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Fits to a T

Wallace and Celtics make a good match

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / July 19, 2009
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ROCHESTER HILLS, Mich. - Rasheed Wallace is fielding questions from his wife. “Is your attitude controllable enough to win a championship?’’ asks Fatima Wallace. She speaks for concerned Celtics fans who worry her husband’s temper and technical fouls could cost the team a title. Sprawled on an oversized couch at home, Rasheed answers, “We shall see.’’

That is not good enough for Fatima.

“Rasheed,’’ she says with a hint of impatience, “Do you think you can control your temper long enough, for eight months, to get that championship?’’

Rasheed sits up and tells the truth. He has no choice. Fatima knows him too well.

“There’s going to be nights where I say nothing and there’s going to be nights where I say a lot,’’ says Rasheed. “I might get a tech one night. I might not get a tech for a couple games. I can get three techs in a row.’’

Fatima fires back, “But can we win a championship with your techs?’’

Rasheed answers, “I did it before. Check my track record.’’

By now, Rasheed is enjoying the interrogation, the rising passion on both sides. He smiles at Fatima, daring her to continue the verbal sparring.

“Your track record was horrible with technicals,’’ says Fatima.

Rasheed counters, “Whoop-dee-doo. Look how many wins I’ve got. Look how many years I’ve been in the playoffs. Look how many times I’ve had successful seasons. Check . . . my . . . track . . . record.’’

With a 2004 championship ring from the Detroit Pistons and more playoff experience (153 games) than any of his new Celtic teammates, Wallace makes the most convincing argument possible. His emotional combustibility didn’t keep the Pistons from winning a title, and he believes it won’t cost the Celtics next season. Quite the opposite, if you survey his former coaches and general managers, teammates and family members. They see the Celtics as the right team at the right time for Wallace, and vice versa.

“As a ballplayer, I have more pros than cons,’’ said Wallace. “I’d say, pretty much, my worst con is my attitude sometimes.’’

The Celtics came to the same conclusion in their cost-benefit analysis and signed Wallace as a free agent July 8. Attitude and all, Wallace was worth a two-year, $12.2 million contract with a player option for a third season at $6.8 million. He gives Boston the front-court depth, versatility, and durability it needed last season when it struggled with injuries and suffered a second-round playoff loss to the Orlando Magic.

The Celtics are not looking to change Wallace. They are not counting on coach Doc Rivers or All-Star veteran teammates Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen to police him. Besides, Wallace wouldn’t have it.

After 14 NBA seasons, the 34-year-old Wallace makes no apologies for his on-court tantrums and harbors no regrets about his reputation. He shrugs off the suggestion that his temper often overshadows his talent. But it might surprise some that Wallace, Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal, and Tim Duncan are the only active players with more than 12,000 points, 5,000 rebounds, 1,500 assists and 1,000 blocks in their careers. Or that Wallace is the only player in NBA history to surpass 100 blocks and 100 3-pointers in the same season multiple times (four).

“The public perception of Rasheed’s temper on the court is accurate, but that doesn’t paint the whole picture of who he is as a player,’’ said Celtics general manager Danny Ainge. “What’s also accurate is his statistics, his winning record, and the respect he’s earned from teammates and coaches throughout his career. When I asked Paul, Ray, KG, and Doc about some perceptions, they said, ‘Who cares?’ There were no ifs, ands or buts about how bad they wanted Rasheed.’’

Those closest to Wallace know him to be an intelligent player and a devoted family man. At home, Wallace is far removed from the crazed on-court persona that earned a season-record 41 technicals in 2000-01, as well as fines, suspensions, and private rebukes from NBA commissioner David Stern.

Few people see the private side. Wallace’s youngest children - 5-year-old Rashiyah, 12-year-old Nazir, and 13-year-old Ishmiel - create Romper Room-like chaos, while Wallace tries to bring order and calm.

He paints Rashiyah’s fingernails and plays video games with Ishmiel and Nazir. He reads a biography of Che Guevara in his two-story office. He cooks. He proudly shows off his collection of superhero and super villain figurines, all precisely posed on office bookshelves. Hulk. Grave Digger. Spider-Man. Godzilla. Then, with equal pride, Wallace draws attention to the eclectic collection of gallery-quality artwork he selected for his home.

“The only opinions that matter are from my wife, my kids, my mom, my brother,’’ said Wallace. “They really know who I am. One thing my mom told me is 50 percent of the people are going to hate you, 50 percent of the people are going to like you. So, I’m like, ‘OK, I’ll just stick around the people that I like. If you don’t like me, just stay away from me. Don’t say nothing to me.’ ’’

‘His own man’
The day the Celtics traveled to suburban Detroit to recruit Wallace was a great day for a bike ride. So, Rasheed and Fatima rode their bikes 3 miles to the Royal Park Hotel, where Ainge, Rivers, Garnett, Pierce, Allen, and Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck waited. Some of the Celtic representatives wore their 2008 championship rings. The jewelry was meant to impress, to show Celtic pride, to remind everyone why they were there.

Rasheed looked past the flashy recruiting ploy. He didn’t need reminders.

“They thought that was going to put me over the edge,’’ said Wallace. “But I was like, ‘I’ve got a ring, too.’ ’’

The gesture that mattered most to Wallace was Garnett, Pierce, and Allen making the trip. Wallace said the extra effort “made me realize that those guys really wanted me to play on their team.’’ Looking around at the Big Three, Wallace thought “it would be a hell of a team, all of us playing together.’’ Meanwhile, Garnett was so excited about the possibility that he could barely speak. The Wallaces remember Garnett repeatedly punching his fist into the palm of his hand and saying, “Rasheed, c’mon now. C’mon now.’’

