Jackie Wallace is scowling at the TV, where her son is wearing the identical scowl as he turns away from referee Jim Kinsey and slams the ball to the floor. Rasheed Wallace has been called for going over the back of Knicks center Patrick Ewing for a rebound, and he knows the game too well to genuinely believe it's a bad call. He's frustrated because the Trail Blazers are losing and Ewing is having a revival, and Wallace can't find a way to stop any of it.
"Raaaaa-sheed," Jackie Wallace says in that part soothing, part warning way only a mother can, as if she were parked in front of a two-way transmitter rather than a TV. The ball-slam earns Wallace his league-leading 20th technical foul, and he's still not done. A timeout is called, but after starting out for the Portland bench, he U-turns to continue his rant at Kinsey. "Rasheed!" Jackie snaps at the TV. "Shut up!"
Rasheed can't hear her; Jackie doubts it would matter if he could. She says you really have to get in her son's face and let him have it to convince him you're serious. Ewing grabs an offensive rebound and Wallace slaps at the ball, gets called for another foul and howls-the visage made all the worse by his scraggly goatee and mustache. He is jawing at veteran ref Joey Crawford, whose own temper is legendary. But then he and Wallace are both from Philly, where manic behavior around a basketball is not only tolerated but expected. With just more than a minute left and the Knicks' victory secure, Crawford is standing near the Blazers' bench, directly in front of Wallace. "Good game, Joey," Wallace says. That earns him a second T and a dismissive wave from Crawford. On his way to the locker room, Wallace throws his towel in Crawford's direction. That's followed by one of his sweatbands.
Knicks TV commentators Walt Frazier and Mike Breen are blasting Rasheed's immaturity, his lack of respect for Blazers coach Mike Dunleavy, his disregard for his teammates. Jackie sits on her couch, remarkably quiet until the broadcast goes to a commercial. "He," she says quietly, "gets on my damn nerves."
Imagine, then, how Dunleavy feels. Or anyone else who looks at the talent and depth on the Blazers and envisions Rose City's first title since '77. And there is no dispute over who should be leading them to it. Opposing coaches rank the 25-year-old Wallace dead even in talent with Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan. Blame the 6'11" forward's solid-but-unspectacular numbers (15.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.4 blocks in 34.8 minutes a game) on the Blazers' depth and his unselfishness. Shutting down the opposing team's best frontline scorer, providing help defense, making the extra pass, delivering rally-crushing dunks and sweet turnaround J's-that's what makes him an All-Star. What is uncertain is if Wallace can stay clear of the officials long enough to get it all done.
"He's almost the perfect basketball player," Dunleavy says. "Great size, great athletic ability, great outside shot, great post-up game. He can guard guys off the dribble, and defend on the block. He's a total team guy. What else could you ask for? Just that one thing."
But to get that one thing-a semblance of composure-Rasheed Abdul Wallace will have to be convinced he isn't selling out. It's not enough for him to remember where he came from. He wants to make sure you never forget either. That's why his 'fro is rarely trimmed or combed, and why he resolutely wears those way-out-of-date Nike Air Forces. He rents an apartment in Philly every sticky July and conducts free camps at his alma mater, Simon Gratz High. He's appalled by teammates' offers to teach him golf. "Gamers don't play golf," he says. His underwear still consists of practice shorts and NBA socks, so he's always prepared in case a game breaks out, just as his high school coach taught him. If that keeps everyone but his family and fellas away, so much the better.
The truth is, R.A.W. is more than his monogram and the moniker for his charity foundation and radio show. "I must've known something," says Jackie, "because he is raw." As in a big ol' softie. One who does as much charity work, in both Portland and Philly, as any player in the league. Who lights up when he autographs a photo for a girl with Down's syndrome, and when she kisses his cheek. And who patiently stands in line with his three sons so they can sit on Santa's lap, and then hovers, making sure the boys are in place and behaving.
But he's also the guy who resents NBA referees because he sees no indication that basketball, or winning and losing, means as much to them as it does to him-and yet they're telling him what he can and can't do. "Half of them are short and most of them never played," he says. "They're into the power trip." It's that perspective, as much as anything, that earns him points at home. "Philly kids respect Rasheed more than anybody," says his former rec league coach, Tennis Young, "because he's the ultimate Philly player."
Jackie worked hard to keep him in line growing up in Philly, and now she sits in an elegant lakeside house in Durham, N.C., courtesy of Rasheed's six-year, $80 million extension signed before the '97-98 season. She knows where her son gets his combativeness. There's a Blazers sticker on the front door and Tar Heel decals in the windows, and Jackie plans to plant team flags in the front yard as well. She knows that will violate community rules but adds defiantly, "I'm going to put them out there and see what they do." She once asked a high school player brought to tears by her son's dominance, "You want a tissue?" So she smiles when somebody mentions the fruit not falling far from the tree. "I guess," she says, "I might be responsible for a little bit of what he does."
She had the first of her three sons-Rasheed is the baby-three months shy of her 17th birthday, and raised them working full time as a public welfare case worker. That none are in jail or dead or strung out is a minor miracle, considering the neighborhood. North Philly is where once-elegant brownstone and brick row houses are now boarded up, their windows covered by plywood, front doors padlocked and stamped with orange "Do Not Trespass" stickers. Where every other block sports an abandoned car stripped, gutted and sometimes torched. Where the numbers on the few houses still occupied are in gray spray-paint scrawl. The only break in the dreariness is the bright orange double rims and fresh backboards on the summer-league outdoor courts.
