from the UNC basketball office to see Wallace play on campus as a freshman. Hanners, who served on Smith’s staff from 1989 to 2000, was an administrator at the time and could sit in on preseason workouts with players, as long as he didn’t provide any information to the coaches.

“I remember walking into Coach Smith’s office later and saying, ‘I’m not allowed to tell you what I saw, but I did see the leading scorer and rebounder in school history down in the gym.’ ” Hanners recalled. “He thought James Worthy or someone was visiting. I said, ‘No, he’s a freshman, a big guy from Philadelphia.’ And I walked back to my office.”

In his two short collegiate years, Wallace, at 63.5 percent, did become the school’s and the ACC’s all-time leader in field-goal percentage, a mark later surpassed by Brendan Haywood ’01.

“He’s probably the most complete basketball player I’ve ever been around,” Hanners added. “He can pass, he can dribble, he can shoot, he can run, he can rebound, he can block shots and he’s got great length, which is very important in today’s game. He has the speed and agility of a guard, and all the qualities of a big man.”

And a big personality. What younger fans think of first with Wallace is his screams after dunks, his screams after plays, his screams while running down the court. At UNC, he played with an intensity that caught fire with fans who were just starting high school at the time.

“I think he’s the most entertaining Carolina player of the last 20 years,” said Benji Cauthren ’03. “People have this image of Carolina as being a smug program – Dean Smith’s goody-goodies, who always got all of the favorable media attention and did everything right. And Rasheed came in and broke the mold.”

The way he broke the mold, at times, was to showboat on the rims or spar with opposing players, as in the 1995 Southeast Regional against Kentucky, which, (as No. 92 on the list notes), was the last technical foul he received as a Tar Heel. Contemporaries of Walter Davis ’77 may not find that fact appealing, but younger Tar Heels are more than willing to overlook – sometimes even applaud – such animation.

“I can see where it’s easy to dislike him with some of the things he’s said and done over the years,” said Russell Eriksen ’03. Then he added, with glee, “But, when he played Duke, he was also putting up double-doubles on them every time. Where North Carolina basketball has been in the last couple of years, I’d like us to get to that point again where we have players like Rasheed with that kind of confidence to take care of business.”

Many among the newest generation of UNC fans believe that Wallace’s mystique has had more than a transitory effect in Chapel Hill. From putting up student risers behind the basket to Matt Doherty’s short-but-fiery stay as head coach at Carolina, The Listed One, they say, is still inspiring a desire among fans for more swagger on the Hill.

“[Rasheed] changed a lot of Carolina fans’ minds about how excited players can be on the court,” Eriksen said, “and how it really does draw people in to watch the team and care about them.”

Reason No. 21: “Attempted to brawl with former NBA teammate Chris Webber … in a pre-season game.”

Fans are not completely blinded by Wallace’s charm; loving him isn’t always a walk in the park. In 1997, he was widely applauded for searching for, and being reunited with, his infant son, whom an ex-girlfriend had fled with when a judge awarded Wallace custody. But just eight months earlier, he had been arrested for misdemeanor assault on the same woman. (Wallace apologized, and the charges were deferred.)

And five days after the Pistons-Indiana Pacers brawl last fall, in which Wallace had been a peacemaker instead of throwing haymakers, he was ejected from a game in Charlotte after slingshotting a headband into the stands in frustration and receiving two technical fouls.

For Anthony Alfano, defending Wallace to friends can require as much time as his job as legal counsel for the United Mineworkers Association in Indiana. Alfano, who graduated from DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., was such a Tar Heel basketball follower growing up in the Chicago area that he spent his sophomore winter internship program working, unpaid, in the UNC Athletics Department’s media relations office – and returned the following January to do the same.

His time on campus also coincided with Wallace’s playing days, which is how he, too, ended up on the list. (Reason No. 10: “Had his picture taken with Anthony Alfano.”)

“I remember saying all the time, ‘You’ve got it all wrong: Rasheed may have a temper, but he’s not a thug,’ ” Alfano said. “I always tried to recover his image when he did something kind of bonehead, like throwing the ball off of Luc Longley’s head.” (List, Reason No. 55.)

Wallace hasn’t made it easy on the media, either, particularly in Portland, site of the bulk of Wallace unrest, including three consecutive years of NBA-leading technical fouls, a marijuana arrest and various on-court transgressions involving airborne towels and referee confrontations. In the small-market NBA city, where the Blazers are the only major pro game in town and every player is under a microscope, the venom still spews loud and long in Wallace’s direction even now that he’s left for Detroit.

