Before the Portland Trail Blazers' playoff opener on Sunday, pro
golfer Peter Jacobsen decided to take advantage of a Make Your
Sign booth in the bowels of the Rose Garden. A die-hard Blazers
fan, Jacobsen grabbed a piece of construction paper and scrawled
three words in black ink: ZIP THE LIP. Whenever Portland power
forward Rasheed Wallace strode by Jacobsen's courtside seat, the
golfer stood and pointed to his placard. "I love the way Rasheed
plays," said Jacobsen, a resident of Lake Oswego, Ore., "but he'd
be so much better if he just had some self-control."
Indeed, it doesn't take much to summon the rash in Rasheed. A
dubious call. A missed call. At times, even a perfectly accurate
call, and he erupts. First, his mouth forms an incredulous O.
Then he throws a pointed scowl at the offending ref. He stomps
on the floor and voices his disapprobation. Finally, the f-bombs
start bursting in air, and he has to be restrained. In the
regular season Wallace amassed 38 technical fouls--eclipsing the
NBA single-season record of 32 shared by Charles Barkley and
Dennis Rodman--and was ejected from six games. "That's just my
competitive fire coming out," says Wallace, who didn't go more
than four games during the regular season without getting T'd
up. "I play with intensity, and when I see something wrong, I'm
going to get mad."
It didn't take him long to get mad in Sunday's Game 1 against
the Minnesota Timberwolves. With 4:24 left in the first quarter,
Wallace was called for a garden variety loose-ball foul on guard
Malik Sealy. Jacobsen's directive be damned, Wallace turned to
ref Mike Mathis and bade him something other than a Happy
Easter. Tweet! Wallace kept his cool for the rest of the game,
scoring 15 points to help lead Portland to a hard-fought 91-88
Wallace's hair-trigger temper is hardly news to opponents. "We're
going to do what we can this series to agitate him and take him
out of his game," says Timberwolves guard Anthony Peeler. "It's
pretty obvious little things can get him real mad."
Yet Wallace's spasms of unadulterated rage abate as quickly as
they flare up. After he blows a head gasket at a home game, he
invariably can be found in the tunnels of the Rose Garden joking
with friends, playing patty-cake with his kids or razzing
teammate Bonzi Wells about his malodorous feet. "People say
Rasheed has an attitude problem, but that's not the case," says
Wells. "It's funny because most of the time he's the coolest,
most laid-back dude."
Wallace's metamorphosis from cool dude to hothead is just one of
his many incongruities. With apologies to Winston Churchill,
Wallace is a riddle wrapped in a mystery, wrapped in a headband.
"No question Rasheed is a different cat," says Blazers coach Mike
Dunleavy, the man in charge of getting Portland to the Finals for
the first time since 1992. "He has a lot of dynamics going on, so
he can be hard to figure out."
Ask Wallace to indulge in self-analysis, and after he proffers
his "competitive fire" explanation, he embarks on a
hard-to-follow Sheed Screed. Like Hillary Clinton discussing her
political enemies, Wallace believes he and the Blazers are the
targets of a vast conspiracy. "More than half the time the refs
just go on hearsay," he says. "I come at them with logic, and I
guess that's what burns them up. I think it's bull----. Sooner or
later they're going to have to start giving us calls." Why have
the officials chosen to make Portland the victim of this master
plan? "We don't have a lot of poster boys on this team," explains
The book on Wallace reads a lot like the book on the Blazers.
Both player and team are versatile, athletic and bottomlessly
talented; both are so maddeningly combustible you're never sure
what you're getting. Is Portland the championship-caliber team
that was battling the Los Angeles Lakers for the league's best
record at the All-Star break? Or is it the rudderless collection
that went 14-11 after Feb. 29 and lost back-to-back games in
April to the lowly Vancouver Grizzlies and Houston Rockets?
Likewise, is Wallace the go-to guy who scored a season-high 34
points against the Dallas Mavericks on March 30? Or is he the
hellion who, two games later, was tossed after 11 minutes for
protesting an innocuous noncall?
Tough as it is to get a handle on Wallace, it's easy to marvel at
his skills. A first-time All-Star who had the best season of his
five-year career--technicals notwithstanding--Wallace averaged a
career-best 16.4 points and led the team in blocked shots (1.32)
and rebounds (7.0). Too quick and agile for most centers and too
big for most forwards, he scores on a variety of unblockable
turnarounds, mid-range jumpers and some of the most electrifying
dunks this side of Vince Carter. Defensively, he can play all
three frontcourt positions with equal proficiency. "If I were a
G.M., he would be my first choice of anybody," says Sacramento
Kings center Vlade Divac. "He is a great player and an emotional
guy. He just can't hold his feelings inside."