"When you're in Philly, there is no other world," says Malcolm, at 32 the oldest of Jackie's sons. "You're just in Philly."
It was in that world that 'Sheed learned from two pairs of opposites-his two older brothers and his two coaches. Malcolm is as much of an introvert as Muhammed, two years younger, is an unabashed extrovert. Both now work for 'Sheed's foundation. Then there are the two men who shaped Rasheed as a player-Young, now a R.A.W. foundation board member, and Simon Gratz High coach Bill Ellerbee. Young taught Wallace to play from the perimeter with hiphop swagger. Ellerbee made Wallace into a no-frills, back-to-the-basket center.
So is it any surprise, then, that Wallace is a bundle of contradictions? He is fundamentally sound, calmly passing out of the stiffest double-teams, yet there the primal screams and the technicals. He's always wearing a black knit cap, even in practice, and he has tattoos on both arms, giving him the look of a longshoreman. But then you find out the bulldog is the Gratz mascot and the Egyptian mural is a family portrait of 'Sheed, wife Fatima and their three boys.
On the rare times you find him in the Blazers' dressing room while it is open to the media, he has his back to the room and earphones on, an invisible but perceptible "Do Not Disturb" sign over his head. But then there's the day he and teammate Antonio Harvey, in front of a handful of reporters, stage an impromptu pro wrestling bout in the middle of the locker room, complete with faked elbow drops, ricochets off imaginary turnbuckles and unexpected mock blows of a chair from behind. His avoidance of the media is particularly striking since he is part of it as co-host of a hip-hop Saturday night radio show.
Ellerbee says he has never had a more astute player, which makes 'Sheed's no-win knucklehead harassment of the refs all the more perplexing. The Wallace family theory is that he's too much of a team guy to yell at his fellow Blazers when they're not playing hard, so he vents on the striped shirts. "There's only one game that it cost us, the loss to Dallas," Dunleavy says. "But there were other situations he put us at risk. It could definitely hurt us down the line."
The league and the refs clearly have their radar up for 'Sheed, which is why his teammates sympathize with this problem rather than criticize him for his outbursts. Example: The same ball-slam that earned him a T against the Knicks goes unpunished when Celtics center Tony Battie does it a few nights later against Portland, the ball winding up on the Blazers' bench in the lap of swingman Stacey Augmon.
"No T?" Augmon asks referee Mike Mathis. "If 'Sheed did that, it'd be a tech."
Wallace, standing at the foul line, turns around and says, "You know that!"
Mathis, ignoring 'Sheed, says to Stacey, "He's paranoid enough, don't do that."
During a Celtics' trip to the line later in the game, Wallace barks at referee Hank Armstrong, "Watch the three seconds, please!" Armstrong barks back, "We are watching it!" then exchanges a smile and a nod with Mathis. The next trip down the floor, Mathis whistles Wallace for an offensive foul the first time he touches the ball. Coincidence? Maybe, but Oliver Stone has worked with less.
If 'Sheed won't relent, it's because he believes, as Malcolm does, that the refs will come around. "It happened with Barkley," says Malcolm. Or maybe it's the Muhammed side of him, the one that publicly tortures the refs just because he can. But feeling picked on is not new. Cora Griffin, his childhood babysitter, says Rasheed hated being teased about his height. It didn't help that he had a round birthmark of blond curls at the top of his afro, a mark that didn't change to its present snow white until after he became a Carolina Tar Heel.
While the father of Malcolm and Muhammed died in a shooting, Rasheed's father, a well-known Philly high school player named Sam Tabb, was still around and would occasionally promise to pick Rasheed up and take him to the movies. Tabb wouldn't always show, though, and Rasheed would spend the day on the porch, waiting. Sensitive? "If you yelled at him the tears would come to his eyes," Young recalls. "I couldn't stand him and he couldn't stand me. He'd look at me and breathe hard."
But Young admits he encouraged Rasheed to let his emotions take over on the court. "Some of that crazy stuff might come from me," he says. "I'd tell them, 'If we don't win, we're all going to die!' That's a Philly coaching tradition. I told him you have to bang that drop-step dunk and then growl at them. Ellerbee doesn't let you do that kind of stuff."
The dunk, yes, the growl, no. Wallace rode some bench for both coaches, though, which they believe is the key to keeping Rasheed under control. "No offense to Dean Smith," Young says, "but he'd let Rasheed get away with murder and still play him." Ellerbee says Rasheed drew one technical his entire high school career, for punching the stanchion pad in frustration over a defensive mistake-a call Ellerbee considered so egregious he got ejected protesting it. But Ellerbee also played him only 19 minutes a game his senior year and benched him once when he started the game with his hair uncombed. Wallace fumed for an entire quarter before tightening up his 'fro.
Wallace insists he won't let his temper get in the way of a Blazers title run, noting that he has never been tossed from a playoff game. But the people who know him best say there's no a la carte service with 'Sheed-it's all or nothing. "When he's crazy, you're seeing his true self," Young says. "It's not an act. He flies right off the planet, and it's hard to bring him back."
Should that happen in the postseason, something else will fly off into space: the Blazers' title dreams.