DURHAM, N.C. — Rasheed Wallace drove around to the front of the high school, jumped out of his Ford Bronco.
“What’s good, old head?” Wallace said to the man stepping out of a car in the parking lot. “You all hungry?”
A basketball game had just ended, a game Wallace had coached. Up in the top corner of the Charles E. Jordan High bleachers, across from the opposite bench — as out of the way as you could get and still be in the building — Wallace’s own Simon Gratz High coach, Bill Ellerbee, had sat with his former Gratz assistant, Roland Wharton. They’d taken a ride down from Philly that day to see their guy do his thing.
Nobody in the building knew the man in the top row had once coached the top-ranked high school team in the nation, with Wallace, the national player of the year, at center. Down here, history starts when Wallace became a North Carolina Tar Heel, playing for Dean Smith, even if it was before all these Jordan High players were born.
Sure, they were hungry.
Follow the Bronco — the one with the best-personalized license plate in the history of Ford Broncos ... IMNOTOJ — and understand that for Wallace, the winding road still goes back to Gratz. Rasheed can think back to when he started high school, a couple of growth spurts from his NBA 6-foot-11, how this Coach Ell was serious about basketball and all, but that was his job.
“When I was there, ‘OK, Mr. Ell just helping,' or ‘Mr. Ell just doing what he was supposed to do,’ " Wallace said.
Now, Wallace uses words such as father figure, friend, caretaker, giver. Now, Wallace is the one passing out JV and varsity game jerseys he’d washed that morning, making sure the guys have a pregame sandwich wrap (but not two).
“I’d forgotten all this," Ellerbee, now 77 years old, said the next day as he leaned against a row of weights watching Wallace pass out the jerseys before the JV went upstairs to play and the varsity went into a classroom for a film session.
There are people inside Philadelphia basketball who look back and say nobody could truly control Wallace for the rest of his life, yet this man at Simon Gratz High School could get him to run cross-country in the fall and then run spring track.
Ellerbee noted that Wallace said after his senior basketball season, “I don’t play for you anymore, so I’m not running track.” Except the track team needed him, so Wallace ran. Ellerbee thought he had the fastest 200-meter time in the city that year.
“He responded to coaching,’’ Ellerbee said on the car ride down. “That’s being coachable.”
Ellerbee walks a little slower these days, and Wallace’s dark beard is flecked with gray. He is among the Ellerbee alumni coaching major college ball (Aaron McKie, most prominently, at Temple); Division II hoops; junior college girls; high school boys and girls; AAU ball; Simon Gratz itself.
Jordan High players know that when their coach is talking to them, he’s locked in, eyes sometimes widening. The guys on his team say they can relate to Rasheed — “a personal standpoint, not just player to coach," one said.
Even Wallace’s attire away from his game khakis and school shirt point to a sense that it’s all right to get some enjoyment from sports. More than a week after the Super Bowl, Wallace was wearing Chiefs gear two straight days: hat, shirt, necklace in Chiefs colors with a Chiefs pendant. That’s been his team, he said, since he was a kid.
“When I got interested in football, nobody was cheering for Kansas City," Wallace said. “Kansas City was trash. I said, ‘That’s my team.’ Then what happens? We get Joe Montana and Marcus Allen …”
Sometimes, his players Google things. When Kobe Bryant died, “a sad moment," Wallace said. “Some of the guys were on their little TVs -- call them phones -- and they saw the [Nike] commercial I did some years back. ‘Oh, Coach, I didn’t know you were in a commercial with Kobe.’ “
“I knew he was an NBA champion," said Joaquin Davis, a senior forward who has signed a letter of intent to play Division I football at North Carolina Central. “Already knew that off the rip. He was a legend at UNC, so I already knew that. I also knew that he got known for a lot of techs ...”
Yes, Wallace showed up with a certain mythology that didn’t require extensive Googling. These guys trying out for his team also already knew all about “Ball don’t lie,” Wallace’s famous credo, a belief in a kind of basketball karma.
“Playing in the neighborhood, I always say that,’’ Davis said.
If you take Wallace’s oath to its margins, go past a player missing free throws because there shouldn’t have been a foul called in the first place … take it right here, a 45-year-old man from North Philadelphia who played 16 seasons in the NBA realizing how maybe his own gifts now can be used in simple ways, personally drying up a wet spot on the court, constantly yelling “hands!” at his teenage players.
“Trying to teach them how to play this game the right way, not how they see it on TV," Wallace said.
“He’s not doing it for the money," his old coach said.
Wallace is kind of applying "Ball don’t lie” to his larger endeavors. This part can get lost in the mythology: He always was known as a great teammate.
“It can go a lot deeper than the actual statement itself," Wallace said of his credo. “When the ball don’t lie, you can look at it as, OK, if I put that hard work in with shooting, what’s going to happen? The ball is going to go in more. If I’m doing a lot of hard work, in the gym, in the weight room, I’m putting that hard work in -- then throughout your career, that ball is not going to lie. It can mean many things.”