Wallace may be on the short list of stars on the rise--he played
the Timberwolves' top gun, Kevin Garnett, to a draw in Game 1--but
he has little use for personal recognition. "It's all about my
team winning games," he says. Unlike so many other stars who make
that claim, Wallace backs up his words. Hailed by his teammates
as the consummate colleague, Wallace is refreshingly unselfish.
He may make more than half his shots, but his first instinct
after catching a pass is to scour the floor for cutters. On a
deep team, with shots and minutes in huge demand, Wallace has
never groused about his allotment of either. He even surrendered
his starting spot to Brian Grant last season without a whimper.
"I've never heard him ask for anything in a personal way," says
Dunleavy. "Rasheed just has an overriding desire to win."
It was no different at North Carolina, where Wallace played for
two years--and drew seven technical fouls--before turning pro in
1995. Dean Smith admits to second-guessing himself for not making
Wallace, who left Chapel Hill as the ACC's alltime leader in
field goal percentage, a bigger part of a Tar Heels' offense that
featured Jerry Stackhouse and Eric Montross. Though Wallace was a
hotshot recruit, touted as the best Philadelphia product since
Wilt Chamberlain, he never complained about his role. "Rasheed
was a joy to coach, and I was impressed by his knowledge of the
game," gushes Smith. "If anything, he could be too unselfish."
On the surface Wallace's combination of size, strength,
athleticism and 'tude makes him the prototype hoops stud for
Generation Next. Yet his game has a retro flavor. Shod in Nike
Air Forces--the footwear equivalent of a Commodore 64
computer--Wallace plays a type of basketball that would please
any purist. His fundamentals are superb. He uses the backboard
with skill, and when he doesn't rabidly object to being whistled
for a foul, he has the endearingly dated habit of raising his
hand in sheepish acknowledgement.
Those two incongruous parts of his nature are apparent off the
court as well. Wallace shows plenty of symptoms of a chronic
case of arrested development. He loves cartoons, he collects
Star Wars figurines, and he's a guest deejay on a weekly radio
show that resembles a giddy, three-hour version of a
"Whazzzzzup" commercial. "Rasheed's a 6'11" kid," says Moses
Gooch, Wallace's best friend. "When he gets upset, it's like a
child who can't have candy."
But as the birthmark of gray hair on the back of his head would
suggest, Wallace is also, in some ways, mature beyond his years.
Though he doesn't turn 26 until September, Wallace is already a
suburb-dwelling family man who forgoes nights on the town to
spend time with his wife, Fatima, and their three sons: Malik,
12, Ishmiel, 4, and Nazir, 2. "If you want to see the real
Rasheed, watch him around his family," says Portland center
Jermaine O'Neal. "It means everything to him."
Never was that more apparent than three years ago, when
Ishmiel's mother, Chiquita Bryant, went into hiding with
Ishmiel. Though a judge had granted Wallace custody of Ishmiel
in June 1997, Bryant didn't turn him over. After Rasheed's
attorney and a private investigator couldn't track down Bryant,
Wallace used his celebrity status to locate his son. On Dec. 13,
1997, he taped an interview with TNT, describing his plight and
the difficulty of playing basketball while Ishmiel was missing.
Barely a week later a viewer in Kings Mountain, N.C., who
recognized Bryant, called police with an anonymous tip. At 12:02
on Christmas morning, father and son were reunited. "It was the
best Christmas present ever," says Wallace, who has custody of
Ishmiel and also has adopted Malik, Fatima's son from a previous
relationship. "I never lost hope, but it was a real tough time."
The youngest of Jackie Wallace's three sons, Wallace grew up in
the Germantown section of North Philadelphia. It was a rough
neighborhood, but with Jackie working full time for the
Pennsylvania Department of Welfare, Rasheed never wanted for
much materially. The absence of a full-time father, though,
created a void. Wallace still recalls the times he waited in
vain for his dad, Sam Tabb, a basketball player of some local
distinction, to show up for a promised visit. "As a single
parent, you try to be everything to your kids," says Jackie.
"But not being a man, I couldn't relate to my sons 100 percent.
I was winging the dad part."
