FLINT, Michigan -- There’s a lasting image I have of Rasheed Wallace.
Think back to arguably the most chaotic scene in sports history, the Malice at the Palace in November of 2004, when a drunk idiot threw a beer at Metta Sandiford-Artest (then Ron Artest), hit him in the face and instigated a brawl near the end of a Pistons-Pacers game. Players and fans were fighting, drinks and other projectiles flew everywhere, a panicked Mike Breen briefly tried to focus on what was left of the game and instead instantaneously became a breaking news reporter for ESPN. Bill Walton was also calling that game, and not even the weed he’d definitely smoked before the game could keep him from getting hysterical. Some players raced into the stands to break up or join fights, and virtually everyone was looking for either cover or a safe escape route to avoid getting hit by objects — or fists — being wildly thrown throughout the arena and on the court as security lost control and fans trespassed in the paths of players, coaches, and other officials trying to exit.
Watching live, it was easy to lose track of virtually everyone in the blur. But then there was ‘Sheed, standing tall, watching everything, protecting players, breaking up altercations, surveying the turmoil, making sure people were safe. There’s a presence about Wallace that is unmistakable — a wise, serene, stillness that on the surface is in direct contrast to the often outwardly passionate and emotional way he played basketball. But those elements of his persona weren’t actually contradictory at all, they were complementary.
Basically, Wallace relentlessly gives a damn. That explains both his uncontrollable bursts of emotion that made him a true artist in the medium of collecting technical fouls, and it also fueled the deep levels of chill that made him stand out during the Palace brawl — simply, he cares. He was looking out for others.
Rasheed Wallace was in Flint again this month. He drove his truck with North Carolina plates here, he pulled into Evergreen Regency, and he precisely, cooly backed it into a tiny parking spot that appeared to be way too tight a fit for the sleek looking new Dodge Ram he was driving. Then he was immediately swarmed by people happy to see him as the TV news van parked next to him pulled out and found another parking spot since ‘Sheed left approximately two inches of room for that driver to open his door — again, PRECISE.
A celebrity visiting Flint in itself isn’t particularly remarkable — a who’s who of Hollywood paraded through the city for concerned photo-ops during the height of the water crisis. But when the attention on Flint waned, the celebrities stopped visiting.
The work wasn’t done. Wallace has never been about photo-ops, though. He came to Flint, and continues coming here, because he cares, because he will show up to do the work — to show people through his actions that they matter, that they’re worthy. He brings people food and water by the truckload, and he and his volunteers unload it and walk it to peoples’ doors themselves. He uses his platform to talk about Flint, and he won’t let people forget why we have to keep talking about what happened here — not because it could happen anywhere, but because it DOES happen in poor majority Black communities all over the country.
“Where are all the white people now?”
Flint, like all major cities, has had Black Lives Matter protests in response to the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police. Those rallies have been well-attended and had crowds of people of all races. But those rallies have been downtown.
Evergreen Regency is low income housing in southeast Flint. The residents there are predominately Black and deal with high rates of crime, drug abuse, and violence. It’s tucked away from the shiny new parts of the city, the universities and the improving downtown with new restaurants, and a handful of historic neighborhoods that are populated by middle class or above residents. There are not paved trails or bike lanes or connections to the investment and energy downtown Flint. Evergreen Regency and places like it are usually just comfortably forgotten.
Which is why Wallace and Stephen Jackson, another former NBA star, were there, to take care of people who are ignored. When they were talking with residents, a woman near Jackson said, “Where are all the white people now?”
She was right. Other than my son and I, there may have only been one or two others in the crowd of over 100. The rallies downtown were comfortable, with space in lots, proximity to college campuses and city hall. Trekking into a part of the city that white people rarely enter isn’t comfortable. Which is why I went there. It’s not supposed to be comfortable.
I don’t think it’s productive to be overly critical of well-intentioned people, particularly young people, who want to be helpful allies and protest in comfortable places. But the quote from that woman is what will stay with me. The reason I’m sharing it is because I hope more white people will take this to heart: get uncomfortable. Go places you aren’t familiar, and do it in a way that isn’t trespassing or disrespectful of the people who live there. Go there to serve, to listen to, to uplift the voices of the people who live there. Go prepared to back off if your presence is intrusive, but go there to hear people, to offer help when and how it’s appropriate, to do the work of taking care of and looking out for each other, to do what Wallace was calmly doing on the court as chaos ensued around him in 2004.
I saw that lasting figure of Wallace again today. From the moment he arrived, his magnetic presence, his power and the ease with which he uses it, was felt. People were comforted by him simply being there. Then, after spending time talking with different groups of people who surrounded him, he climbed into one of the rented moving trucks full of supplies and promptly started handing them down to people to carry door-to-door. Because it was time to do the work.