Why We Watch: Rasheed Wallace, Outlaw

Rasheed Wallace is very good at basketball, but the experience he gives fans is more complicated and more transporting than that.
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In the closing minutes of the Knicks' sign-of-the-apocalypse end-to-end season-opening trouncing of the Miami Heat, the Garden crowd called upon head coach Mike Woodson to bestow upon them a token of victory. They called for Rasheed Wallace. Once one of the most versatile big-men in the NBA, Wallace last saw action with the Boston Celtics in 2009-10 in a performance that, taken as a whole, was mostly notable for how it enraged Bill Simmons.  Now two years later, his name reverberating through the Garden, Sheed entered the game in the role of victory blunt. "I accept my Brian Scalabrine role. I'm cool with it," Rasheed told USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt after the game. The comment sent the basketball interwebs into spasms of wild glee. Rasheed does that a lot.

Right now, the Knicks are 5-0 for pretty much the first time since the internet existed. After three games, Rasheed Wallace's PER sat at a league-leading, small-sample-size-testing-positive-for-crack 30.53. In the third of those games, the second night of a back-to-back against Philadelphia, Rasheed played his first non-victory-blunt minutes of the season. Entering the game in the third quarter, Rasheed unleashed a brace of threes, picked up three boards, a couple of blocks, and, most importantly, debut his new long-range bomb celebration—a mimicked suicide by handgun, thumb as the hammer with three fingers for the barrel, fired into the right temple. "It's three points. Take that to the head," Rasheed explained to anyone who actually needed an authorial parsing of its deep Jungian symbolism.

There is simply no knowing the amount or quality of minutes Rasheed Wallace will see this season. If his 2009-10 campaign is any guide, the balance of those minutes are likely to be spent casually jogging the area between the three point lines as if the space beyond them was filled with sarin gas; jacking threes/periodically miming shooting himself in the head as if he were Christopher Walken in a Saigon brothel; and periodically adding to his intergalactic record of technical fouls. But, really, who knows what Rasheed is capable of, or more to the point what he'll do? He is 38 years old and has enough baggage to require a team of porters; he couldn't be more of a target for the officials and league if he had a predator-drone constantly circling above him.

And, motherfucker, this is Why The Fuck We Watch.

***

We watch because there is a special sort of person who can do things which society-at-large deems to be "wrong"—fighting, marijuana use, disrespect of authority figures, unwillingness to conform to social norms, not-particularly well-kept beards, and so on—and emerge from those repeated transgressions not diminished in the public eye, but with an ever more roguish, anti-heroic magnetism. The usual commentators cluck when Rasheed does the things that Rasheed repeatedly, invariably and unapologetically does—see the parenthetical clause above. But those who truly understand the transgressive thing he's after, who dare take Rasheed Wallace to the head, find him only more appealing and inspiring to our repressed but un-extinguished inner rebelliousness with each new transgression.

Rasheed is ticketed for marijuana possession while driving home from a game with Damon Stoudamire. Short-term result: Fines, court dates, disappointed fans, sanctimonious sports-talk handwringing. Long-term result: endless weed-related jokes (I'm not above it) that serve only to burnish Rasheed's image as an NBA counter-culture happening. Rasheed spends an entire post-game press conference answering only "Both teams played hard," regardless of its relation, if any, to the questions he's asked. Short-term result: Rasheed is fined $30,000 dollars by the NBA for flouting the sanctity of the press conference. Long-term result: One of the most indelible and quotable moments in recent sports history; a catch-phrase for NBA heads; and the image of Rasheed as the guy who doesn't give a fuck in the way that we office-bound respectables wish we could afford not to give a fuck. Or, in the moment that has been repeated most often, Sheed gets one of his panoply of techs/gets thrown out of a game. Short-term result: a negative impact on his team, fouls shots, fines, and suspensions. Long-term result: more entertainment, again, as the Rasheed Explosion quickly became one of the most anticipated moments in the NBA emotional canon. I can't count the number of games I've watched in which, upon the first puffs of smoke from the top of Mt. Sheed, everyone watching the game began whooping something along the lines of "UH-OH, HERE HE GOES," with all the glee of little kids waiting giddily for Bruce Banner to turn into the Hulk. It's a lot.

Part of growing up is calling a personal truce with the expectations of society. As youngsters we may imbibe of various things, dress weirdly, play class-clown, but eventually the world and The Man get their way, as they must. You will play by the rules or you will wait tables into your forties. Society breaks even the wildest of horses; there are a lot of movies about this. But there are, for the vicarious transgression of those tamed citizens, even more movies about outlaws and anti-heroes. The outlaw sees the way the rules are set-up and decides do the opposite. We ride along, on the page or in a movie theater or wherever, at a safe distance. Then we get back to work, grateful for the time we spent outside everything.

That is where Rasheed Wallace lives, and what he gives us.

Rasheed Wallace went through Knicks practice in sweatpants rolled up to above his ankles and a backwards jersey. Rasheed wore a T-shirt that read "FUCK WHAT YA HEARD" to his Blazers introductory press conference. Rasheed succinctly sums up big-time sports businesses' relations with its employees with the indelible bon mot "CTC" (Cut The Check), pissing off the sports media establishment by daring to express a motivation that doesn't begin and end with THE LOVE OF THE GAME. Rasheed blows up at the officials and gets technicals. Rasheed threw a towel in a teammate's face. He was a total dick to Ruben Boumtje Boumtje.

Whose inner-teenager doesn't, now and again, fantasize about walking into class or the office wearing what-the-fuck-ever; telling an authority figure where they can put it; giving 70% and having it be better than 90% of your competition; and telling the world to take it or leave it? And then to have the world take it. And then keep taking it until you're near a decade past a prime you never cared about anyway. This. Is. Why. We. Watch.

Illustration by Michael Arcangeli.


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