While watching the movie "Crash," more than once I thought of Rasheed Wallace. Without giving away the plot, "Crash" in the larger sense is one lesson after another that people aren't as good as they seem or as bad as they seem. I needed the reminder not about the fictional people in the movie, but the people I encounter all the time, especially the people I write about in this space.
Overwhelmingly, I quickly get sick of guys who are always yapping, always gesticulating and scowling, especially when it's forever humorless and self-righteous. I like my trash-talking economical and tinged with humor whenever possible, as opposed to it being filled with conspiratorial notions of persecution. So anybody who fits that personality type, I find on a good day irritating and on a bad day utterly intolerable. And Wallace is definitely that type. You watch 'Sheed night after night and you just want to say: "Dude, chill. Life is good. You ain't got that much to be angry about."
But -- and this is where "Crash" comes in -- that's not all Wallace is. He's not just a scruffy irritant, though he is that . . . to me anyway. He's one helluva basketball player, and more importantly one helluva teammate, without whom the Detroit Pistons would not be on the verge of winning a second consecutive NBA championship.
The mistake Wallace made Sunday night in Game 5 at the Palace is illustrative of who 'Sheed is, in part, and how he is perceived by his teammates. He very likely cost the Pistons the game because he foolishly left San Antonio's Robert Horry, who at that point in the game kept the Spurs in contention by hitting 4 of 5 three-pointers, to double-team Manu Ginobili, who was already adequately guarded and in a position on the court where he couldn't be a threat.
'Sheed left Horry. Horry nailed the open three-pointer, his fifth in six attempts, to win the game. The Pistons were suddenly down, 3-2, in the series. 'Sheed was the goat, period.
In 25 years of covering sports, in a great many situations like that, I've seen teammates walk into the locker room rolling their eyes. They'll sidle over to a reporter and say off the record something to the effect of, "Can you believe what that idiot did?" It's natural, heat-of-the-moment stuff that's to be expected, especially in moments where so much is at stake.
But what was fascinating about Wallace's blunder is that the Pistons didn't react that way at all. His coach, Larry Brown, covered for him, as every teammate tried to do even though everybody in the building knew Wallace had screwed up. Players can be intolerant in such circumstances. But not in this case.
That's because they like him and respect him to such a degree. They find him to be a fine and worthy teammate. Brown, in his comments immediately after Game 6, in which Wallace was 100 percent an asset despite his foul trouble, talked about 'Sheed's demeanor on the bench, the way he shouted out not just encouragement but the Spurs' plays and other specifics. Brown, noting the way the Pistons responded in kind, said: "I think to a man, everybody felt terrible about the way he took that loss the last game. I think that was the big, big thing in the game. I mean, they care so much about him."
Pros don't rally around teammates they perceive as selfish bums. Wallace, despite his technical fouls and hideously demonstrative behavior with the refs, wasn't resented to any meaningful degree in the Portland locker room and isn't in Detroit. In fact, it's just the opposite. Chauncey Billups, who is decidedly unscruffy and never irritating, said after the game: "It's been a tough couple of days for 'Sheed because he's taken so much heat. But he knows we believe in him. That's why we came out and established him very early [offensively]. . . . He was there, focused for 48 minutes . . . and he gave it his all. That's what he does. We're so much better when he does that. He was very emotional. He was very vocal. . . . I think that tough situation he went through [after Game 5] just really made him sharpen his concentration and his focus."
Of course, after Game 6 ended with a Detroit victory and great praise for 'Sheed, we got to see plenty more personality range and contradiction. When Wallace walked into the conference room to meet the news media, for which he often shows contempt, he had a championship belt draped over his Earl Campbell throwback jersey. Given his "told-you-so" performance it promised to be explosive . . . except it wasn't.
'Sheed answered questions in detail for 10 minutes. He voluntarily called his blunder in Game 5 "a boneheaded play," and engaged willingly in the kind of routine postgame basketball repartee that when he participates always reveals a thoughtful man with a very high basketball IQ.
'Sheed supporters will tell you that session is representative of what kind of thoughtful person he is.
'Sheed haters will tell you his infamous and imbecilic, "Both teams play hard, my man," is representative of what kind of jerk he is.
Well, they're both right.
He's a scruffy irritant who feels the people who pay him nearly $20 million a year are persecuting him, the refs are persecuting him, and the mainstream media are persecuting him. In the Western Conference finals a few years ago, when 'Sheed was still with Portland, he saw Lakers guard Ron Harper discussing a call with referees. After a timeout, 'Sheed looked at Harper, who stutters, and said, "Yo Ron, sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-shhhhh-shut up!" He's never committed a foul in his entire career if you look at his reaction whenever a whistle blows.
He's unselfish to a fault. He sets some of the best screens in the league for teammates. He asks for no credit and rarely accepts any. He doesn't agitate for shots or minutes or do any of the diva-like things players with much better public relations skills do. He's charitable in the extreme. Though he has a rotten reputation with mainstream reporters because of his general disdain for what they do, he has been ready and willing to participate in charities involving media members as long as they don't report it. His civic kindness, and the extent of his involvement, is extraordinary.
It's all true.
For months he may not want to talk publicly. But on the court, "I've got to be heard," he said after Game 6, talking about his role as cheerleader when he was in foul trouble. "I can't be heard too much from sitting on the bench, so I try to keep myself in the game even if I'm not in the game."
He likes to portray somebody who is very much outside the mainstream, yet played basketball for two years at the University of North Carolina for Dean Smith.
It's largely contradictory and totally complex, but doesn't "Crash" try to convince us in a very adult way that we all are to a great degree? We pick and choose from that vast menu what is more important; then based on what our values are we decide what pleases or irritates us. What Wallace does, as well as any athlete today, is elicit a response. Some of us he sends into sensory overload.