Admit it, right now is not the most fun time to be a Pistons fan. There are no Finals appearances, no trips to the playoffs even. There is Greg Monroe and a bunch of question marks. And because of that, it is often more fun to look back than to muddle through as the Pistons rechart a path to respectability.
Luckily, the internet sure makes looking back easy. And it seems like the online gods are only too happy to oblige us in our Pistons nostalgia. The latest entry is a terrific writeup of Rasheed Wallace at Grantland.
The piece is not Pistons-centric in any way. Writer Jay Caspian Kang is more reflective of the Rasheed that came out of streets of Philadelphia and onto the storied college campus at North Carolina to play for the Tar Heels. And he also discusses the frosty relationship between Wallace and the fan base in Portland, and the often bitter relationship between Rasheed and the old guard in the media and within the NBA community.
But the story is less about a career retrospective than about the essence of a misunderstood, underrated, beloved NBA player.
It wants to understand the Sheedness of Sheed, and why so many real NBA fans identified with him. About how we have a little Sheed in all of us:
And yet, he gave just enough to become one of the most beloved players of the past 20 years. His in-your-face humanity takes most of the credit for that feat, but the fact that all it took was a couple jokes, one championship, and a whole lot of technical fouls shows the wariness and outright contempt the NBA's younger fans felt toward the traditional sports-talky model of the athlete as role model and ambassador for all bland, generic virtues of sportsmanship and dignity.
The article is very insightful, especially for the ways in which it contrasts Wallace to another former (less beloved) Pistons -- Allen Iverson. Whereas Iverson was a poster boy for the "hip hop" new era of the NBA in the mid-1990s, his cold personal style kept the media at arms length.
Wallace, on the other hand, wore his emotions on his sleeve on and off the court. While he never courted the press, he was never afraid to speak his mind when nobody cared what he had to say, and also not afraid to say nothing when the media was dying for a comment.
"Both teams played hard, man."
Idon't think it ever changed much for Rasheed. In Chapel Hill, he sparked talk of wasted potential, anger management, selfishness, and how a lack of discipline could bankrupt a wealth of basketball talent. This line of discussion about Rasheed Wallace persisted for the next 15 years, through Washington, Portland, Detroit, and ultimately Boston. But it's a mistake to think that this was just a product of media laziness (that came later), where an athlete can never break out of his original casting. Rather, Rasheed just kept finding ways to incense those moral watchdogs, who, for whatever silly reason, choose collegiate and professional sports as their medium for judgment and self-aggrandizement. This isn't to apologize for Rasheed's missteps, both off-court and on, but the discussion surrounding him always seemed to be amplified into something that reached past basketball and its vague code of conduct. As happened in Chapel Hill, Rasheed divided fans in the NBA because he found himself at the center of nearly every tired basketball argument. He arguably did not live up to his potential. He arguably did not take the responsibility of being a role model very seriously. He arguably placed himself over his team and derailed what could have been a championship team in Portland. He was arguably one of the most beloved players in the league, especially among the population of hoop heads who automatically celebrated anything that rankled the traditional pundits.
Kang also discusses just what this means for the legacy of Wallace. While those "in the know" are fully aware of what an awesome presence and excellent ballplayer Rasheed always was, his numbers never stood out and he was never awarded much recognition for his defensive talents.
They say that "the Internet is forever," and while it usually is mentioned in the same breath as reminding you to take the photos of your weekend kegstand off of Facebook, Kang is almost counting on the fact that the retrospective will serve as a Rasheed Wallace time capsule.
In 30 years when echoes of "Ball don't lie" have faded and nobody is around to talk about what a great teammate Wallace was, all NBA diehards will have is a box score that reads 14.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game.
And the Sheedness of Rasheed Wallace will be lost forever.