“He was so contentious, on and off the court,” said Dwight Jaynes, a sports columnist with the Portland Tribune, a Portland native and the paper’s publisher. “He was so out of control at times that it was uncomfortable to watch. He says he’s better, but I’ve got a satellite dish. I watch the games. The only thing that changed is that he went to a winning team.”

No one knows exactly the roots of Wallace’s distrust of the media, but everyone agrees it is pungent. At Carolina, Wallace avoided post-game media interviews by calling his mom. In Portland, he refused to talk to reporters unless mandated to do so by the NBA. At a media event for the playoffs in 2003, he answered every question posed to him with the trite phrase, “Both teams played hard,” and was fined $30,000 by the league for not cooperating. (An NBA employee, perhaps inspired by the rebellion, sent Portland reporters T-shirts bearing the phrase.)

“We’d complain to the league regularly, and the league would say, ‘Well, we’ve talked to him, but he just doesn’t get it,’ ” said Jim Beseda, who covers the Blazers for The Oregonian. “They would fine him occasionally, but basically it was like, ‘Well, that’s just the way he is.'”

Jaynes admits that players who make an effort to talk to the media will receive better press. “We don’t ask for much,” he said. “A smile once in a while, the truth once in a while, and once in a while, we let you tell a little lie. It’s just a game, and we play it.”

Even in Detroit, Hanners said, Wallace takes post-game showers that go for an hour and a half to avoid the microphones. “You have to know that he’s such a perfectionist,” he said. “If he says something, that’s what he wants to see in print. He doesn’t want to see four words taken out of the middle so that it becomes a completely different thing. He’s a fair person, but you have to be square and up front with him. That’s the way Coach Smith taught all of us to be with people.”

Wallace, Hanners said – using a word that’s been frequented by many of the player’s apologists – is misunderstood. His background explains his actions, or lack thereof.

“Rasheed’s mother was a single black woman with three kids from inner-city Philadelphia who was making a go of it,” Hanners said. “And so she is somewhat suspicious of whites. She did everything possible to make sure her kids had a chance at a better life than she did. She’s a wonderful person. But if you come at her the wrong way, she could snap your head off. Because she’s tough. Because she had to be tough. And if you get to know her, you come closer to understanding him.”

Gary Sailes, a noted black sports sociologist at Indiana University who also works as a consultant for NBA Player Development and with the Indiana Pacers, said that makes perfect sense. Furthermore, he said, the league teaches its players, as part of its development program, to be wary from the minute they sign contracts.

“They’re high-income guys, they’re young, they’re vulnerable, and they’re very, very distrustful of anyone who approaches them,” he said.

Another piece to the puzzle, said Sailes, can be found in the work of black psychologist Richard Majors. A decade ago, Majors coined a term called “cool pose” to describe the ways African-American men create systems of behavior that compensate for their lack of representation and value in society. “Ways to raise our own self-esteem, our own confidence,” explained Sailes. “So while the white media may say Rasheed is acting out — in the black community? He’s just being another brother.”

Reason No. 94: “Not afraid of reacting to any call against him, no matter how solid.”

Fans say Wallace doesn’t owe the media – or anyone else. And the fact that he won’t play the persona games an NBA player is expected to play is why they like him so much.

“There is certainly a counter-culture element involved,” said Wintrob, who helps run the Team Elevatorman site and helped author the 100-reasons list. “There’s a backlash against the national perception that Rasheed is this bad guy. The more you hear that as a fan, the more you root for him. It cements your affection for him. It makes you like him all the more if you feel he’s being portrayed unfairly.”

John Neiman ’97, a Wallace fan from Alabama, agreed. “When he repeats the phrase, ‘Both teams played hard’ over and over again, he’s making fun of the fact that players and press use all these clichés all the time, and he’s just too smart to deal with that sort of thing. He doesn’t get enough respect for that aspect of his personality.”

Wintrob even sees merit in some of Wallace’s remarks from 2003, when he claimed that NBA players were exploited by the league, despite their million-dollar salaries.

“They look at black athletes like we’re dumb-ass n—,” Wallace, in part, told the Oregonian in an interview. “It’s as if we’re just going to shut up, sign for the money and do what they tell us.”

