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Rasheed Wallace: Man, myth, and now a road in front of Simon Gratz High School

Rasheed Wallace gets emotional as the road that runs by Simon Gratz High is dedicated in his honor

Former NBA player Rasheed Wallace races his street sign at the Simon Gratz High School in Philadelphia, Pa. Friday, June 24, 2022. The block of 18th and Hunting Park Ave is officially be named Rasheed Wallace Road.
Former NBA player Rasheed Wallace races his street sign at the Simon Gratz High School in Philadelphia, Pa. Friday, June 24, 2022. The block of 18th and Hunting Park Ave is officially be named Rasheed Wallace Road.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

That sign don’t lie.

The plastic came down Friday afternoon from the street sign at 18th and Hunting Park Avenue, making it official. The stretch right in front of Rasheed Wallace’s old high school is now Rasheed Wallace Road. From now on, you go past Simon Gratz High, you’re on Rasheed’s road.

The day was a trip down a special lane, with Wallace joining old teammates at a morning basketball clinic inside the gym, followed by a barbecue outside, free hot dogs and burgers. Speeches made it clear how whatever you know about this man, the people on the stage know him better, and longer.

“To be honest, I’m holding back a little bit of tears,” Wallace, well-known for wearing his heart on his sleeve during his NBA days, told the crowd on blocked-off 18th Street just before the unveiling. “Because this is emotional for me.”

Now 47 years old, a newly named assistant coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, Wallace was here as a product of the city, feeling the love of the city. Temple coach Aaron McKie and Gratz coach Lynard Stewart, both former teammates, spoke at various times during the day. Boxing great Bernard Hopkins and Big Rube from Mitchell & Ness fame said a few words. Councilmember Cindy Bass, who had pushed the street naming through City Council, brought a citation from the city.

Almost everybody got a hug from Wallace. Sure, he remembered being at that birthday party, he told an older lady. There were Portland and Detroit and even Gratz jerseys in the crowd, noting the 6-foot-10 Wallace’s most illustrious basketball stops. There were references to Wallace the humanitarian, the man who once brought a caravan of water to Flint, Mich., when its public water was dirtied beyond use.

There were lots of laughs, like when Terrell Stokes and Brian Samuels, former teammates on a Gratz national title team, stood outside, remembering young Rasheed, who showed up with ability but not the big-man mindset that legendary Gratz coach Bill Ellerbee required and quickly pulled out of Wallace.

“He ran 186 laps with the ball staying above his head,” said Stokes, now Cheyney’s head coach. “True story.”

There were the few losses remembered in perfect detail, and big wins over powerhouse opponents. (”Smoked Chester like a pack of Kools,” Samuels noted.)

Stewart, who put a three-hour morning clinic together, told of showing up at the school and getting all his shots blocked in practice by Wallace for like three straight preseason weeks after Stewart had transferred in from Lincoln High. Stewart can still picture seeing Wallace in the hallway the first time. “Oh.”

“This is a special person in my life,” Stewart, who went on to start for NCAA Elite Eight teams at Temple under John Chaney told the campers. “I wouldn’t be where I am in my life without him. It’s a special day for me, for Gratz, for Philadelphia.”

Asked what Wallace meant to Philadelphia basketball, Ellerbee immediately turned into an historian. “As far as big men, what is he, top five? Maybe top three. Wilt [Chamberlain] and then there’s a number of guys.”

Maybe top two, Ellerbee was saying. He wasn’t looking to start any debates.

“He’s reached the point he’s a one-namer — Sheed,” Ellerbee said, watching the morning clinic in his old gym.

“Ball don’t lie,” Wallace’s famous belief in a kind of basketball karma, especially on foul shots missed after a whistle that shouldn’t have been whistled — that mantra may outlive Wallace.

“It can go a lot deeper than the actual statement itself,” Wallace said during a 2020 interview in North Carolina about 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.”

It wasn’t just “Ball Don’t Lie,” Ellerbee pointed out. In basketball circles, there’s another Wallace quote, “Both teams played hard, my man,” Ellerbee said with a laugh, remembering the famous Wallace postgame quote from his Portland time.

“He came along at the right time,” Ellerbee said. “He’s part of the hip-hop generation. That shines his light even brighter.”

Obviously, another great Wallace contribution to basketball culture was his unofficial NBA record for career technical fouls, never to be broken. “Shouldn’t the new Rasheed Wallace Road form a T?” joked one local hoop junkie hearing about the ceremony.

That tendency to look at Wallace’s career as a sum of his technicals both adds to his legend and obscures the fact that he was always seen as a great teammate, all levels. (No technicals from Wallace inside this Gratz gym, Ellerbee would point out.)

Wallace’s own teaching style was on display all morning inside the gym at the clinic. “Stay low, stay low — nice,” Wallace would tell dribblers, showing them where to place their off arm to offer protection against defenders. “Eyes up, eyes up.”

To young guys told to drive at a basket with Wallace standing in front of it, he stopped the action. No half-hearted runners. He wanted hard jump stops.

Another aspect of the Wallace arsenal fully on display — his ability to have fun. He kept trying deep jump shots from behind his back — like from waist-high behind his back. They kept hitting the rim. At the end of the clinic, Wallace told the campers to go give a hug to the person who brought them to the gym if they were there, too. Nobody moved until Wallace started counting down … “30, 29, 28 …” They all scrambled to their feet, then sat back down by “three, two, one.”

Robin White had walked in the gym, yelled out to the court, “Congratulations, Rasheed!” White was holding a Wawa bag with cards for his own Philly Truce anti-violence initiative.

“He’s the truth,” White said of Wallace’s place in the city. “He shows them they can come from anywhere and get to higher ground.”

Outside, Mark Nicholson played his trumpet on the sidewalk, wearing a Wallace Pistons jersey. Nicholson explained that he grew up in Detroit, fell in love with the 2004 Pistons NBA title team featuring Wallace. This was when Nicholson was in the Air Force stationed overseas in Italy, “right before I got deployed to the desert.”

“They used to show the games — they would show the skyline of Detroit and it would uplift my morale,” Nicholson said. “I always loved Philly — who doesn’t love Philly? His personality embodied Detroit and Philly. Hard-nosed, tough, charismatic. I fell in love with Rasheed.”

Nicholson read about this event on social media, took a screenshot, drove in from his home in Lancaster.

Inside his old gym on Rasheed Wallace Road, Rasheed Wallace the man wasn’t going through any motions.

“Use the glass!” he boomed out. “RIGHT HAND!”