Stung by the experience of growing up with an unreliable dad,
Wallace puts as much effort into fatherhood as he does into
basketball. At home he does everything from changing diapers to
helping Malik with his homework. On the road he spends much of
his free time talking to his wife and kids on his cell phone. He
also counsels O'Neal and Wells, both of whom have kids out of
wedlock, and tries to impress upon them the virtues of a family
unit. "Being a good father is the most natural feeling in the
world--it's lovely," says Wallace. "No matter how I play, my
kids are happy with me and put a smile on my face."
This, of course, makes Wallace's meltdowns all the more
incomprehensible. How can a player who's so selfless, knowing
that his teammates rely on him, allow himself to get tossed from
game after game? How can such an astute student of basketball
fail to realize that questionable calls are as much a part of
the game as jammed fingers? How can a conscientious father of
three betray such disdain for authority? Making sense of
Wallace's fits of pique has become a parlor game for his
friends, family and teammates. "I think it's an alter-ego
thing," says Jackie, who is now retired and lives in Durham,
N.C., near her other sons, Malcolm, 33, and Muhammed, 30, and
catches Blazers game on satellite. "I can't say it doesn't
bother me, but I think it comes from his competitiveness. I know
that his real personality is the opposite." Adds Fatima: "I tell
him to calm down and just smile at the refs, but he says, 'I
feel like my head will pop off if I don't say something.'"
Bill Ellerbee, Wallace's coach at Simon Gratz High, surmises that
his former star is venting his frustration with himself and his
teammates at the officials. Ellerbee notes that the bulk of
Wallace's flare-ups occur when the Blazers are losing. (Wallace
incurred his lone technical at Gratz when he was so upset with
his own play in a game that he punched a wall.) Wallace's current
coach, though, doesn't buy that theory. "If Rasheed feels like
saying something, he says it," says Dunleavy. "I don't see him
storing any animosity."
Unlike other tempestuous players--say, Dennis Rodman or Gary
Payton--Wallace doesn't talk much trash, and his technicals are
rarely occasioned by fighting, taunting or flagrant fouls.
Instead, his wrath is usually directed at the officials. Time
and again Dunleavy, a psychology major in college, has urged
Wallace to channel his fury into his next dunk or into his
rebounding. So far it's been to no avail. "Rasheed plays with
energy, and that's a positive, but he has to learn to harness
it," says Dunleavy. "I haven't seen a call changed yet in this
league. Besides, the refs are human beings, and human beings can
hold grudges and they can let things get personal." On the other
hand there's little financial incentive for Wallace to chill
out. The $500 fine he's assessed for each technical is more than
covered by his six-year, $80 million salary.
Still, like opposing NBA players, Wallace's teammates are finding
it increasingly tough to defend him. "His mental approach has to
be better," says Portland center Joe Kleine. "Just like some
players have a weakness using their left hand and make an effort
to improve that, it's obvious that he needs to work on this."
Adds Damon Stoudamire, "I love the guy, but he's going to have to
get a grip eventually."
Though Wallace vowed he wouldn't lose his equilibrium so easily
in the playoffs, it took him less than a quarter to blow his
stack. "I've never been thrown out of a playoff game, and I
never will be," he says. "I'm just going to go out and bust some
He'd better. Otherwise, with their enigmatic star out of the
game, Portland's grand postseason plans--like the residue from a
competitive fire that blazes too fiercely--will be reduced to
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER JUMP START Despite a run-in with the refs, Wallace helped lift the Blazers over Radoslav Nesterovic and the Timberwolves in Game 1.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER MONSTER MATCH A versatile and dogged defender, Wallace harassed fellow All-Star Garnett into 6-of-20 shooting in the opener.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT LABERGE/ALLSPORT
Though his statistics don't suffer much when he gets whistled
for a T--which he did a record 38 times this season--the Trail
Blazers' performance does. Here's how Wallace and Portland fared
during 1999-2000 when he kept and lost his cool. --David Sabino
TECHNICAL MINUTES POINTS REBOUNDS BLOCKS WIN-LOSS
FOULS PER GAME PER GAME PER GAME PER GAME RECORD, PCT.
None 36.2 16.7 7.1 1.4 39-11, .783
One 35.2 18.8 8.2 1.6 16-9, .640
Two 30.5 13.2 5.2 0.5 4-3, .571
"I tell him to calm down and just smile at the refs," his wife
says, "but he says, 'I feel like my head will pop off if I don't