We don’t quite know for sure yet, but Rasheed Wallace could be walking through that door, for better or worse.
Say what you will about his squandered talent and short temper. In his infinitely quotable press interviews, his animated face and flailing limbs, his steadfast dismissal of authority figures in the game Wallace offered a unique view of the NBA. He racked up technical fouls because he had no ingrained fear, because he was too convinced that he had been done wrong. The subsequent fines didn’t stifle his voice. Most players understand when to stop arguing with officials in fear of a technical foul and fines. But hegemony isn’t always complete. And that hegemony, that implied power the league and its official have over players, was lost upon Wallace. Wallace, throughout his career, retaliated against that which he could not understand or control.
If only that Sheed—happy, almost blissful, the way he is during his traditional pregame dance in the huddle—were the only Sheed. Instead, that guy is often wrestled into submission by another who looks hard for conspiracy.
It’s a familiar perspective. As fans, we will only ever be observers of actions and reactions of which we have no control over. What we consider consequences are either self-imposed or purely psychological. Sheed was never truly an outsider, but that didn’t stop him from considering himself one.
Who else could have inspired his theory that the NBA has “baby dolls” it protects at all costs? “I can take losing,” he says. “But don’t BS me. Give me a fair shake. We make up this league too.” By “we” he means his teammates. Last anyone checked, most of them were former champions, not pariahs.
Wallace bought a championship belt for every single one of his teammates after the Pistons won the title in 2004. Wallace wore his proudly. After all, what was the NBA to Wallace if not a professional wrestling reenactment; a universe that perpetuates the good/bad binary? Wrestling fans cling onto the storytelling of professional wrestling because they know deep down that good will always prevail. A fan’s belief can be tested through the twists and turns that plotlines often create, but ultimately they are rarely led astray. Yet half of the wrestling experience is bracing for the inevitable conspiracy that threatens to ravage the pure narrative. There is backstabbing, collusion, and puppeteering from the forces that be. NBA fans caught a glimpse of this two summers ago in how easy it was to link Miami’s Big Three to wrestling factions built to be hated. For a moment, the NBA was a platform for the wrestling idiom. And the blind, uninformed vitriol and derision reached caricatured levels that would feel at home at any WWE event. Angry fans jumped to collusion and conspiracy. That’s the world Rasheed Wallace inhabits.
But wrestling isn’t all about suppression. There is breakthrough. There are unlikely victors. The flawed, tragic hero soldiers on despite himself and the pressures and challenges of external forces. Through struggle, sacrifice, and sheer will, the tragic hero prevails. He holds up the championship belt and kisses it in unassailable joy. By slinging the belt over his shoulder, Wallace chose to broadcast that narrative for himself and the Pistons. It was proof. Despite David Stern, the refs, and the far more talented Lakers, the Pistons won and won convincingly.
Unfortunately, paranoia doesn’t just leave once good times surface. As Eric Adelson notes in his ESPN Magazine article, Wallace actively sought out the conspiracy. It’s always looming.
This is a post-Tim Donaghy, post-Decision, post-lockout negotiation, post-“basketball reasons” NBA. For all of the questionable activity that has transpired in recent months, years, we’ve chosen to forgo the pursuit in hopes that this new golden era will absolve all sin and misgivings. The league appears to be in good hands. But Wallace’s fabled return comes with his immutable paradigm. We are never truly safe from what we cannot know of and cannot control.
Maybe Wallace’s return is a sign of Dwight Howard’s imminent departure to Los Angeles. Maybe it’s a way to bring new life to the Lakers’ existing frontcourt. Or maybe his return doesn’t happen at all. Maybe it serves only as a harbinger of turbulent times to come. Wallace may not come out of retirement, but his paranoia never retired to begin with.