LISTENS TO HIS HEAD | FOLLOWS HIS HEART
ERIC ADELSON [ARCHIVE]
July 10, 2012
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THE PISTONS COACH ON THE FLOOR CAN OUTSMART ANYONE IN THE NBA. INCLUDING HIMSELF.

COACH SHEED. Say it out loud: Pistons head coach Rasheed Wallace. Imagine him pacing the sideline, snarling behind the salt-and-pepper beard. Maybe he's loosened his tie or taken off his sport coat, the trademark headband long gone. There's Coach Sheed teaching rooks to read picks, defend bigger men, clog passing lanes. He's as hands-on with his players as he is with his summer campers, and he's always mentored them one-on-one.

It was during a game against the Jazz earlier this season in which a vision of the power forward, injured and wearing a blazer on the bench, first got GM Joe Dumars to wonder: How would Wallace be as a coach? Dumars has since gone so far as to suggest to the big man that he stay with the team and grab a whistle after he retires.

Coach Sheed. Give it a minute before you think your world has been turned upside down.

"He is bright and insightful," says Dumars. "He'll lead the league in techs, but he also knows where everyone is supposed to be at all times." Says coach Flip Saunders: "He has all the makings of a great coach. He sees things before they happen." Bill Guthridge, who was an assistant at North Carolina when Wallace came through, sees it too. "He absorbed everything. He'd be listening even if what was said wasn't directed at him. He had great savvy-almost a point guard savvy." Even an opposing coach, Stan Van Gundy, agrees. "He's extremely smart, ahead of every play. He doesn't miss helps or rotations. He knows when it's time to shoot and time to pass. I've never understood why he isn't a perennial All-Star."

Wallace is not a perennial All-Star because he's a perennial pain in the eyes of NBA suits and refs. But just watch the man play. His outlet passes-arms extended overhead-are straight out of an instruction manual. His picks are perfect, feet planted wide and parallel every time. And considering one of his responsibilities is to guard the league's best bigs, he rarely gets into foul trouble (personal foul trouble, anyway). He has always absorbed nuance quickly. "We were working on a press-breaker," recalls Bill Ellerbee, Sheed's coach at Philadelphia's Simon Gratz High. "I told him to let the guards use him as a light post. I never had to tell him again."

More recently, Wallace, 33, mentored two of the quietest people he's ever met-former teammate Ben Wallace and current teammate Amir Johnson-in the extroverted art of court communication. "He teaches me," says Johnson. "You gotta see the floor, gotta be the guy who talks." Nobody (including Saunders) is louder on the bench than Wallace, whether he's calling picks or telling forward Jason Maxiell to stand "straight up" or assuring Rip Hamilton that his move to the basket will work "all day."

Years ago, on his campus visit to North Carolina, Wallace didn't ask for directions to the best diner or the top sorority. He wanted to meet Chuck Stone, the Tuskegee Airman who helped found and was the first president of the National Association of Black Journalists, and who wrote hundreds of columns challenging the status quo and taught at Chapel Hill. Wallace's mind has always roamed far beyond the game.

So to answer Dumars' question: How would Wallace be as a coach? Probably pretty good, and possibly even better than he is as a player. Wallace is hyperaware to everything that goes on around him. It's a talent that would pay big dividends for a coach, but it can sometimes work against a player whose primary mission is the execution of a limited bundle of tasks night after night. Saunders, for one, says Wallace is "too smart for his own good."

Chauncey Billups once told Jim Rome that Wallace "is so good he gets bored playing against some guys who aren't up to his level." He was never going to be satisfied leading the block-to-block life of a big man. Although he hardly shot threes in high school or college, Wallace started to take them in Portland-"an experiment," he called it-and that changed his game. Suddenly, he was a threat from anywhere. But it also made him a potential threat to his own team.

These days, that team is a member of the NBA's elite. But it goes into the playoffs with one serious flaw: post play. Detroit has yet to replace the likes of Ben Wallace and Mehmet Okur, and it will not win another title unless someone clears the glass and lifts an offense that is suddenly close to the bottom of the league in points in the paint. That someone is Wallace.

The Pistons have plenty of shooters. And though Sheed considers himself a "shotter" ("a shooter takes shots, a shotter makes shots"), that isn't about to replace a daily diet of 12 boards. "Late in the game," says former Pistons coach Larry Brown, "I'd like to see him on the block more." Dumars agrees, admitting the sight of Wallace with his back to the basket makes him think, Why can't he do that 82 nights a year? Ellerbee says he once warned him never to leave the post. "If I was his coach, I'd demand more. More rebounds, more blocked shots. We need a center, not the other crap." Sheed himself admits, "I wish I would have listened to him."

So maybe the best question is how Wallace would coach himself. Well, he says he'd spot up at the 4 and direct himself to play the post and shoot from the arc. But that's Sheed, the player, talking.

Coach Sheed would surely know better.

THE PISTONS' MORAL COMPASS IS JUST TRYING TO GET EVERYONE IN THE LEAGUE A FAIR SHAKE. INCLUDING HIMSELF.

NOW THAT HE'S sitting in an opposing locker room, Ben Wallace can speak freely on the subject of Rasheed Wallace. "Did his outbursts bother us?" he repeats, looking up. "Not at all. When he got excited, I got ready. Sometimes the team didn't get started until he got a T." Current teammates, if they were being completely truthful, would have to admit that there were also times when those outbursts signaled the end-like when Sheed stormed off after being ejected in Cleveland from Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals last season. That lack of self-control was tolerated when Rasheed came to Detroit in 2004 as the final piece, but it won't fly now that he's the biggest one. Wallace is the Pistons' emotional generator, with the power to leave the team cold, heat it up or short it out.

You don't have to look too far to see where he gets his spark. Before her youngest son took a shot in the high school gym that today bears his name, Jackie Wallace brought him to the basketball coach at Philly's Simon Gratz High and said: "If he gives you any trouble, punch him." She was a single mom who was too poor to install a shower in her bathroom, but she was plenty rich in her sense of right and wrong. And her brand of justice leads Rasheed like a polestar. "She should have had better," Rasheed says. "Life ain't fair, period." Rasheed's brothers,...
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