Internal Combustion Led by talented but hot-tempered Rasheed Wallace, the volatile Trail Blazers could win it all--or blow up trying

March 12, 2001

The earthquake that rumbled through the Pacific Northwest last
week sent a sizable portion of Portland's workforce scrambling
for cover at their places of employment, but the Trail Blazers
were not among them. "I didn't feel a thing," said guard Steve
Smith of the temblor that struck as the team was about to begin
a workout at its practice facility. "It didn't seem as if
anything around me was moving that wasn't supposed to be moving."

Maybe it was merely that tremors feel normal to Portland, a team
that lives on an emotional fault line. Although the Blazers had
maintained their equilibrium well enough to put together a 42-18
record through Sunday, best in the Western Conference, there's no
telling how long their foundation will hold up. Several players'
discontent over their minutes and the burden of coping with star
forward Rasheed Wallace's lack of self-control have made Portland
the edgiest team in the league. "This team is so good and so
deep, but sometimes it doesn't look as if guys enjoy themselves,"
says veteran forward Detlef Schrempf. "I'd like to see us have
more fun."

The locker room certainly wasn't a barrel of laughs after a 94-81
win over the Los Angeles Clippers last week. In one corner an
irritated Damon Stoudamire, the Blazers' point guard, was
pointedly declaring to reporters that he had no animosity toward
Rod Strickland, the point guard who had been waived by the
Washington Wizards and who would sign with the Blazers on Monday.
"There's no rift between me and Rod, and there isn't going to be
one," Stoudamire said. Still, he didn't sound as if he were
looking forward to the loss of playing time that Strickland's
arrival probably will cause. "I mean, what am I supposed to do,
throw a big tantrum or something?" said Stoudamire. "It wouldn't
do any good. They're going to bring in who they want to bring in.
It doesn't matter what I want."

In another corner of the room, Smith was leaving no doubt that he
wasn't exactly thrilled at having lost his starting spot at
shooting guard to Bonzi Wells in December. "I'll never get used
to it," Smith said. "Sometimes you have to make sacrifices, and
if this is the way it's got to be for us to win the title, then
great. But if we don't...."

If they don't?

"You finish the sentence," Smith said with a slight smile.

Power forward Dale Davis can sympathize with Smith and
Stoudamire. Davis, who skipped a practice in December to protest
having seen only five minutes of action in a 109-104 victory
over the Los Angeles Lakers, still has issues concerning his
reduced playing time. Asked where he was headed as he left the
locker room one night last week, Davis replied, "I'm going over
to the rec league to get some [playing time]."

One of the big men with whom he is sharing minutes is Shawn Kemp,
like Davis a former All-Star. Though Kemp still lugs around at
least 25 extra pounds, he has played effectively in short
stretches lately, which is encouraging to coach Mike Dunleavy but
could have a negative effect on Davis's disposition.

Dunleavy dismisses the occasional expression of dissatisfaction
as the trade-off for having such an impressive assemblage of
talent, "a traveling All-Star squad," as Schrempf calls it. "It's
always tough," Dunleavy says, "particularly when you have guys
who have been the star in other places and are accustomed to
getting a certain number of minutes and shots. Guys' moods change
all the time in a system like this. You talk to them one week and
they're more or less O.K., but by the next week their attitude
has changed."

The Blazers would surely welcome a change in the 6'11" Wallace's
attitude toward referees. The irrational anger he directs at them
puts Portland in a precarious position--its only indispensable
player is also the one most likely to leave the team in the lurch
because of his temper. Wallace set an NBA season record with 38
technical fouls in 1999-00, and had six ejections, but compared
with this season, he was practically Miss Manners last year.
Apparently he wants to set a record for T's that will be as
enduring as Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. Through
Sunday, Wallace had already amassed 32 technicals and been thrown
out of four games. In a memorable meltdown against the Phoenix
Suns on Feb. 1, he earned an ejection, a two-game suspension and
a $10,000 fine for tossing a towel in the face of referee Gary
Benson. Wallace was so enraged at his dismissal that several
players and members of the coaching staff had to restrain him
from going after Benson again. "I got my share of technicals as a
player, but tonight was one of the worst I've ever seen," Suns
coach Scott Skiles said.

