In Multiples Of Five: A Decade Of Rasheed Wallace And Tim Duncan (And Beyond)

Photo by Geof Kern

Pairing Rasheed Wallace and Tim Duncan feels right. Outside of premonition, history tells us there is a connection. On the surface, they are perfect foils of one another. The two blazed their own enigmatic trails towards relevancy that, for the most part, run counter to one another. Duncan was unobstructed in his ascent, while Wallace became one of the NBA’s most notable wayward sons.

A word often used to describe Wallace was “tempestuous.” Great word, and apt. To say Sheed ran hot and cold is essentially an insult to the fluidity of water. There was no gradual process to his ignition. He, in all of his emotional power, turned erupting volcanoes into glaciers in an instant. He drew motivation from a well of fire. There was no knowing; it didn’t matter who it was: a coach, a fan, or Sheed himself–whether the well would be dry, or whether a spout of flames would engulf his entire being.

Duncan’s enigma had none of Wallace’s violent, elemental imagery. His eyes are the puzzle. There is an odd disconnect between what his eyes tell us and what we know his mind is thinking. His eyes feign aloofness when his decade-and-a-half of dominance shows a player as in tune with the game of basketball as anyone ever. He decapitated his foes with logic, in silence. It’s the ones that say nothing that we worry about the most, but Duncan has never warranted, nor has he ever allowed for, any traces of doubt in our minds.

They are significant, though the reasons for each are distinct. Wallace is the inside joke that outsiders spend years forcing themselves to understand. There’s no use, really. You either get it, or you don’t. No amount of cultural currency can mask the bitterness of witnessing an all-time-great-level athlete squander his potential. Duncan on the other hand, quietly insisted his outright supremacy. Alluring or not, there was no questioning Duncan’s ability.

Their stories and paths have a beginning. They have a middle and end. Once upon a time, Rasheed Wallace was the best high school player in the nation in the class of ’93 that included Jerry Stackhouse, Joe Smith, and Antonio McDyess. Duncan was a relative unknown from a remote island that is identified on a map mostly by adolescents looking for a quick, cheap laugh. Their story starts in 1993 and resumes in 1995.

Ninety-five. Five. That will be the operative number from here on.

What’s past is prologue
(1995 ACC Tournament Championships: Wake Forest v. North Carolina)

Duncan and Wallace not only entered college the same year, but found themselves in the same conference (Joe Smith was also an ACC freshman in ’93, and while he was clearly the best power forward in the nation at the time, he isn’t important here). After a year of freshman adjustment, their stellar sophomore campaigns culminated in a Wake Forest-North Carolina final round. This would be the last time the two would meet as college rivals. In the five prior meetings between their freshman and sophomore seasons, Duncan dominated Wallace in the individual matchups, but Wallace’s Tar Heels had a 3-2 edge in the series. Wallace and Duncan would both serve as second options in their sophomore year. Stackhouse had become the definitive first option for North Carolina, while gunner Randolph Childress had scored a combined 70 points for Wake Forest in the tournament prelims and semi-finals.

Even in ’95, Wallace’s ace-in-the-hole was his patented turnaround jump shot. With his long arms and high release point, the shot always had and always will have a perfect trajectory to go along with a zero-percent chance of being blocked or deflected. It’s a shot that he had in his youth, and a shot that he’ll have until he no longer has the strength to lift a ball. I’m sure of this.

Duncan was quietly dominant, staying true to his school’s name by being a demon on the glass and establishing outstanding position down on the block. Duncan could have had a career night considering Wallace’s early foul trouble if it weren’t for Childress hijacking the game with his 3-point barrage. Childress finished the game going 9-of-17 from beyond the arc.

With Wallace back into the flow of things in the second half, it seemed certain that the individual matchup between the two titans would gain some traction. Fate, however, has a way of derailing our expectations. With 7:45 left in the second half, Rasheed makes a move on the left block against Duncan; that same turnaround jumpshot. Duncan contests it perfectly, forcing Rasheed to loft it higher than usual. It’s off target. That doesn’t happen. There’s something amiss. Somewhere in this universe, stars aren’t aligned properly. Somewhere, a statue has cracked in half. Somewhere, there is a soul being tortured without rhyme or reason. The ball clanks off the left side of the rim, and as Sheed falls, his left ankle buckles as it grazes Duncan’s foot. Sheed falls down, and amid a packed college crowd, Sheed’s screams are audible. Tears roll down his face as he clutches his ankle, flailing side to side. On his face is the agony of a severely twisted ankle and the fear of letting the team down in the most important game of his career.

