First Person: Stack And Sheed
When we’re very lucky, our Tar Heel basketball stars come in pairs.
Lewis and Miller, for the old schoolers among us (don’t laugh: it won't be long before those of us who remember the pre-argyle days will be the equivalent of fondly recalling the White Phantoms). Jordan and Perkins. Carter and Jamison. Felton and May. Lawson and Ellington.
It’s hard to think about one without the other, difficult to imagine one of Carter’s soaring, one-handed dunks without also seeing Jamison posted up, then slipping by his defender and dropping the ball in the hoop before the defense even realizes what happened.
But perhaps no Carolina duo is more closely tied than Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse. They were in Chapel Hill for only two seasons, but they’ve spent nearly the last 20 years—yes, it’s been almost 20 years since the twosome enrolled in the fall of 1993—residing together in our Tar Heel imaginations.
Seeing them back together on the court last night in the Nets-Knicks game bore only a slight resemblance to Stackhouse and Wallace as Tar Heels. They still played an important role in the game—Stackhouse, who was supposed to essentially just be getting on-the-job coaching training this year, made the tiebreaking three-pointer in overtime to propel the Nets to the win—but their styles have changed dramatically. Of the combined 17 field goals they attempted, 11 were three-pointers, a marked change from the days when even one three-pointer would’ve made you groan—not to mention rob you of the opportunity to see them careen through the lane with potentially dire consequences for the defense.
Part of their historic appeal is that they arrived at exactly the right time. Following recruiting in the mid-1990s still largely meant reading the newspaper. We hadn't seen internet videos of them. We just knew about their legend from reading about them, and then, improbably, they showed up and were exactly that good.
Stackhouse was from Kinston, which meant the News and Observer breathlessly followed his escapades. He played in the paper’s holiday tournament in Raleigh, at the time an annual showcase for the best upcoming recruits at a time when those recruits still played meaningful games for their high school teams rather than on the summer showcase circuit (you kids get off my lawn, shouted the grumpy old basketball fan).
Stackhouse was thought to be a lock for NC State, and there are those Wolfpack fans who are still convinced he somehow reneged on a commitment to Raleigh. Of course, it should be noted that there are also those Wolfpack fans who are still convinced the unitard was visionary, so consider the source. I still remember waking up one morning and seeing the sports-page headline that Stackhouse had chosen the Tar Heels. It was a giddy day at Apex High that day, with State fans realizing they were doomed to another year of the Les Robinson Invitational (kids: ask your parents).
Then, somehow, things got even better. Carolina won the national title, beating a Michigan team that was much cooler than the Tar Heels but also not as cohesive. Ironically, Dean Smith followed up the title by leaving New Orleans and going straight to Philadelphia to recruit a cultural touchstone who has outlasted every member of the Fab Five, Rasheed Wallace.
And thus was the perfect recruiting class born. Stackhouse was quieter, but prone to occasional outbursts of incredible athleticism. This dunk against Virginia Tech remains one of the most violent and underrated dunks in Carolina history.
Everyone knows about the Stackhouse dunk in the 1995 game at Duke. Fewer recognize this one, but I was at the game at the Greensboro Coliseum, and it came out of nowhere, like most great dunks do. There was no chance to build anticipation. Stackhouse wasn’t out on a fast break. He was in the halfcourt offense, and then he decided it was time to dunk on someone, and then he went out and found a victim (or two).
That’s what it was like to watch Stackhouse and Wallace together. You had to pay attention to the mundane, because it was possible that it might turn into the classic at any given moment.
Consider this montage from the 1995 game at Cameron and see if you can pick a favorite. Mine might be Wallace’s alley-oop on the fast break, when he catches it with two hands, casually transfers it to one hand, and slams it through while cruising past the rim at full speed, making it look no more complicated than moving his coffee cup to his other hand.
That’s not a highlight reel culled across a season. That all happened in one game. If SportsCenter Top 10 had existed back then, they would’ve just played the game tape. Stackhouse’s dunk was so impressive that even Billy Packer, a man who sees Rudolph at this time of year and thinks only of venison, is left to utter, “Awesome play.” This is why you paid rapt attention to all 69 of their career Tar Heel games. What if you missed one and something legendary happened? It was too big a chance to take. Some of the players and moves in those videos look old. Not Stackhouse and Wallace. They look like they could run off the Cameron court in 1995 and run straight into the Comcast Center or PNC Arena and pick up right where they left off.
They dunked big, talked big—Wallace once promised the Tar Heels would not lose to Duke as long as he and Stackhouse were in Chapel Hill, and proceeded to back it up—and won big. Their only mistake may have been leaving one year too early, because if they’d stayed in school one more year, they would have been members of the all-time greatest video game squad of all time. The 1996 Tar Heels could’ve featured Stackhouse, Wallace, Jeff McInnis, Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison.
For the sake of rims across the ACC, it’s probably better that didn’t happen.
This might very well be the last year we get to see Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse on the court together. They don’t get quite as high above those rims anymore, and they’ve turned from slashers into jump shooters. Where Wallace once had that gray patch on the back of his head, now there’s some gray around his temples. You suspect Stackhouse’s bald head may be more out of necessity than style these days.
They are on different teams now, have played long past most of their contemporaries, are now seen as providing a "veteran presence," which is NBA code meaning they are the old guys.
It doesn't matter. In Chapel Hill, as if it's still 1995, they are still Stack and Sheed. You hope they might never stop being Stack and Sheed, even until that day decades in the future when we trot them out to center court to honor them--they will have to be together, because there is no other way to do it--and play grainy video of dunks that only a few of us remember, and I turn to my grandkids and say, with a smile, "You would've loved watching them play."