It's impossible to measure the psychological toll that Wallace's
outbursts take on his teammates and Dunleavy. Even though they
have become accomplished spin doctors on the subject of his
technical fouls, it's obvious that trying to keep Wallace under
control is draining. "I've had more talks with him about it than
I care to count," Dunleavy said last week, leaning wearily
against a wall at the team's practice facility. "When you talk to
him, he sees there's no benefit in getting into it so much with
the referees. But then he gets in a game and he feels as if he's
been wronged somehow, and the logic goes out the window."

Several teammates contend that his tantrums will disappear as he
matures, but Wallace is 26, old enough to make that theory appear
to be wishful thinking. If anything, he's discovering new ways to
act out (witness the towel toss). Wallace declined to discuss his
behavior for this article, but he made his feelings about his
critics clear during All-Star weekend. "I don't care what you all
think about me, because you're not in my inner circle," he told
reporters. "The only people I care about are my wife and kids, my
mom, my brother and close friends of the family. Anybody outside
my circle, I could care less."

Some members of his family would love to see him exhibit more
control. As Wallace leaves home and heads for the arena, his
wife, Fatima, often urges him to keep his cool, and his mother,
Jackie, has done the same in phone conversations with him from
her house in Durham, N.C. None of Wallace's supporters, however,
have figured out why the sight of a striped shirt so frequently
makes him see red. "People ask me all the time, 'Why can't
Rasheed learn to lay off the refs?'" says Dunleavy. "My answer is
that most people know they have some habit they really should
break, but they can't do it. You might know you should skip the
desserts and lose a few pounds, yet for some reason you can't
manage it. Rasheed knows he shouldn't argue with refs so much,
but for whatever reason, he hasn't been able to stop himself."

The Blazers and their fans have a seemingly endless supply of
patience where Wallace is concerned. Their exasperation with him
is outweighed by their affection for him, and the crowd at the
Rose Garden seems to root for him to keep his composure as much
as it does for him to hit a jumper. When Wallace argued with a
ref in last week's Clippers game, a fan tried to soothe him from
the stands. "It's all right, Sheed," he yelled. "Just chill, just
chill."

Part of the reason Wallace gets as much support as he does is
that while his on-court behavior has never been worse, his play
has never been better. At week's end he was on a pace to set
career highs in points (20.1 per game), rebounds (8.1), assists
(2.7), steals (1.2) and blocked shots (1.8), and he has added
three-point shooting (36 of 106) to his repertoire this season.
Wallace has emerged as the equal of any power forward in the
league, with superior fundamentals in the low post, long arms
that make his jump shot virtually impossible to block and an
unselfishness rarely found in a player of his caliber. Through
Sunday he was taking only 15.8 shots per game. "A lot of guys say
they don't care about stats, but Rasheed backs it up with the way
he plays," says Smith. "If we win, he's just as happy in the
locker room if he scored 10 points as he is if he scored 30."

The irony for the Blazers is that they lack a forceful
locker-room leader who might persuade Wallace to tone down his
tantrums and that Wallace, because of his talent, his
team-oriented attitude and the respect he engenders from his
peers, has all the ingredients to be that leader. Veterans like
forward Scottie Pippen have confronted Wallace about his
outbursts, but for the most part his teammates have tried,
unconvincingly, to downplay the effects of his behavior. They
contend that Wallace has never cost them an important game, but
he was ejected in the third quarter of the Blazers' Game 1 loss
to the Lakers in the Western Conference finals last year, a
series Portland lost in seven. During Wallace's two-game
suspension in February, the Blazers dropped a game to the lowly
Clippers. In the tight battle for playoff seeding in the Western
Conference, that game may seem much more significant at season's
end than it did at the time.