The original meaning, the one Wallace used so many times during his NBA days, still holds. During the game, one of Rasheed’s guys blocked a shot. A whistle blew.
“Oooooh,’’ Rasheed yelled out. “Way to be there. Good block.”
The first free throw missed. Someone called out, “Ball don’t lie.” Was that a student? Someone on Wallace’s bench?
“Oh, yeah, I said it," Wallace said later. “I still say it all the time.”
After this one was over, his team surviving to stay in the fight for a playoff spot, his athletic director called out to Wallace in the hallway, thanking him for telling his guys during his last timeout that they couldn’t lose if they kept their heads and avoided a technical.
“Thanks for that," the AD said. “Things were getting chippy out there.”
Stop right there. Send that one to the NBA league office -- Rasheed Wallace being thanked for calming things down.
The AD was right. In the game, one of the head coaches had gotten a technical … the other team’s coach. Other technicals had been called. An assistant coach. Players from both teams. There were technicals in the girls’ game played just before, the same refs working that one. Seven technicals in all.
Just not Rasheed. … One ref did tell him from across the court, “Sit down.”
Rasheed said back: “Ref the game.”
While no official records are kept, Wallace reportedly does have the single-season NBA record of 40 technical fouls, which could be one of those records never to be broken. The refs seeing Rasheed now know all this. The coaches talk about it with the players, how the referees don’t like Wallace.
“OK, my funniest tech I ever got in the NBA was for looking at a ref," Wallace said. “My techs here, I got a tech for calling a timeout …”
In his telling, for the ref a couple of feet away from him not acknowledging his requests for a timeout, until he stepped on the court … bam, tech. His AD was right there, he said, saw the whole exchange.
He got one other T, Wallace said, from the same ref, as it happens, for trying to suggest the refs watch for an opposing player kicking his legs out on three-pointers.
He knows his reputation accompanies him into the smallest gyms.
He’s the best player in the country, get him the ball'
As his basketball IQ grew, Wallace got comfortable expressing his opinions, even at Gratz.
“I don’t think he liked us force-feeding him sometimes," Ellerbee said.
What Ellerbee meant by that, the coaches wanted the ball in Wallace’s hands.
“He’s the best player in the country, get him the ball," Ellerbee said. “It was a no-brainer because he would pass the ball.”
Ellerbee knew how to reason with his guys. His best team scored a lot of points, with Division I talent coming off the bench. How did Ellerbee get them to stop scoring against the weaker teams? Seems they could have scored 400.
“We’d work on things," Ellerbee said, mentioning how one time they had 90 points after three quarters, so he told his guys they’d get to 98, “and whoever scores the 100th point will set a school record … for most laps run in practice the next day.”
Wharton, his former assistant, who went on to coach Gratz himself in later years, first ran into Ellerbee at the Belfield Recreation Center.
“Ellerbee had us playing everywhere, every day, all over the city," Wharton said on the car ride down. “And he made us coach the younger guys.”
“That’s right," Ellerbee said. “You find out how to play the game that way.”
“It wasn’t like you had a choice,’’ Wharton said. “‘Come over here, Roland, coach this game. … Yo, man, I just came to play. … Coach the guys. All right.’ Once I started, I loved it. I never stopped.”
Listening to the two of them together talking Philadelphia basketball is, quite simply, a pleasure.
They got to talking about one high school coach.
“He liked crazy dudes … he didn’t like disciplined players.”
Ellerbee had first seen Wallace as a 12- or 13-year-old playing football for Oak Lane. A receiver?
“A tackle, I think," Ellerbee said. “Then I saw him play basketball. He was a baseball pitcher, too. He threw heat. He just couldn’t control it.”
“We didn’t have a problem with him in high school," Ellerbee said. “He got one technical. It was in the ninth grade. He missed a dunk, down at Edison. I told them if they’re going to dunk the ball and they miss, I’m taking them out of the game. So after he missed, he went and slammed his hand up against the mats. Overzealous ref gave him a technical. I ended up getting a technical, too.”
Ellerbee said the ref told him Wallace was trying to show him up.
“It ain’t got nothing to do with you," Ellerbee remembers saying, trying to explain to the ref why Wallace had gotten mad.
“I got T’d up because I think I called him a jackass," Ellerbee said.
The conversation veered around basketball
A burger place was closing after the game so the Ford Bronco headed for a pizza place, Wallace’s teenage daughter in the car. The group mostly ignored the North Carolina game on the screen since the Tar Heels were losing at Wake Forest. Wallace’s reverence for the late Dean Smith remains, although Wallace left after two seasons for the NBA.
Ellerbee noted that the UNC coach had sent him two notes, one after Wallace got to Chapel Hill, noting that Wallace was maybe the most prepared player he’d gotten. (Maybe Smith sent such notes to a lot of coaches, but probably not.) Smith also sent Ellerbee a note after UNC lost to Arkansas in the 1995 Final Four, almost apologizing for how little Wallace had gotten the ball in that game.