As North Carolina’s last-second shot failed to win the game in overtime, the cameras panned to Duncan, who celebrated the victory with a subtle smile. Cameras switched over to Wallace with his head buried in his lap. His legs were trembling.

Even then, we were all left wondering what could have been; what should have been.

What you asked for isn’t what you wanted
(2005 NBA Finals: San Antonio Spurs v. Detroit Pistons, Gm. 5)

Ten years later, the world is a different place. The internet’s influence is widespread, HDTVs exist, and Tim Duncan is acknowledged as the greatest power forward ever. All the while, Rasheed underwent the evolution (or devolution) from all-world NBA prospect to troubling talent with all-world potential to all-world role player.

Ten years later, the two find themselves in the familiar situation of leading their teams to a championship, albeit at a much higher level with different responsibilities and realities: Duncan, the undisputed leader of a perennial title contender, and Wallace, a functioning cog in an immaculate defensive machine.

Ten years later, Rasheed still shows glimpses (and only glimpses) of what his then-future could have looked like. Wallace started the first quarter of full of promise. He began with his immortal turnaround fall-away from the baseline over Duncan. Then, cruelly, as if taunting those he keeps captive, he turns and faces Duncan and perfectly banks in a shot from the left elbow, traversing seamlessly from his own patented move to Duncan’s. Of course, it wouldn’t last. It never does with Sheed.

Yet, while he shot terribly in the game, Wallace played with a level of focus coaches and fans wished and prayed he’d play with his entire career. For one, there were no overt outbursts from Wallace that warranted technical fouls (and good on the refs for not calling a silly one), and secondly, Wallace didn’t hoist any ill-advised 3-pointers in the game (a habit he formed in his years in Portland). In fact, he didn’t shoot any 3-pointers in the game, sticking primarily to the low block, occupying the high post only to set screens and find cutting teammates. Had he shown this kind of discipline more consistently in his more developmental years, it wouldn’t be off to think of a Dirk Nowitzki-esque scorer with elite individual and team defense. Wallace is often accused of playing up or down to his opponents’ level, and it is absolutely true. Playing against the best brought out a terrific defender for the entire series, pairing up with Ben Wallace to make Tim Duncan’s time on offense a living hell. But despite Wallace’s greatest efforts, Duncan still came away with a dominating performance and a tide-changing victory.

Such is the story of their lives.

What will the history books say?
(2015: The future and beyond)

By 2015, Tim Duncan will retire. He will retire as the best power forward to play the game. The history books will easily show his dominance through his four championship titles and his career numbers. It’s all quantifiable for Duncan.

But what about Rasheed? The numbers that define his career are pitiful for a player who has such a strong following. His shooting percentages are miserable and his rebounding numbers make Amar’e Stoudemire look like Dwight Howard. When his cultural currency inevitably erodes with time, is there anything left to redeem?

Sheed has a rightful place in 2000s lore. He has been one of the most noteworthy personalities in the NBA and is responsible for some of the best quotable basketball moments in history. But his charm won’t last forever, and the context of Sheed’s antics won’t always be clear. In a decade or two, perception will invariably change. When a new generation of fans looks back on the NBA, what will they see when all that’s left is old footage and numbers? They’ll see what some of us have tried to overlook, but have always known Sheed to be: A supreme talent that allowed his potential to suffocate due to temperamental issues and a lack of discipline.

These are all unavoidable truths. Yet some of us decide to celebrate him still. Somehow, his cult of personality has rendered the statistics irrelevant. The numbers plainly depict Tim Duncan’s reign of terror throughout his career. His numbers back up the overbearing sense of well-oiled perfection in his game. This is something we all acknowledge. But again, Rasheed Wallace is the inside joke; the joke that highlights the nature of human potential. We live, we love, we fight, and we die. We miss opportunities and we struggle with the pressure of living up to a certain standard. Sheed provided an all-too-human element to the sport in which we all love. His basketball career exemplified the chaos that exists between tragedy and comedy. That chaos is the thumping core to all of our stories.