Although he can be a menacing figure on the court, Wallace also
has his share of jovial moments. Against the Clippers last week
he was almost all smiles, joking during stoppages in play with
L.A. point guard Jeff McInnis, a former teammate at North
Carolina. "Million-dollar move and a 10-cent shot," he yelled,
chuckling, after McInnis failed to convert on a drive. His
demeanor, though, can turn dark in a heartbeat, and he pushes
referees until they have no choice but to give him a technical.
Being warned that he's close to a T seems to add fuel to his
fire, and Wallace will stalk an official as if he's trying to
find out how close.

Dunleavy has done his best to head off Wallace's eruptions before
they occur. "When I see him getting into it with a ref, I've
tried talking to him during the game, I've tried taking him out
of the game, I've tried calling timeout," Dunleavy says. "I can't
say any of those things have worked. I probably get half of my
technicals trying to beat him to the punch."

Dunleavy believes that although Wallace's complaints to the
referees are too strident, he usually has a valid argument. That
may be true, but it's also true that the refs have shown no
evidence of the animosity toward Wallace that he suspects them
of. "The guy can actually be very funny with some of the things
he says," says a referee who asked not to be named. "It's not as
if we're looking to T him up. If anything, I think most guys give
him a little bit longer rope because we know he's a competitive
guy who tends to get worked up. When he gets a technical, it's
because he's earned it."

Many Blazers express confidence that Wallace won't lose control
at a crucial moment in this year's playoffs, but it's hard to
fathom what basis there might be for that belief. The
rationalizing and excuse-making that the Portland organization
has offered in his defense certainly haven't helped him address
his problem. There is no telling how Wallace would react to
tougher in-house treatment--being made to watch a tape of his most
over-the-top outbursts, for instance--but the gentle approach
obviously isn't working. The Blazers would risk alienating their
star by taking a harder line, but considering the escalating
number and intensity of his outbursts, the team may be taking a
bigger gamble if it doesn't.

That's the danger in continuing to live on a fault line. Sooner
or later, the smaller tremors give way to one big quake, the
kind that destroys everything.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROCKY WIDNER/NBA ENTERTAINMENT Driving force Wallace has become the equal of any power forward in the game. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Major backup Portland is so loaded with talent that former All-Star Smith doesn't even start. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Up in the air Stoudamire and the Blazers adjust their attitudes and their altitudes on the fly. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Power move Davis, another former All-Star, skipped a practice to protest his lack of playing time.

Team Effort

Of the 14 NBA teams with a winning percentage over .550 through
Sunday, Portland had displayed the most scoring depth. Ten Trail
Blazers, led by forward Rasheed Wallace, had been the team's
high scorer at least once this season.

Trail Blazers--Leading scorers: 10
Players (times as leading or co-leading scorer): Rasheed Wallace
(27), Steve Smith (13), Damon Stoudamire (10), Bonzi Wells (10),
Arvydas Sabonis (3), Greg Anthony (1), Stacey Augmon (1), Dale
Davis (1), Shawn Kemp (1), Scottie Pippen (1)

Mavericks--Leading scorers: 8
Players: Dirk Nowitzki (26), Michael Finley (21), Steve Nash
(8), Hubert Davis* (2), Howard Eisley (2), Courtney Alexander*
(1), Shawn Bradley (1), Christian Laettner* (1)

Raptors--Leading scorers: 8
Players: Vince Carter (47), Antonio Davis (7), Morris Peterson
(4), Mark Jackson* (1), Charles Oakley (1), Alvin Williams (1),
Corliss Williamson* (1), Kevin Willis* (1)

Hornets and Knicks tied with seven each

*No longer with team

"What am I supposed to do," said Stoudamire, "throw a big
tantrum or something?"

While Wallace's on-court behavior has never been worse, his
play has never been better.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)