Detroit is a proud city with backbone and a strong work ethic, but like most urban centers in America, it has a few skeletons. Annually its crime rate ranks at or near the top, not exactly the kind of distinction that has its citizens raising foam fingers. Much of this nefarious underbelly developed over many years and intensified with the Purple Gang of the 1920s, a band of bootleggers said to be so vicious they convinced Al Capone to alter his expansion plans. The disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa in a nearby suburb back in 1975 only solidified the perception of Detroit as a haven for spats and Tommy guns.
Into this context steps Rasheed Wallace, traded near the NBA’s deadline Thursday from the Atlanta Hawks to the Detroit Pistons. Wallace is neither a hired killer nor a bootlegger, but it’s difficult to give him a complete pass on the gangster question, because it depends on one’s definition. In the real world, he is no more a threat to your welfare than the average NBA player, which means it probably wouldn’t hurt to carry a peacemaker around in his presence if you own one, just to be on the safe side. But in the sphere of professional basketball, Wallace is Tony Montana without the accent.
The containment of Rasheed’s inner demons is the central issue in his career, and now the key factor in whether the Pistons make a legitimate run toward the NBA championship. His basketball talent is undeniable. When he restrains himself from blasting officials or driving around the Northwest in a Jeff Spicoli haze, he is one of the game’s top power forwards. But when he is as prolific on a crime blotter as he is on a stat sheet, he can wear out a welcome, like he finally did in Portland.
For the Pistons, this is a risk worth taking. Although there aren’t enough red caps at Detroit Metropolitan Airport to handle all the baggage he brings, the Pistons were not going to win the NBA Finals, or even the Eastern Conference crown, with the team they had. There is the possibility that Wallace will respond to the coaching of fellow North Carolina alum Larry Brown and flourish in a new environment.
It helps that the city of Detroit is well-acquainted with outlaw behavior, not simply in the ranks of lawbreakers but also on the hardwood. This is the club that brought you Dennis Rodman, Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn and Isiah Thomas, billing them with gusto as the Bad Boys. In the late ’80s, they were as likely to loosen your wisdom teeth as they were to outscore you. Fans of the Pistons weren’t content if games didn’t feature at least one visit from the paramedics.
So Wallace’s nasty disposition will get a warm reception. And all the Pistons had to give up in exchange were center Zeljko Rebraca, guard Bob Sura and a first-round pick. For that, they get a big man who can mix it up inside, rebound, play defense and pop from the perimeter.
What this also represents is Joe Dumars making a steal at the expense of Isiah Thomas, his old backcourt mate.
Dumars is the Pistons’ president of basketball operations. He is under some heat this season because he replaced Rick Carlisle – who took the Pistons to two straight appearances in the Eastern Conference finals -- with Brown; instead of running away with the East, Brown’s Pistons are 34-22 (they were 37-19 at this point last season), sitting at the No. 3 spot, and would play the suddenly dangerous Knicks in the first round of the playoffs if the season ended today. Also, Dumars chose Darko Milicic second overall in last year’s NBA draft, ahead of Carmelo Anthony. Right now the only thing Darko can do better than Carmelo is speak Serbian.
By acquiring Rasheed now, the Pistons have 26 games to work on him. If they can sell him on staying in Michigan instead of signing with the Knicks as a free agent after the season for the mid-level exception, they will fortify their own franchise while preventing an Eastern rival on the rise from improving dramatically.
It’s difficult to get inside the head of Wallace. I wouldn’t advise anyone to try without some self-defense courses. But he likely is no different from most in his situation. NBA stars often daydream about what it would be like to play with this team or that. They’ll profess a need or desire for another situation and a fresh start. Yet when they take a gander at how much money they’ll be kissing off by going elsewhere instead of signing a new contract with their current club, suddenly an unsightly situation starts to look like Shangri-La.
This could happen with Rasheed. If he enjoys playing on a contender, in the wide-open East, with his fellow Tar Heel as a coach, in a lineup where he has mighty Ben Wallace to do much of the interior grunt work, he might just plant roots and keep the Pistons among the elite for the foreseeable future.
But it could all go awry, too. In the next 26 games, he could get thrown out of half and suspended for the other half. He could remind Brown that he only played two years at North Carolina and his only recollection of his days in Chapel Hill was that he played for a guy named Dean Somebody. His presence could force the Detroit police to build an annex onto their evidence room.
Whatever the outcome, it’s worth a shot. He’ll change the city’s image, one way or another.
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