“Maybe it’s not entirely well-thought-out,” Wintrob said of the comments, for which Wallace later apologized, “but what he said shows that he has a little more perspective than a lot of players. Everybody gets taken advantage of – the players, the fans, the owners. Everybody rips off somebody else in some way. It shows he realizes this is all just a big game.”

And the technicals? Fans say it’s just a measure of his passionate play; his emotions get the better of him.

Sailes agreed with some fans that the NBA is partly to blame for the behavior it says it abhors; the league’s belief in players-as-role-models became nothing more than lip service “when it merged with hip-hop.”

“That’s the worst thing that ever happened to the NBA,” he said. “They play the music before, during and after games, and now players are adopting the lifestyle, and that lifestyle is counterproductive to American values. It’s a whole new revolution, and it’s going in a different direction than what typifies the dominant American sports creed. This generation has a different idea about what they expect from their role models.”

Beseda, the Portland sportswriter, said many Blazers fans always liked Wallace because he represented the anti-role model. “There’s that side of him that people find very attractive, and it’s the demographic that the NBA wants to tap into, the 18- to 32-year-old male. They love the irreverent rebel that he is. They identify with him.”

Reason No. 96: “He loves his mother.”

“Rasheed is not a saint,” Hanners said. “He’ll be the first person to tell you he’s not perfect. He’s made some mistakes. But he probably doesn’t want to talk about it, like most of us. He’d just rather put it behind him.”

Often, that’s not possible in the sports world, of course. “We hold our demagogues to a higher level of accountability,” Sailes said, “because you’re supposed to represent everything that’s good and righteous about us. I can fall from grace, but you can’t.”

Although his transgressions get more press, Rasheed supporters are quick to point out his positives. Since 1997, Wallace has operated the Rasheed A. Wallace Foundation, a charity that serves at-risk youth in Philadelphia, Portland, Durham and Detroit. He purchased 25 season tickets from the Pistons to give to inner-city youth and organizes an annual coat drive in Philly. He’s been married for six years and is raising four children, who often visit him at practice.

Reviled by most in Portland, he’s found a better home in Detroit, Hanners said, where he’s surrounded by friendly faces, including Head Coach Larry Brown ’63 and assistant coaches Hanners, Phil Ford ’78 and Pat Sullivan ’95, the latter a UNC teammate.

“For Rasheed, a lot of times, it’s been about respect and acceptance,” Hanners said. “And in North Carolina, he knew the people around him cared about him and respected him. Coach Smith loved him. Sometimes, some people have a better vision than others, you know? And Coach knew that he was a good person. It was easier for him to be a good guy in that environment, and the same things are true here.”

Wallace is respected for being an idyllic teammate, Hanners said. In Detroit, he’s not the marquee player he was for Portland, just a necessary piece of the puzzle, and that’s the way he prefers it. Hanners said he’s never seen a better team player, and Brown knows it, too. After sitting Wallace in the third quarter of an NBA finals game against the Lakers last summer, Brown looked down at the end of the bench and saw his power forward up and cheering for the players on the court.

“[Brown] said after the game, ‘Can you imagine some of the other places I’ve coached, where I sit one of the star players for 19 minutes, what he would do in a championship series like that?'” Hanners recalled. “‘He’d be down there cussing.'”

“That would be an important measure, I imagine,” Wintrob said, “to most of us as human beings: How your co-workers feel about you. What the people you spend the most time with think about you.”

The fact that Wallace gave professional wrestling-style championship belts this fall to all of his teammates, coaches and Pistons security staff – replete with their nicknames emblazoned on the front – may just be reason No. 101 to love Rasheed, Wintrob said.

The truth is, we may bemoan the state of the NBA when a nasty brawl breaks out, but that doesn’t mean we won’t watch the same footage for 12 straight hours. We like to escape to fantasy worlds where we don’t always have to play by the rules. Because in the end, no matter how many rap albums we listen to, most of us are still governed by that part of our being that is stitched together with sugared cereals and nursery rhymes, by everyday responsibility, by a desire not to rock the boat. Rasheed Wallace? He rocks it for us. He’s exactly who he wants to be, and nothing more.

The “100 Reasons” Wallace fans list can be found here.

Copyright 2005 UNC General Alumni Association

Published in Carolina Alumni Review, March/April 2005