Person of Interest: Rasheed Wallace

Before he became the dude who launched a thousand basketball blogs, Rasheed Wallace was the bogeyman of my middle school. In Chapel Hill, all moral lessons ultimately get distilled through basketball, and so I can remember seeing photos of the Tar Heels’ 1993 freshman class and hearing talk about a different breed of recruit. I remember watching the generic yet faithfully repeated hand-wringing over who had said what about staying all four years and all the little raptures that might get set into motion if Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse, or Jeff McInnis decided to leave school early for the NBA. The previous spring, a group of overachieving upperclassmen had beaten Michigan and won a national championship. While the town’s old lefty academics tried to wrangle cultural significance from the spectacle of the Fab Five, their children flocked to the Tar Heel Barbershop and ordered “The Montross.”

Two months later, Rasheed, Stackhouse, and McInnis arrived to a Chapel Hill overrun by adolescents with high-and-tights and a fan base that conflated the blackness and the youth of their new recruiting class with the freshly vanquished Fab Five. It was a strange marriage from the start — Eric Montross, Derrick Phelps, Donald Williams, Brian Reese, and a gangly 7-footer named Kevin Salvadori were all back from the championship team, along with a sweet-shooting, lushly coiffed sophomore guard named Dante Calabria. The Dean Smith basketball factory always mirrored the liberal, academic, yet thoroughly Southern politics of its host city. Smith, the first coach at a major Southern university to recruit and play a black player, promptly stuck Charlie Scott and all his offensive firepower within the confines of the Four Corner offense. Smith famously refused to play freshmen, until a very talented freshman named Michael Jordan forced his hand in 1982. And so, as the early reports began to filter through Chapel Hill in the summer of 1993, all of them saying that the freshmen were already better than the upperclassmen, the usual divide opened up between the town’s staunch basketball traditionalists and all the transplants who secretly wanted to see the Fab Five take down the profound stiffness of Phelps, George Lynch, and Montross.

Rasheed Wallace, of course, became the central figure in Chapel Hill’s civil war between old and new. Stackhouse and McInnis were more traditional Carolina recruits — both had grown up in-state and played at prep powerhouse and ACC feeder Oak Hill Academy. Rasheed came from Simon Gratz, an inner-city high school in Philadelphia. Dean Smith had recruited players from big Northeastern cities before — Brian Reese, who started over Stackhouse, was from the Bronx — but none had come with Rasheed’s reputation. Before signing on at Carolina, Wallace had failed on multiple occasions to get the 700 SAT score necessary to compete as a student-athlete in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He was famously ejected from the McDonald’s All-American game. According to his legend, in an early scrimmage, Wallace dunked on Montross and Salvadori and screamed, “Your job is mine!” Stories like this kept popping up during Wallace’s freshman season, and, as so often happens in college towns that house major collegiate athletic programs, nearly everything said about Rasheed, Stackhouse, and McInnis was (a) distorted and (b) ubiquitous.

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