There’s a reason kids shouldn’t wake up Christmas morning to a giant Pentagon-issue Abrams tank — brand new and big bow atop the turret — chilling beneath the tree: some things are simply too powerful for children to handle properly. You need that tank to weather and ware, suffer the humblings attendant to time, grind, and grenade blasts to the frame. So that, at some point in your early 30s, after dragging your ragged ass out of bed to accept your yuletide bounty of boxers and shitty socks, your joy at finding that once destructive, now crumblingly curmudgeonly beast might be coupled with the realization that you’re finally ready to play with it, albeit briefly, before it falls apart completely.
This is the best analogy I can conjure for what it was like watching a twilit Rasheed Wallace take one final, goofy-ass spin with my New York Knicks. After two calendar years on the lam, the itch about Sheed’s shit-dishing proboscis – the limb on which he leaned for the better part of two decades – became too much to ignore. Afer signing with the Knicks in late October, Sheed whipped himself quickly into shape (a shape, anyway), earning his first burn at the tail end of New York’s opening night beatdown of the defending champs. We all remember the moment:
In no time, Sheed was logging semi-serious rotation minutes, contributing in all the ways that’d made him the maddeningly gifted, intermittently unstable manchild talent we’d all grown to love: bullying brothers on the block; antagonizing the referees with his patented brand of verbal-psychological voodoo; bellowing “Ball don’t lie!” at every reasonable and unreasonable opportunity; and generally doing everything in his power to limit his movement to half-jogs between three point lines. On a second unit that often struggled for some semblance of offensive continuity, Wallace became something of bulwark against late possession desperation; just dump it down low, join in the din of “SHEEEEEEEEEE….” and hope for the best.
That Knick Knation found itself in the throes of genuine panic at word of his indefinite sidelining – the product of too much weight and too many burns on too-fragile feet that came to a head in an early December romp with the Lakers – told you all you needed to know about just how indispensable Sheed had become. Which was at once thrilling and terrifying; thrilling because he’d summoned far more than anyone had expected; terrifying because this was just another example of your team hitching way too much of its second-unit fortune on an age bracket whose chief concerns amongst the general public tend to pivot on keeping your teenage children out of jail or not pregnant and methods for reducing the risk of hemorrhoids.
Bound to boot for the better part of four months, Sheed returned for one last run in a meaningless April 15th tilt in Charlotte. He played just a shade under four minutes, went one for three from the floor, scored two points, and missed his lone three point attempt before heading to the locker room, hobbling once again. Wallace announced his retirement just days later, bookending a run that was in many ways a microchosm of the mercurial forward’s entire NBA odyssey: Flashes of basketball brilliance interspersed with flails of sheer, weird idiocy and screamingly hilarious antics all deserving of their own, special enshrinement – a one-man museum whose operational hours are midnight to three, and where the architecture is always one slipped beam away from collapsing completely. Just like the man himself.
His playing days now bygone Day-Glo, Sheed has already commenced the next chapter in one of the NBA’s all-time strange trips — as an assistant in Detroit, the organization credited with finally transforming a troubled but borderline-genius into a defensive force, a true teammate, and a champion. The hallmarks of an second NBA life are already there: yelling at refs in the waning moments of a meaningless summer league game; pulling young players aside for stern talkings to; and — my favorite so far — greeting rookie point guard Peyton Siva, walking half-dejected back to the huddle after missing a shot by four miles, with this:
There’s a line from Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, wherein the protagonist conjures something of an in-life eulogy for his attorney and partner in drug-crazed silliness, Dr. Gonzo. It’s a crib that gets bandied about quite a bit, whenever a half-famous, half-exciting celebrity passes on. To my mind, the only person to whom it could ever righteously apply may be Thompson himself. But Sheed ain’t far behind:
“There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. Some kind of high powered mutant never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”
Misfit, prankster, loudmouth, hothead, smartass, shit-talker, clown: Rasheed Wallace arrived league-side steeped in these and too many other tags, and now leaves perhaps the most transcendent totem to each the game has ever seen. But all labels contain degrees, and it’s safe to say that Sheed, more than any other player, mostly managed to find creatively clever ways of straddling right on the razor’s edge, between risky but ultimately socially acceptable theater, and the stuff of tragic sports annals. Where stupider men might’ve spent all good graces, Sheed always kept one back-of-pocket. Where angrier men would’ve been shunned completely, Sheed saved face with whoopee chushions. Where crazier men might’ve burned all available bridges, Sheed — impossible arms their own taut cables — suspended them. Even, somehow, when he was the one being suspended.