The day the Pistons made the deal to acquire Rasheed Wallace -- while some of us winced and wondered openly about the negative impact such a volatile player might have -- Joe Dumars walked into the locker room and delivered just the opposite message.
"It's not the kind of thing you say publicly, and I didn't," Dumars, the Pistons' president of basketball operations, said late after Game 4 on the topic of acquiring Wallace. "But I told the whole team that day that getting Rasheed should put us into the NBA Finals. I told them, 'Listen, we've got the best team in the East, and we're good enough to play for the championship.' I thought it that day, that it would be a shame not to get that far."
Of course, there hasn't been a single regret since Wallace arrived, and Dumars couldn't have been more accurate with his assessment. Not only did Wallace help push the Pistons past the Pacers in the Eastern Conference, but his 26-point, 13-rebound performance Sunday night led Detroit to a 3-1 series lead that appears insurmountable for the Lakers.
Not only has Wallace not been disruptive, he's been pretty much just what the club and the town want, another player who cares more about work than stardom. In the old Bad Boys tradition, he's a player with superstar skills who is nonetheless happy to play defense and rebound and not hog the basketball.
That may come as a surprise to a lot of us, but not Dumars. "You know I always felt there was no risk involved," he said. "I trusted my environment here; that's what I have tremendous belief in. I knew Rasheed was not a bad person, and even though he had blowups with referees, there was no risk for us because of the environment we have here."
The environment starts with the no-nonsense Dumars, who carries as much credibility as any ex-player working in the NBA, and Pistons Coach Larry Brown, a University of North Carolina alum just like Wallace, which cannot be overstated. "That," Dumars said of Brown's ability to connect with Wallace, "is absolutely essential."
Still, it takes smart managing. All those blowups with referees, resulting in Wallace being ejected from quite a few games when he was with Portland, weren't going to be tolerated. "We had one conversation about the officials, just one," Dumars said. "On the way from the airport, I told him, 'Hey Rasheed, listen. There's a line we have to draw. You can dance on that line, you can stand on it -- just don't cross it. One technical foul, you're standing on the line. Two technical fouls, you've crossed it. Don't get thrown out of games and don't get suspended.' "
What was Wallace's response?
"He said, 'That's cool, Joe D.' "
Wallace was hit with 18 technical fouls this season, though only five of them once he got to Detroit.
Wallace, while he also has two technical fouls this postseason, has not been ejected from a game as a Piston.
Of course, it's deeper than just 'Sheed vs. Refs. Rick Mahorn, another former Piston with a great feel for players and behavior, said of Wallace: "He doesn't want to be the star. He wants to be one of the guys, to fit in."
It's not every day that a guy rebels at the notion of being a star. But Wallace wants no part of it. The Trail Blazers and everybody in Portland expected Wallace to be the star he didn't want to be. Goodness knows what would have happened had Wallace stayed in star-thirsty Atlanta, which got him from Portland for the grand total of one day before Dumars and the Pistons came to the rescue.
"He had issues, yes," said Dumars, whose experience dealing with teammate Dennis Rodman has helped to deal with Wallace. "But I knew Rasheed's heart was in the right place. I knew he wanted to win and I knew he was a great teammate. Look, teammates will not pull for a bad guy. They know if he's a cancer and will kill the team. These guys pull for him. We're all capable of responding to the negative in a bad way. But he's responded positively here. He stays late. He's the most unselfish guy here."
I realized a long time ago I wasn't going to figure out Wallace, and that he's too complex to describe with convenient labels. In Portland, Wallace would behave like a wild man during a game, then spend the next three weeks being a civic marvel. As far as his long-held hatred of the media, on Friday night Wallace showed up at a bowling party hosted by a group of sportswriters.
One more victory from winning a championship, there's a whole lot less talk these days about Wallace going to the Knicks when he becomes a free agent in a couple of weeks. You look at Wallace now, and while there is still too much involvement during games with referees, you realize Detroit is the place for him. Plus, if you don't want to be a star, why in the world would you go to New York?
Some weeks ago, Dumars recalled watching Wallace stay late after practice to work and thought: "Wow. What were you doing out in Portland, chief? What in the world was the problem?"
Right now, on the verge of contributing significantly to a championship team, there doesn't appear to be a problem in the world, just a player who has come to understand the value of not crossing the line.