ORLANDO – He's a notoriously cantankerous player on a notoriously dislikable team, and yet the praise on an opponent's court is loud and unmistakable.
Some of the fans in the Amway Arena are New York Knicks backers; a lot aren't. Still, they love this villain-turned-cult hero who had little to do with the dismantling of the hometown Magic on this unremarkable Tuesday night. They gather behind the Knicks bench, yell a little for the Knicks who actually won the game for the road team, and save their throatiest bellows for the 38-year-old benchwarmer.
Moments later, Sheed is dressing in the locker room and cracking wise. His teammates Marcus Camby and J.R. Smith are howling in laughter. Camby even clutches his stomach and winces. The topics range from a girl who isn't getting called back to the $5 footlongs at Subway. His voice, loud and growly as always, can be heard across the packed room.
It's a happy scene: road win for the NBA's hottest team – the Knicks are off to a 6-1 start – laughs among teammates, a display of respect for an NBA vet.
But it begs the question: What is Rasheed Wallace doing out of retirement?
Wallace is the last guy you'd expect to return to the court. "I'm surprised he's back playing," says one of his oldest friends, Bo Donaldson. "He said he was done. And usually with him, that's what it is."
Wallace was the player most known for being at wits' end with referees, reporters, execs and other accused BSers around the league. This, after all, is the man who gave us the now infamous "ball don't lie" line in 2006 when the Bucks' Andrew Bogut missed two free throws after what Wallace deemed a bogus foul call. Wallace even had an issue with the word "shooter" because a shooter is someone who takes shots while a "shotter" is someone (like him) who makes shots.
Wallace would make a great TV commentator if he could modulate his voice and keep his language clean, but coming out of retirement? Wasn't this guy more suited to sitting up in a balcony and rolling his eyes like Statler and Waldorf in the Muppet Show? As much as anyone else in basketball and perhaps in sports, Wallace always refused to sell out or go along with the current just to look good. He simply does not care about his image, and it's hard to imagine him coming back to a league that is so much about image.
And, sure enough, when asked if he missed the NBA during his retirement, Wallace quickly shot back, "Nah, not really."
So then what was the worst part about retirement?
"Ain't no worst part about retiring!" he blurts. "Believe me."
And people around him, who aren't even listening to the conversation, start laughing along with him.
So why is he here, in an NBA locker room?
"I got a call," Wallace says.
The call came from Mike Woodson, the Knicks head coach. It was actually the first of several calls, at first about basketball and then, eventually, about coming back. Wallace says he and Woodson spoke over the course of two months, and only then did Wallace seriously consider a return. He was happy out of basketball, traveling and spending time with his family. He didn't like having his schedule decided for him. At all. So any return, to any team, would have to be under Wallace's terms.
But whether he knew it or not, Woodson appealed to one of the only soft spots Wallace has.
The game's long over, and most of the Knicks have left. Wallace, though, is still around. He's out in the arena, laughing with a couple members of his Philly crew seated in the stands. They've known him since childhood. And if you think this is another athlete posse full of leeches and big talkers, you're wrong. These guys call out Sheed the way Sheed calls out pretty much everyone else.
Example: Rasheed used to play baseball with these guys. He was a pitcher. So was Donaldson, who made it all the way to Triple-A in the Yankees farm system, and Aaron McKie, who played in the NBA for several years. Asked how good Rasheed was as a pitcher, Donaldson says, "He was raw."
Tarik Wallace, a cousin of Rasheed's wearing a Flyers cap, says: "Trash."
So this gang will shoot straight. They agree Woodson had everything to do with Wallace's return. And they say Rasheed might be considering getting into coaching.
"I know for a fact that's his aspiration," says Donaldson. "He loves to teach. I can see him as an NBA assistant. That's what it'll have to be for him."
The idea of Wallace as a coach has been discussed before – there's even a "Coach Sheed Movement" – but it was quickly met with jokes about him getting tossed out of every game 30 seconds after the end of the national anthem. Yet this version of Sheed seems different. There have only been a handful of games, but they've passed without an outburst or flare-up. (At least until Friday night's technical foul.)
"He's more calm now," says Donaldson. "Stepping away has helped him a lot."
Wallace says he isn't thinking about his future. He shrugs off the idea of coaching. "Just playing," he insists. But he's clearly not "just playing." He's helping younger players develop their games, which is something that comes naturally for him whether in the NBA or during summer pick-up games at his old Philly high school, Simon Gratz. The media always notice his screaming at refs, but most of his talk is instructive and directed at teammates. Asked if he notices how fans are treating him now, he says, "I'm just zoning in on basketball."
"You can't believe everything you hear about Rasheed," says Tarik Wallace. "It's simple: He's about his coach and his teammates. That's all that matters."
That does explain a lot. Say what you want about Sheed's past behavior, he's always had respect in the locker room. He's always deferred to others rather than hogging the ball or the limelight. (Once, while with the Pistons, he refused to come out for introductions prior to Game 1 of the NBA Finals.) In fact, the biggest on-court criticism about Wallace is his reluctance to go into the post.
"It's an isolated, one-on-one situation," explains Donaldson. "In high school they would force him to go into the post. In Portland, he was always the No. 1 option, and I don't think he was ever comfortable with that."
But this new role seems to fit him. He's happy to play a few minutes per night for Woodson, who in Donaldson's words, "treats him with the utmost respect." He's more than happy to give back, teaching some moves to some youngbloods like Uncle Drew does in the commercials. Just because he doesn't love to play down low doesn't mean he can't help others with that part of their game. It works out. A man who is known for being a malcontent is, it seems, quite content now.
That was clear Friday night, as Wallace dropped 13 points on the Grizzlies and yelled some choice comments along the way. While Smith shot free throws, Wallace turned to the Memphis bench and informed them, "I still got it!"
Sheed don't lie.
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