In case you missed it, Bulls forward Ben Wallace violated team rules by wearing a headband Saturday night. This outrageous act of insubordination by Wallace appears to represent the bubbling over point in a feud between Wallace and Bulls’ GM John Paxson that dates to the early preseason.
According to K.C. Johnson in the Chicago Tribune:
“Wallace has felt unfairly singled out by team rules that have taken away his pregame music, his headband and his tape-free ankles.”
Johnson also notes that the Bulls rules are not uncommon in professional sports:
“Skiles, who gave his
team Sunday off, declined to discuss the reasoning behind the Bulls'
no-headband rule. It's not uncommon for professional sports franchises to
impose such rules.
George Steinbrenner doesn't allow the Yankees to wear facial hair. The Knicks demand players wear suits while traveling. And White Sox and Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who is believed to be behind the no-headband rule, asked catcher A.J. Pierzynski and Joe Crede to get haircuts during last spring training.”
Whether these recent tensions are a cause or an effect of Wallace’s poor recent play is hard to say. But, his poor performance is noteworthy. Wallace had zero points and, more notably, zero rebounds in a loss Friday night, and the $60 million free agent signee has been a disappointing player so far on what has been a very disappointing Bulls’ team. Wallace has never averaged ten points a game in his career, but his 5.5 per game average this season is his lowest figure since he was a bench player in Orlando seven years ago. And, his 9.2 rebounds per game is also well below the 11-15 rebound per game average he put up in his six years in Detroit.
The Trib’s long-time basketball writer Sam Smith, author of the classic, The Jordan Rules, sees Wallace’s selfishness as a problem that needs to be stamped out immediately:
“But Ben Wallace's
bold act of defiance, ignoring on Saturday in New York the team's long-held
rule against wearing headbands, may be a defining moment for the future of
these Bulls, who seemed to offer so much promise with the free-agent signing
last summer of Wallace, the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
The Bulls at least need to fine Wallace, if not suspend him, for an egregious act that is way beyond a simple stunt of dissent or petulance.
And I'm not overdramatizing here.”
And, why is that?
second-highest-paid Bull after Michael Jordan in franchise history, essentially
challenged the organization that did so much for him while he still does so
little for them and, in effect, organized an insurrection against its coach.
It's not a matter of slapping down a misbehaving player or trying to show who's
in charge. It's a challenge to the very functioning of a team by what is
supposed to be its premier player.
And perhaps if Wallace were playing like the premier center the Bulls expected, this may not have been an issue. The first time I heard "Life is not fair" was from former President Jimmy Carter. Another great philosopher, Phil Jackson, explained the "pretty girl gets kissed."
There are different rules for different people and we see it all the time. There were different rules for Jordan, and it gave me a good book title. There are different rules for LeBron James, Shaq and Kobe Bryant. But you better produce.”
It’s just downright incoherent for Smith to argue that Wallace needs to be disciplined to prove that nobody is above the rules on the one hand, but insisting that rules are never applied uniformly on the other. If Ben Wallace is the highest paid player in franchise history after Jordan, and the privileged are entitled to live by different rules than the rest of us, doesn’t Wallace pretty obviously fall into the privileged category?
And, if by all accounts Wallace and the team have been clashing about rules since training camp, it can’t seriously be argued that Wallace’s lack of performance is what’s prompting the crackdown on his behavior. After all, the crackdown clearly came before there was any performance to judge, save for the six years in Detroit that earned him the $60 million.
But, the real issue here isn’t the incoherence of Smith’s arguments. What’s incredible is that Smith can write with a straight pen that Wallace’s wearing a headband is an “egregious act” and that Smith isn’t “over-dramatizing.” Is this what it’s really come to for contemporary sportswriters? That they have so much resentment toward professional athletes that they regard the wearing of a headband (Wallace says he needs it to keep sweat out of his eyes, a reasonable enough concern) as an act of insubordination? Is this why Smith decided to become a sportswriter – to police the most trivial behaviors imaginable as if they are of earth-shattering significance?
Smith tips his hand when he says that the Bulls have done “so much” for Wallace. Please spare me this crap. If the Bulls hadn’t signed Wallace, another team would have, and for comparable money. The Bulls aren’t running a charity. They gave Wallace that money because they thought he would push them to the next level of playoff contention. They made a business proposition, and Wallace took it.
If it’s true that Wallace really is sulking about these rules, it’s fine to criticize him for that and to expect him to play with the effort and intensity he demonstrated so consistently in Detroit. Of course, Smith doesn’t see Wallace that way:
“Before this season started, Wallace in an ESPN interview blasted Saunders and commended all his former coaches, bringing giggles to all as Wallace had previously blasted them. He's an oversensitive, easily embarrassed, remote soul. I noticed him seeming to limp during the Friday game when he was benched and he was off for some MRI Sunday. His history, despite the supposed "warrior" mentality, is to come up with some small injury when things aren't going well to explain the issue, usually poor free-throw shooting.“
But, let’s compare Smith’s assessment of Wallace with someone with a little bit less of an axe to grind, ESPN.com’s John Hollinger:
“All you need to know
about Wallace's defense is that for three seasons he made it horrifically
intimidating to play against a team that started two of the skinniest waifs
you'll ever see. He's a freak of an athlete who has the quickness to defend
guards on switches, the strength to battle on the blocks with the league's
biggest centers, and the leaping ability to reject shots from all corners.
Wallace's ability to police the basket area from the weak side is especially amazing, although this sometimes leaves him vulnerable to second shots when he goes for a block and misses -- he was the only good rebounder in the Pistons' starting five. For the season, the Pistons were 10.1 points per 100 possessions better with Wallace on the court, a jaw-dropping figure that underscores his defensive value.”
Smith may be right to suggest that Wallace knew what he was getting into when he came to Chicago, though it’s not clear how clear the Bulls were about the headband rules and it appears that the baffling compulsory ankle-taping rules are new.
But, the Bulls, like the NBA more generally are, it seems to me, simply driving off a cliff with the new strictures on player behavior. Can the league and its franchises really have this much contempt for their players that other than throwing a lot of money at them, they feel compelled to prevent even the slightest expression of individuality, no matter how inconsequential?
And, doesn’t someone like Smith wonder why he’s still bothering to write about sports, when his pre-occupations run to such trivialities?