The group talked little basketball, almost operating under the assumption Wallace would sign with the Celtics and that other suitors posed no threat. Conversation centered on the team’s personality and living in Boston. The Celtics’ contingent shared advice about schools and where to look for houses.

“We addressed his family concerns and expressed how much we wanted him to be part of the team,’’ said Pierce. “When you play against him, you hope he gets thrown out of the game because he’s dangerous when he’s in the game. But I love to play with a guy like that. He and Kevin are like mirror images as far as their passion for the game.’’

After the meeting, Ainge rode Wallace’s bike around the hotel parking lot. And he was struck by other similarities between Garnett and Wallace.

“Rasheed is his own man,’’ said Ainge. “He’s going to do some things his own way. Most people would show up to that kind of meeting in a more formal way, in a fancy car. But riding a bike reminds me of something that KG might do. And the emotion thing is a lot like KG, too.’’

Coaching Wallace on the Portland Trail Blazers, P.J. Carlesimo remembers monthly “blowups’’ when he confronted the young forward about technicals. But despite all the heated exchanges, Carlesimo remains “a big ’Sheed fan.’’

“Once a month we’d yell at each other and it was usually about officials,’’ said Carlesimo. “Even then, he was not real good at how he handled officials. But that was the extent of my concerns with him. He was on time. He practiced hard. He was a good teammate. He can come in and be the furthest thing from a distraction. He’s intelligent enough to realize what a good opportunity this is. I’d be betting on him.’’

Pistons president of basketball operations Joe Dumars saw his bet on Wallace pay off.

“When we acquired Rasheed, I thought we needed everything he brought with him for us to get over the hump and become world champions,’’ said Dumars. “His emotion is a big part of what has made him special over the years . . . Rasheed is a very smart player and does well with other smart players around him.’’

Pride in his work
Once training camp starts, Wallace expects a lot of player mixing and matching to determine which lineups will work best. The versatile big man doesn’t mind coming off the bench or splitting time between power forward and center. He isn’t concerned about minutes.

While he will take the big 3-pointer at the end of games, Wallace doesn’t need a team focused or built around him. Ainge always sensed Wallace was most comfortable with teammates equally capable of taking big shots, that he “didn’t want the responsibility of being that guy all the time.’’

Wallace takes the greatest pride in his defense. He would rather block a shot than score on a dunk. He worries constantly about correct defensive positioning, never hesitating to communicate where teammates should be.

“Anybody in the NBA can make a layup,’’ said Wallace. “But not everybody can get that stop when your team needs that stop. When they throw the ball at your man, you’re either going to, excuse the French, [expletive] or get off the stool. Defense is something I’ve hung my hat on all the time. If we’re all moving in synchronization on defense, it’s a beautiful thing. My high school coach always told me that offense sells tickets and defense wins championships.’’

At Simon Gratz High School in Philadelphia, a missed dunk meant a seat on the bench. That explains why Wallace punched the padding on a gym back wall when a ninth-grade dunk attempt bounced comically off the back rim. The show of frustration earned Wallace the first and only technical of his high school career. Outside that incident, his high school coach, Bill Ellerbee, remembered Wallace “rarely showed emotion.’’

“You can’t judge a person’s character by what you see in five minutes, or even 48 minutes in a basketball game,’’ said Ellerbee. “He was one of the smartest players I’ve ever had. It was a great pleasure coaching him . . . Going to Boston is something that could revive Rasheed. Last year, sometimes it looked like he was going through the motions.’’

Winning attitude
Fatima Wallace mentions how Rasheed takes his game to another level during the playoffs, how the Pistons’ dysfunction and first-round exit last season kept him from building momentum. The couple agrees Rasheed starts every regular season slowly, but they give different explanations for why. And the playful back-and-forth begins again.

Rasheed offers, “I don’t want to go to the All-Star Game. My time with family is more valuable than being at some damn All-Star Game. I said many years ago, ‘No, I don’t want y’all to vote for me.’ ’’

Shaking her head in disagreement, Fatima responds, “I’ve got to be a devil’s advocate because I think it’s a great thing to show your children. For them, it’s a big deal. Don’t cheat them.’’

Rasheed claims the kids will have more fun throughout a championship series than during a hectic, over-scheduled All-Star weekend. Fatima doesn’t buy it, so Rasheed keeps trying to convince her.

“I don’t care about the All-Star Game,’’ he says. “I don’t care about the Hall of Fame. I didn’t come into the league for that. I came to win championships. By championships, you’re eternal. You can play 15 All-Star Games, but if you don’t win a championship, what do those 15 All-Star Games mean?’’

Fatima answers with a question of her own, “Wouldn’t it be better to get something rather than nothing?’’

A crazed look flashes across Rasheed’s face. He cannot believe what he’s hearing.

“That’s going to be my something,’’ says Rasheed. “Isn’t a championship a grander prize? When you’re at the carnival, do you want the little stuffed teddy bear or do you want the big stuffed teddy bear? You can’t trade All-Star Games for a championship ring.’’

Once again, Fatima realizes she cannot win. She smiles and says to Rasheed, “I can see your mind is already set.’’

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.

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