MYSTERY OF RASHEED: ANSWER OR PROBLEM?

Rasheed Wallace took a big gulp of Gatorade as reporters ran to encircle him after practice. Someone began by asking, “How you feeling, chief?”

Rasheed swallowed and grinned.

“I guess that’s the million-dollar question, huh?”

Actually, if you take into account what’s at stake if the Pistons win or lose this second-round series, the playoff shares, the ticket revenue, the concessions, the TV money, the marketing income, and, of course, the value of the multiyear contract free-agent-to-be Wallace will seek, it’s more like the $80-million question.

Either way, an answer would be nice.

“How you feeling, Rasheed?”

“It’s cool. I can deal with it.”

“How does the injury limit you?”

He laughed. “I can’t give up my secrets. The other team might be watching that tape.”

This is the conundrum of Rasheed Wallace. He is funny and direct, but rarely forthcoming. He has endless talent, but it comes with a shadow. He can help you in countless ways, but with referees as enemies and a foot injury that makes him feel “like there’s a rock in my shoe,” he can hurt you, too.

And tonight, in Game 5 against the Nets, Larry Brown’s biggest coaching challenge may be to decide if his best new asset serves him better on the court or on the bench.

His reputation haunts the team

“I’ll know by looking at him,” Brown said Thursday, when asked how he would determine if the injured Wallace was on the plus side of the ledger. “If he’s dragging on the offensive end, if he’s not rebounding or playing defense, then I’ll know.”

It should only be that easy. What if Wallace can do some of those things, but he hoists up some bad shots, as he did in Games 3 and 4? What if the refs call a quick whistle on him, and he’s forced into a more tentative defensive posture? What if?

“In those last two games, when he put up some silly shots, I think he was trying to win the game by himself,” Brown said. “I think at times he gets frustrated that he can’t contribute more because of his injury. But I told him we need him to rebound and defend. We can get (long) shots anytime. He could be 5-foot-9 like me and get that shot.

“The bottom line is, as long as I feel he’s making a contribution, he’ll play.”

And Pistons fans will hold their breath. Because Wallace is clearly the biggest new benefit of this team — and the biggest sports mystery in Detroit. He is not easily accessible. He hasn’t yet been fully embraced by the community, nor has he embraced it back. (In fairness, he hasn’t been here that long.) At times he seems to defer to other players too much — belying a reputation for selfishness — and at times, although he is 6-feet-11 and a fine post-up player, he seems to float outside like a guy a foot smaller.

His reputation with the referees was a non-issue when Detroit was smothering its regular-season opponents, but suddenly, the ticky-tack calls he attracts, and the way those quick whistles change the personality of the Pistons’ defense, are having a real effect on their postseason chances.

“I gotta go around the refs, avoid any confrontations,” Wallace said, maturely. Then, when a reporter pressed him for an opinion about the refs’ calls, he shook his head and said, “All I gotta do is say the slightest little thing and y’all know I’m gonna get fined.”

We know. They know. He knows.

And that’s what worries people.

He’s playing in severe pain

The Pistons clearly have many issues to resolve this evening at the Palace. Chauncey Billups is their engine, and he has been coughing and sputtering lately. Tayshaun Prince has evaporated the last few games. The bench is not providing its needed lift. And rebounding and tight defense — the hallmarks of this team — are surprisingly deflated.

But Rasheed Wallace is the reason Detroit leapt from prospect to Eastern Conference favorite, and his play breaks the dam for so many others.

“When Rasheed is out,” Pistons president Joe Dumars said, “Ben (Wallace) has to cover so much more ground. And Tayshaun has to take on more of a load.”

And Billups and Richard Hamilton can’t let anyone get past them. And the rebounding is depleted, which depletes the fast break. And the Nets can do much more inside damage. And . . . ah, you get the drift.

So like it or not, Pistons fans must hope Rasheed Wallace ignores the pain, finds his game, takes it inside, and keeps his defense high. The good news is, Wallace is not slacking here. He may be mysterious, private, even quixotic, but he isn’t dogging it. He’s playing through an arch injury that sticks him every time he does the most basic of basketball moves — running and jumping.

“I wish I could reach down and grab that knot out of my foot and throw it in the garbage,” he said. “But that’s what you do for a ring.

“Over the summer, when you’re barbecuing, then you can say, ‘All the pain and sweat and blood is in that ring.’ “

They should only get to a barbecue. Tonight, they must avoid getting fried. Brown has a big decision, and he hopes it isn’t a big problem.

As to which Pistons team will show up come game time?

Now that’s the million-dollar question.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com”

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