The NBA’s last remaining Washington Bullet returned to town on Wednesday, to a building that he was never fortunate enough to call home, against a team now called the Wizards, for a game in which he won’t even play. New York Knicks forward Rasheed Wallace has been gone for nearly 17 years but said he still can’t walk around Washington without hearing the same thing.
“Every time I’m back here, people say, ‘Man, why’d you leave?’ ” Wallace said, shaking his head, at Wednesday’s morning shootaround at Verizon Center. “It wasn’t up to me.”
Wallace still blames former Bullets General Manager John Nash for his exit after one season with the team, but Nash had resigned before Wes Unseld eventually shipped him to Portland for point guard Rod Strickland and forward Harvey Grant in one of those promising-big-for-fading-small deals that the franchise was so accustomed to making in the 1990s (ahem, Chris Webber for Mitch Richmond).
With a few more gray hairs peeking out of his scraggly beard and unkempt Afro, Wallace still looks back on his time as a Bullet as a classic could’ve-been.
“Man, I think about it a lot,” said Wallace, who averaged 10.1 points and 4.7 rebounds in his rookie season. “I understand it was all business and money, but we had a helluva squad here. I wish we could’ve stayed like two, three years together, just to be able to see what we could’ve done.”
The Bullets were stocked with front-court talent back then, with Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Gheorghe Muresan, Jim McIlvaine and Bob McCann and Wallace was often viewed as a luxury. Wallace started 51 games as a rookie, getting a lot of time at power forward as Webber recovered from a dislocated left shoulder, but he also dealt with troubles on and off the court in his short stint with the Bullets. He also didn’t need much time to establish a reputation for berating NBA officials, and had been mentioned in trade rumors since January of that season.
The Bullets reportedly offered Wallace to Philadelphia for the No. 1 overall pick, which turned out to be Allen Iverson.
Still, Wallace was stunned when he was seated in a barbershop in Philadelphia and got word that he was going to join the Portland Trail Blazers.
“My cousin called, and told me, ‘You just got traded to Portland.’ I was like: ‘Man, whatever. I didn’t get traded,’ ” Wallace said with a laugh. “About two seconds later, my agent [Bill Strickland] called and was like, ‘The rumors is true.’ I was like, ‘Aarghhhh!’ ”
Rod Strickland helped the Bullets reach the playoffs in his first year in Washington and made second team all-NBA in his second season, so the franchise didn’t completely whiff on the deal.
Wallace, 38, went on to become a four-time all-star and NBA champion after departing the Bullets, with his career taking him through Portland, Atlanta (for one game), Detroit and Boston. He retired after helping the Celtics reach the NBA Finals in 2010 and returned this season to pursue another championship with the Knicks.
Currently out with a stress fracture in his left foot, which has sidelined him since December, Wallace hopes to start practicing again after the all-star break. He was averaging 7.2 points, 4.2 rebounds and 14.6 minutes in 20 games with the Knicks.
“I definitely want to be out there with my soldiers. I’m in practice preparing and going through game film. I’m preparing myself, but I have to say, ‘Guys, I can’t get on the airplane and go to war with you.’ It kills me, but there’s nothing I can do,” Wallace said. “I’m real anxious, to be honest. Sometimes sitting on the sideline or sitting in the back watching those guys it’s killing me because at certain points of the games I feel like that I could have gotten that rebound or I would have been able to trap here or do something there. It’s a lot of what ifs.”
The “what ifs” will never be resolved in Washington but the memories remain. When asked what he misses most about his days playing at the Capital Centre in Landover, Wallace said: “Just the enthusiasm of the crowd. The crowd felt the same things that we did. That it was a helluva team and we could’ve did some things. …I think we would’ve went far in the playoffs, because we were big. Unfortunately, I started those games that I did because Web went down. I hate to move into his starting slot like that. But man, we could’ve did a lot of things.”