Gerald Wallace is a quiet guy. So it was something to note when, in the closing seconds of the first half of the Trail Blazers' game against Sacramento on Dec. 27, he dumped his exhausted, sweaty body into a courtside seat next to some monied fans and struck up a short conversation. The arena exploded in applause.
Blazers fans, rattled by Brandon Roy's retirement and Greg Oden's repeated setbacks, want nothing more than to see Wallace make himself at home.
When he came to Portland from the Charlotte Bobcats last February, home crowds were immediately enthusiastic.
The reason wasn't just Wallace's numbers—he averaged more than 15 points and eight rebounds last season, while making an impact in every standard statistical category. What really endeared Wallace to fans was how the 6-foot-7 forward played every minute as if it were the tail end of a close playoff game.
It may be uncharacteristic for Wallace to sit next to fans, but he earned the nickname "Crash" because of how often he lands on them.
Other than Roy, no Blazer delivered a more memorable performance in last year's abbreviated playoff run than Wallace, who, while playing hurt, scored 32 points in just three quarters of a series-clinching Game 6 loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
On Dec. 14, ESPN.com reported the Blazers were shopping Wallace as a part of a trade intended to bring Orlando All-Star center Dwight Howard to New Jersey. Portland, the reports said, would have received some trade picks and salary-cap space in return.
If that news seemed unsettling for fans in the offseason, trading the 29-year-old Wallace would seem unthinkable now.
The Blazers, unexpectedly, look like a better team than they were last season. Despite his struggles against the Clippers on Jan. 1, Wallace still looks like the biggest single factor behind the improvement.
While the sentiment is often overused in sports, Wallace has become the heart of the Blazers.
"Sometimes teams talk about a glue guy," says Blazers coach Nate McMillan. "He is establishing how we want to play."
Even the team's star player finds Wallace's hustle infectious.
"He's bringing that don't-care, run-into-guys, dive-into-the-stands energy that we need," LaMarcus Aldridge says. "His energy is biding us time for guys to find their rhythm."
The numbers bear the claim out: In the Blazers' first three home games, Wallace's plus-minus—an imperfect but often telling stat that tracks the total point differential between teams while a player is on the floor—was a whopping plus-48.
That's far and away the highest total on the Blazers' roster—and it dwarfs the team's total margin over opponents, 35 points.
In other words, when Wallace is on the floor, the Blazers excel.
But there's more to Portland's love of Wallace than his scoring. In Portland, playing gritty has long been more respected than playing pretty—perhaps a side effect of cheering for a team that hasn't advanced past the first round of the playoffs in 11 years.
Rose Garden crowds have been known to give many a standing ovation for hustle plays, even those that don't end with a Blazers score or possession. Wallace is that rare player who exhibits both extreme athleticism and a blue-collar work ethic.
On Dec. 29, after the Blazers beat the similarly scrappy Denver Nuggets, Wallace was the last man out of the showers and the quietest guy in the locker room. He had apparently tweaked his back and leg during the game. He dressed in slow, calculated movements while keeping an eye on the Lakers game on the TV overhead.
I asked him where he learned his hard-nosed style of play.
"What style of play?" he asked combatively, wincing in pain and annoyance. "Playing to win? I mean, shit, that's easy."
Guard Raymond Felton let out a sharp laugh from the next locker.
But not everyone plays like that, I prodded.
"Not everybody plays like that, but everybody has it in them," Wallace said. "It's not something that you have to learn or somebody has to teach you. It's just up to you, whether you want to go out and do it."
Wallace is right and wrong. The constant intensity may come naturally to him—and to teammate Marcus Camby, perhaps the only other Blazer who plays with Crash's reckless abandon—but it's something his teammates are learning by example.
"I'm a guy who likes to play one way, all out, and he's another guy who likes to play the same way," Camby says. "It's fun to play that way. We're both out there doing it and, hopefully, it'll be sort of contagious and our teammates will follow suit."
The Blazers' front office is trying to lock down Wallace for next year. (He can opt out of his contract at the end of this season or sign a one-year extension.)
Of course, fans and management alike have to be a little wary that Wallace's breakneck pace on the floor might lead to, uh, a broken neck. But no one is going to talk Wallace into holding back.
"He has to take care of his body," says Camby, his eyes cutting across the locker room to an exhausted, agitated Wallace. "But he didn't get the nickname Crash for nothing.â