It was one of those indelible images left from last year's Atlantic Coast Conference title game. There was Rasheed Wallace, writhing in pain on the floor, screaming at the top of his lungs after injuring himself in a North Carolina loss to Wake Forest.
To watch him, you would have thought Wallace had broken an ankle, or suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The injury wound up being a "mild to moderate" sprain of the left ankle. To some, it reinforced an image Wallace had gained in two years with the Tar Heels: that of a whiner who lacked toughness.
"Yeah, they say I'm a crybaby, and people said I had an attitude," said Wallace, who left after his sophomore year and became the top draft pick of the Washington Bullets. "And I do have an attitude. My attitude is to win."
Let there be no misunderstanding about that. Throughout his career, Rasheed Wallace has always been a winner.
In his hometown of Philadelphia, where he was touted as the best big man produced in that city since Wilt Chamberlain, Wallace became a high school starter as a freshman only after a teammate was shot. He wound up leading Simon Gratz High School to a 110-9 record and two mythical national championships.
In two years at North Carolina, Wallace was part of the ACC tournament champion ship team his first season and on a Final Four team his second.
Now that track record gets tested as the graceful 6-foot-10 center/forward joins an up-and-coming Bullets team that has suffered through eight straight losing NBA seasons.
"I think this is a team on the rise, and maybe I can add a piece of the puzzle of just what they need," Wallace said. "It started when they got Calbert Cheaney, then they picked up Juwan Howard and Chris Webber and now me and Mark Price. Each year it's gotten better and maybe we can turn this into a playoff team."
If Wallace does help the Bullets become winners, it may end the questioning of his toughness, a criticism that arose even in his dominant high school days.
"I guess if I had to talk to him about it, I'd tell him to stop crying and just play basketball," said Bill Ellerbee, Wallace's coach at Simon Gratz. "I'd tell him not to be as emotional. But that's the way he is; his desire to win is so great."
Ellerbee went on to say the rap against Wallace in college was unfair.
"They're going to have to start protecting some of the so-called stars in college basketball, because what they do is allow the lesser types to beat up on some of the big guys," Ellerbee said. "Had those guys been protected a little more -- just called the games fairly -- they might have had Rasheed and Shaquille [O'Neal] in college basketball a couple more years."
Wallace answers questions about his toughness and on-the-court demeanor matter-of-factly, having heard the queries countless times.
"Hey, people have their own opinions," Wallace said. "But when I'm on the floor and I don't see somebody giving their all -- I'm going to demand an effort. I'm out there to win games, and that's the bottom line."
Wallace has become a winner using agility that's rare for a player his size. He was also a track star in high school, finishing fourth in the 200 meters and tying for first in the high jump in the Philadelphia City Championships.
Despite the knocks against him, Wallace is an unselfish player. But he can dominate as well. For evidence, consider the ACC semifinal against Maryland, when Wallace scored a career-high 33 points while outplaying Player of the Year Joe Smith in North Carolina's win.
"There are so many things he can do for a guy his size," Smith said of Wallace earlier this summer while in Toronto for the NBA draft.
Wallace, preparing for the times he'll have to battle the likes of O'Neal and Patrick Ewing, has beefed up to 248 pounds (he was 225 at North Carolina).
"I think, give me two or three months, I'll be able to say that I can play center," Wallace said. "And as far as too many guys playing the same position, if I get tired you have Juwan [Howard], Chris [Webber] or Gheorghe [Muresan] coming in the game. The opponent's big man will never get a break."
Since signing last week, Wallace has spent some time with Bullets coach Jim Lynam, trying to prepare for the changes he'll face once camp begins Friday.
"I've got to get used to NBA defense, the fact that I can no longer stay in the lane, and I'll have to keep moving," Wallace said. "The main thing I have to do is learn patience, to be a more patient offensive player. If I do that, I think I'll be fine."