First Person: Need For Sheed
You hear Rasheed Wallace before you see him, which is quite a statement, considering that he is wearing bright green high-tops that would make Kermit jealous.
He is wearing a gray t-shirt, soon to be soaked through with sweat, and black shorts. It is midafternoon at the Smith Center, and he is right on time for one of the regular pickup games. By late August and early September, most of the hoops alumni have returned to their professional teams or are preparing to begin NBA training camp. In mid-summer, when everyone is back in Chapel Hill, these pickup games have swollen to the point that the players can occasionally run two games at the same time.
Now, though, it is mostly just the current players plus a handful of pros. Raymond Felton is a regular. So is David Noel. It is almost startling to notice that Shammond Williams is not here. He’s been a fixture on the Carolina pickup scene for years, but now he’s in his first year as an assistant coach at Furman, where their pickup games have probably added a long-range marksman and a fiery competitor.
But when Sheed walks in, all attention goes to him. We’re friends now, right? We can call him Sheed. That’s what we’ve yelled at our TV for…gulp…nearly 20 years now.
“Sweet dunk, Sheed!” as he slams through a one-handed alley-oop at Duke.
“Awww, Sheed, don’t talk to the refs!” at any point in the past 15 years.
“Yeah, Sheed!” as he does any of the variety of things that made him one of the most unique players to ever play at North Carolina.
Maybe you didn’t get to see him play at Carolina and you only know him from the NBA. That Sheed was different than our Sheed. Our Sheed made just one three-pointer in his college career and attempted just four (Rasheed Version 2.0, the NBA later years edition, once made six three-pointers in a game against Philadelphia). Why would young Sheed bother? He shot 63.5% from the field during his two-year career, the second-best mark in Atlantic Coast Conference history. To watch him play was to know that he was a singular combination of size, athleticism, instincts…and just the right amount of dangerous unpredictability.
It all seems a little quaint now. But in 1994 and 1995, with Dean Smith on the bench, we just weren’t using to seeing such animation among the Tar Heels. Smith’s teams usually reflected him perfectly, stoic right through the theft of your brownies and then analyzing it calmly in suit-and-tie afterwards. This was an era when having an edge as a Tar Heel meant failing to thank the passer.
But Sheed was just, so, well, different. Kids loved him. Parents complained about him. Everyone knew him. He was like a basketball Elvis, neatly dividing public opinion but leaving no one uncertain. For kids, he was the Tar Heel our parents didn’t really like, which made him—of course—that much cooler. In that way, he was reminiscent of Larry Miller, the late 1960s star who always seemed like he should be playing the game in a black leather motorcycle jacket.
Sure, Sheed might get into an altercation with Kentucky’s Andre Riddick in the 1995 regional final, walking a dangerous line of being ejected (when listening to the crowd reaction, remember the game was being played in overwhelmingly pro-UK Birmingham, and also remember that every single one of those people went home unhappy). But he also shot 5-of-9 from the field in that game, and Carolina won.
Today’s version of Sheed looks thinner, like he’s dropped some weight in the last year, sparking some sideline discussion of a possible NBA comeback (Sheed says it isn’t happening, incidentally). He has maintained his remarkable way of turning a simple sentence into a memorable quote. While shooting baskets on one recent afternoon, he was asked a question about a rebounding nuance.
Sheed’s response: “I don’t get paid for that, my man. I get paid for putting the ball in the bucket.”
That. Is. So. Sheed.
That is the Sheed everyone knows. What they might not see, because for better and for worse he’s built a persona that eclipses everything else, is that he knows the game. The way he constantly chatters during a pickup game reminds you a little of Shammond, who has played the high-IQ basketball junkie role for his entire basketball career.
Sheed, because of his prodigious athletic gifts, will never fill that slot. But listen to Leslie McDonald, who has also played against Wallace in the summer league, talk about his knowledge of the game.
“When you play with those former players, you realize how high their IQ is for the game,” McDonald says. “Someone like Rasheed knows when to set screens and where to set screens. He knows what a man will do and what a man won’t do. It amazes me. It’s helped my basketball IQ because I try to see the game the same way.”
So now Sheed is the cagey veteran, the wise old sage dispensing wisdom to the youngsters. How times change.
Just then a ball caroms out of bounds and rolls away from the court. As the players on the floor watch it bounce away. Although he is the closest player to the ball, Sheed looks dismissively toward it, not taking even a half-step. “Freshman!” he bellows, and waits for the rookies to perform their traditional Carolina ballboy duties.
He’s still Sheed.