Rasheed Wallace came back from four months on the shelf — the first 2 1/2 due to what the New York Knicks termed a "stress reaction" in his left foot and the last six weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a broken bone in the foot — on Monday night. It was a relatively meaningless mid-April game against the Charlotte Bobcats, but there 'Sheed was, ahead of the six-to-eight-week timetable placed on his post-surgical recovery, in uniform on a night on which Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin didn't even travel south, and eager to get back on the court.
At the 3:08 mark of the first quarter, Wallace entered the game for guard Iman Shumpert, marking his first live game action since mid-December; the sparse Charlotte crowd cheered the former UNC Tar Heel as loudly as any of Mike Dunlap's Bobcats. Eleven seconds later, Wallace attempted his first shot — an 18-foot turnaround J from the right block. He drained it. Naturally.
As it turned out, those would be the final two points of Wallace's 16-year NBA career. He played just under four minutes in Monday's loss before limping off the court a minute into the second quarter with a sore foot. Two days later, in a surprise statement from Knicks general manager Glen Grunwald, Wallace retired from professional basketball, just hours before the Knicks were set to welcome the Atlanta Hawks to Madison Square Garden for their regular-season finale.
From the Knicks' announcement:
“Rasheed has given this team everything he had,” Head Coach Mike Woodson said. “He is a winner, true professional and leader on and off the court. Due to his injury, he will not be available to play for us during the playoffs. We owe this season’s success to veterans like Rasheed.”
Wallace made just 21 appearances for the Knicks this season, averaging seven points and four rebounds in 14.1 minutes per game on 38.7 percent shooting from the field and a 31.9 percent mark from 3-point range. He managed to hoist 8.4 3-pointers per 36 minutes of floor time, which is staggering and perfect.
It's worth noting that this isn't the first time Wallace has hung up his Air Force 1s — the famed firebrand also retired in June 2010 after a less-than-successful and largely-out-of-shape season with the Boston Celtics before deciding to come back to join up with the oldest team in NBA history this season. He averaged 14.4 points and 6.7 rebounds per game in 1,109 contests spread over a 16-year career that began with the Washington Bullets, saw its greatest successes come with the Portland Trail Blazers and Detroit Pistons, featured season-long cameos in Boston and New York, and included one game as a member of the Atlanta Hawks. He made four All-Star appearances, played in three NBA Finals and won one NBA title, as a member of the 2004 Pistons.
(It's also worth noting, as Frank Isola of the New York Daily News and Brian Mahoney of The Associated Press did, that Woodson told reporters that the 38-year-old big man was "questionable" for the start of the playoffs this coming weekend and that the team didn't "really have any major update for him yet" ... a half-hour before Wallace's retirement announcement. The Knicks' commitment to keeping everything a state secret continues to be mind-boggling.)
As I wrote back in late February when the Knicks announced Wallace's surgery, "while Wallace's individual numbers weren't especially eye-popping [...] he made a defensive impact" for the Knicks, who allowed just 97.5 points per 100 possessions while 'Sheed was on the floor in his 21 appearances. While the Knicks weren't counting on Wallace to play a major role in the playoffs, his retirement eliminates the potential for Woodson to use him for spot minutes in the middle amid significant late-season injuries to starting center Chandler (bulging disk in his back), key reserve Martin (sprained left ankle), former star Amar'e Stoudemire (right knee surgery) and the stopgap center tandem of Marcus Camby (plantar fasciitis in his left foot) and Kurt Thomas (out for the season with a stress fracture in his right foot).
Instead, Woodson will have to hope that Chandler and Martin are ready to go come Saturday — both are expected to be ready for the playoff opener — while continuing to plug gaps at the five spot with unheralded 29-year-old rookie Chris Copeland, who's been playing out of position as an undersized pivot in unconventional (but quite effective) small-ball lineups late in the season. In case of emergency, he'll have to break the glass on newly signed big man Earl Barron, whom the team added following Wallace's retirement announcement, who hasn't played since being waived by the Washington Wizards back in December, and who is (weirdly) something of a folk hero among Knicks fans online.
Whoever winds up manning the middle for the Knicks, we know this much: It won't be 'Sheed. He won't be popping off the bench, coming into the game and immediately chucking 3 after 3 while professing to show us "how post players really need to play", and occasionally (OK, more than occasionally) drawing a technical foul for blithely yelling at an opponent or an official.
We are all poorer for this.
And because I like the way it came out the first time I wrote it, here's the way I said goodbye to 'Sheed back in February:
Thanks for being really, really good for a solid decade and playing a huge part in helping make the floor-spreading big man a valuable commodity rather than something to be derided or shunned. Thanks for playing better after you got your first tech. Thanks for yelling other cool stuff, too. Thanks for "3 to the head." Thanks for reminding us why we watch. Thanks for making a unique, indelible, still-hard-to-define-after-all-these-years mark on a generation of people who watch basketball.
Get well soon, Sheed. Thanks for being fun.