So I’m walking past the Palace loading dock Tuesday night, after the Pistons waxed the Pacers in Game 5 of their series, and there, standing by the bus, were Rasheed Wallace and Jermaine O’Neal, and they were talking and laughing and at one point they must have shared a joke so funny that Rasheed doubled over and shook his head in hysterics.
Now, as you know, these two do not play for the same team. An hour earlier, they had been battling on the court. They often guard each other in the blood feud known as Detroit-Indiana. They are “opponents” in every sports sense of the word.
Recently, it came out that these two men, friends since their days together in Portland, had spent last Saturday night, the night before Game 4, at O’Neal’s house, watching a fight on TV.
Personally, my reaction was, “I wonder how big a screen Jermaine has?” I always think someone has better electronic equipment than I do, and then I get sad, and then I get catalogues. It’s a guy thing.
Anyhow, apparently others are more conspiracy-oriented. Some suggest Jermaine-Rasheed is a breach of sports ethics, that you shouldn’t socialize with the “enemy” the night before the game. I was watching one of those ESPN afternoon programs and saw Skip Bayless, an old friend of mine, arguing with Woody Paige about this very subject. How could Rasheed and Jermaine hang out like that? Wouldn’t they lose the drive to defeat one another? Enemies can never be friends! Wait until the series is over!
Why, my radio partner Ken Brown said the same thing when we spoke about it. “Wait till the series is done for your relationship thing!” or something like that. I should point out that Ken is a professional comedian, just so Rasheed doesn’t come looking for him.
Anyhow, I’ve heard enough on this to ask myself, “Is there really not a problem here, or am I nuts?”
I’m not nuts.
Old school? Dumars calls it ‘archaic’
“Guys have friends on every team,” Tayshaun Prince told me at the Palace. “It’s no big deal. People are just saying that because of who we’re playing.”
So you don’t care if Rasheed and Jermaine hang out?
“Nah,” he said. “Why should I?”
Good question. Thanks for your time.
I called Joe Dumars, the Pistons’ president of basketball operations. Years ago, Dumars was friendly with Michael Jordan during the years when the Pistons and Bulls had their annual showdowns. He never ate dinner with Jordan the night before a game — that wasn’t his style or the nature of the friendship — but he has no problem with Rasheed doing it.
“Especially a guy like Rasheed,” Dumars said. “It’s not gonna make him any less competitive than he already is.
“I think it’s kind of archaic to think you need a personal hatred for the guy you play against. Besides, from a healthy friendship standpoint, friends like having bragging rights.”
So why do some fans think it’s wrong?
“An antiquated way of thinking,” Dumars said. “Fans think you sit in a room and pound your head against something, you punch the walls trying to get ready. That’s just uninformed.”
Not to mention bad for your knuckles.
Good friends like to rub it in, too
Now, it’s not as if there isn’t precedent for friendly rivalries. Even Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, who were as famous as rivals can get, would, on the same day as the annual Thanksgiving game between Philly and Boston, eat together at Chamberlain’s place, with his mother cooking.
And if those guys could pass the potatoes without losing their sizzle, why can’t everyone else?
Oh, I know some players think it’s sacrilege to even look at the other guy during the playoffs. But the fact is, today’s NBA players share agents, commercials, vacations, golf tournaments and off-season nightclubbing. Who’s kidding whom about freshly minted “hatred”?
It seems to me this is more about fans’ projecting the hate they have for the opponent. Players know one day they could be playing against a guy, and the next day, thanks to a trade, they’re teammates. You play hard either way.
In the end, I sought out a man who was never known for his friendly relations — Rick Mahorn. Big and nasty in his days as a Piston, Mahorn didn’t win any Mr. Congeniality awards. A perfect source, I figured.
“Is it OK,” I asked Rick, who was wearing a very nice suit while towering over me in the Palace tunnel, “to be friendly with a guy on the other team and the night before a game watch a fight at his house?”
(I immediately thought, given Rick’s past, that his response would be, “Depends on the fight.” But he surprised me.)
“You’ll be a friend longer than you’ll be a basketball player,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me if players from other teams hang out the night before a game. Years later, even if you were friends, you’ll still want to be able to say to the other guy, ‘I kicked your butt.’ “
Did you ever do that, I asked, with friends you had in the league?
“I didn’t have too many friends,” he said.
So there’s always that solution.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org”