After playing only four minutes on an injured foot in the New York Knicks' final regular season game, Rasheed Wallace retired on Wednesday. One of the most talented and controversial players of his generation, he was still effective at 38, 20 years after he appeared on the national scene at North Carolina.
Along with Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Chris Webber and Dirk Nowitzki, Wallace redefined the power forward position and revolutionized the game. But while he was as talented as his four contemporaries, he's the only one won't wind up in the Hall of Fame. Wallace never cared much for his image or his legacy, which is why, paradoxically enough, he became such a beloved countercultural figure.
There were very few things Wallace couldn’t do on a basketball court. At 6’11, 230 with exceptionally quick feet and a rumored 7’4 wingspan, he was a defensive prototype. He had the strength to battle the best low-post scorers on the blocks, the quickness to move in space and the length to protect the rim. He had all the tools on the offensive side of the floor too: an excellent post game, complete with a turnaround jumper that was essentially indefensible and the ability to stretch the floor out to the three-point line. His versatility on both sides of the ball and his understanding of the game made him the perfect teammate, capable of playing any role his team needed.
If there was a criticism of the way he played, it was that he wasn’t selfish enough. Despite being an overwhelming force on the low block, he shied away from dominating the ball, preferring to play a more team oriented game and often floating out to the three-point line. Even though he could create his own shot against anyone, he never averaged more than 20 points a game. His lack of aggression on the offensive end can be seen his number of free throw attempts. While Dirk, Webber, KG and Duncan all had seasons with more than six a game, Wallace’s career high was a little over four. He wasn’t as suited to being a primary offensive option as his peers, but when he was dialed in, his versatility allowed him to have a similar impact on a game.
In many ways, Wallace was ahead of his time. His fascination with the three-point shot drove many fans and analysts crazy, but it’s the ideal place for a big man to be on offense. The modern game is built around spacing the floor, with coaches in the NBA and the NCAA searching everywhere for a “stretch 4” who can drag his defender out of the paint. The problem comes on the other end of the floor, as most jump-shooting big men can’t play defense. Wallace was a stretch 4/5 who doubled as one of the best defensive big men in the game. MVP candidates are the only players more valuable than that. It's the same reason why Chris Bosh, not Dwyane Wade, is the second most indispensable player on the Heat.
It’s no coincidence Wallace won everywhere he went. The only year he missed the playoffs was his rookie season, when he played with Webber (!) and Juwan Howard (!!) on an underachieving Washington Bullets squad that was quickly broken up. By 22, he was one of the key players on the legendary “Jail Blazers” squads in Portland, where he began to develop the “rebel without a cause” reputation that followed him throughout his career. Seven years later, he wound up with the Detroit Pistons, where he teamed with Ben Wallace to form one of the most fearsome defenses in NBA history. He finished his career with stops in Boston and New York, where he was still a key player on two elite teams, even in his late 30’s.
Few players had more near misses than Wallace. The Jail Blazers came this close to knocking off the Shaq/Kobe Lakers in 2000, blowing a 15-point lead in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. The Lakers went on to win the next three NBA titles while the Blazers were quickly dismantled after the public grew tired of their off-court shenanigans.
In 2005, a year after Wallace got his revenge on L.A. as the missing piece for the Pistons, they lost to the Spurs in a classic 7-game series in the NBA Finals. In 2010, Wallace was the third big man for the Celtics who lost to the Lakers in another 7-game Finals that went right down to the wire. A couple bounces are all that separate Wallace from four titles.
All that, however, has been overshadowed by the way he carried himself both on and off the court. In terms of records that will never be broken, his 41 technical fouls in 00-01 is up there with Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game. With the NBA now suspending players after 16 technicals, no player will ever be able to carry on such a long-standing feud with the officials. Perhaps the best testament to Wallace’s talent was his ability to thrive despite so openly thumbing his nose at the sport’s power structure.
That’s where Wallace angered so many basketball traditionalists. Rather than using his immense talent to make himself the very best basketball player he could be, he used it to give himself the freedom to be the type of player he wanted to be. Wallace was such a good player that he could afford to view the game from an entirely different perspective, disregarding the basic norms of being a professional. He openly used recreational drugs, disrespected people in power and spoke his mind. Depending on your own personal view of the world, that made him either a hero or a villain. What made Wallace such a fascinating character is that he didn’t really care either way.
If a player doesn’t care about his image, there’s nothing the media can do to him. These are things he actually said, in reference to the NBA drafting kids out of high school: "They don't know no better, and they don't know the real business, and they don't see behind the charade," Wallace told The (Portland) Oregonian. "They look at black athletes like we're (expletive deleted). It's as if we're just going to shut up, sign for the money and do what they tell us ... As long as somebody CTC, at the end of the day I'm with them. For all you that don't know what CTC means, that's 'Cut the Check.” Wallace, quite literally, said anything he wanted too. He was good enough of at basketball to get away with it.
Wallace had the ability to be a Hall of Famer. He could hold his own against anyone in the NBA at his position; no one played better post defense on Tim Duncan. Circumstances never quite worked out for him, but it doesn't seem that he's all that bothered by it. The greatest players are supposed to play for their legacy, as if securing a place in Bill Simmons’ Hall of Fame pyramid should be their main goal. But why should a player spend his whole career worrying about how it will be viewed when he’s 60? Hopefully, he won’t spend his entire middle age re-fighting the battles of his youth. Rasheed Wallace was the A student happy with a B+. What’s the difference? He understood all the grades are pointless anyway.