Over the pizza, with Ellerbee and Wharton eating wings, they got to talking about top UNC players.
“Phil Ford, best all-time," Wallace said, referring to just the college years, knowing that young guys will always go toward Michael Jordan.
The conversation veered around basketball.
“I like Josh Hart," Wallace said. “I’ve liked him since ‘Nova. … I don’t think Embiid knows how good he can be. Show it every night. … That young bull from Philly, Derrick Jones, is going to win the slam-dunk contest.”
This was five days before Derrick Jones Jr., Archbishop Carroll graduate, won the NBA slam-dunk contest.
They don’t go back to the old days talking in the pizza place, although his old coaches will tell you about the time Wallace blocked 17 or 18 shots at the Beach Ball down in Myrtle Beach, S.C. -- “He just blocked every shot they took," Wharton said -- or how Rasheed won the slam-dunk contest down there after bouncing the ball off a wall past the basket and then sending it home on the catch.
“I don’t think he really knew he was special,’’ Ellerbee said of Wallace, even as the recruiting attention became basically his choice, any school. “He probably knew that he was better than everyone else, but he didn’t know the meaning of it.”
Makes sense since getting good enough to get the best of Jason Lawson over at Olney High was a four-year project. Of course, Lawson went on to star at Villanova and reach the NBA. How was Wallace supposed to know that every neighborhood didn’t have guys like that?
When Dean Smith showed up, Wharton said, it was like his feet didn’t even touch the ground. Off to Carolina went Rasheed.
‘Gave it everything they had’
The Gratz coaches stayed over another night and there was another game, a makeup after a storm the week before. Ellerbee wasn’t up at the top of the stands just to stay out of the way. He can get a little animated, he said, and didn’t want to personally factor into things.
"It was a foul, ref!'' Ellerbee yelled during the fourth quarter.
“You looked right at it and let it go,” Wharton chimed in.
The coaches didn’t go in at halftime and listen to their guy in the locker room. They probably knew the words already. Guys sat on a bench. A scene right out of the movies. Before they got into the X and O adjustments, like how to attack the hedges the other team was bringing at ballhandlers, Wallace hit on basic themes as soon as he got in the room:
“We’ve got to step up to this [expletive] challenge. You guys played better in that second quarter. You salvaged it. We’re fighting hard. You’ve got to play like that the rest of the game. If you get tired, let us know, we’ll get you out, we’ll get you back in there.
"But keep it going. Everybody. Rebound. Way to rebound, guys. Let’s keep it going. Keep playing together. Keep having energy up top. Keep going. Keep going. Keep going. We’ve got to keep that motor. We can’t come out in the third quarter the way we did in the first quarter, we’re going to lose this game. Keep the energy up. High energy!”
Wallace, a four-time NBA All-Star, an NBA champion starting for Detroit, part of some real strong Portland teams that just missed titles, also was a Detroit Pistons assistant and has worked with Philly guys in the summer, including De’Andre Hunter last summer. He talks about bringing Jordan High up to play against Gratz, coached by his friend and old Gratz teammate Lynard Stewart. They talk often.
Wallace had said being named to the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame meant more to him than if he were named to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
“He’s a good dude,” Marcus Morris said after he and twin brother, Markieff, had worked out with Wallace a lot a few summers back. “Sheed knows a lot about the game. He’s just a really strong-minded guy, so he thinks guys from Philly, we all should be on the same type page, where nobody can [mess] with us. That’s what he preaches.”
It’s a different sermon down here. High school kids don’t get the same talk as the Morris twins.
“People ask what he’s like -- I think people get a bad perception of him because of the role he had in the NBA,’’ said Davis, the forward going to play football in college. “He had to be so mean and stuff. He did whatever he had to do for his team -- that’s what he always tells us. Around us, he’s always loving, caring.”
Sheed is not asking everyone to be Sheed.
“He doesn’t really try too hard to make somebody something they’re not," Davis said. “If a person is a chill person, he’ll still try to get the best out of them, but he’s not going to try to get them to play like he played.”
The second half, the energy stayed high, but the other guys hit more free throws, so Jordan High fell. Down three in the final seconds, Wallace’s point guard tried to get to the inbounds pass, but when he leaped and couldn’t get a hand on it, he fell to the ground, stayed there as the rest of the team went through the handshake line and went off to the locker room. His leg had cramped up, finally giving out when it was over. Rasheed stayed out there with him and eventually took over massaging the leg, since he could put more into it.
“Gave it everything they had," Ellerbee told him later.
“That’s what I told them," Wallace told his old coach, who said they’d be up the road back to Philly in the morning, maybe in time to see Gratz play in the afternoon.
“You have a safe trip, old head," Rasheed said back to him.