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.