HOUSTON — On the screen is Gerald Wallace, and he is a 6-foot-7-inch terror who leads fast breaks; who tries to dunk everything; who dives after every loose ball as if saving it means saving the world, who hits the floor so often, so hard, with such disregard for his body, everyone calls him “Crash.”
He never thinks about tomorrow. That’s obvious from how he plays, with a level of intensity, effort, and reckless abandon few — if anyone — has matched during his NBA career, now in its 13th season.
The Celtics forward only thinks about now. Right now. And right now, Wallace watches that screen from his home, where he studies game tapes of his old self, of what he once could do.
And he realizes that he can’t do those things anymore, even if he could not all that long ago.
“Five years ago, I was dunking anything and everything that was close to the rim,” Wallace said recently before the team headed to this city, where it will play the Rockets Tuesday at the Toyota Center.
“Nowadays, I’ve got to be wide open to dunk.”
Wallace is 31. He’s not ancient by NBA standards, with Steve Nash still able-bodied at nearly 40, Ray Allen at 38, Tim Duncan at 37.
But Wallace has played 23,338 NBA minutes, and he has played them all hard, so hard that he has endured countless injuries that have exacted a staggering toll.
Concussions. A partially collapsed lung. A fractured rib. A separated shoulder. A chipped bone in his wrist. Bruised knees. Sprained ankles. Name a body part, and he has injured it — probably more than once.
This season, though, Wallace has realized that he can’t play the way he always has, even if he still wants to. This season, he said he has realized that he can no longer be “Crash” Wallace.
“My body just won’t let me do it now,” he said.
Consider how humbling an admission that is for a professional athlete, for anyone bigger, stronger, and faster than all but the thinnest slice of the population. They are almost superheroes, but not quite, because none of them can defeat what eventually defeats us all: time.
And consider that it is even more humbling an admission for a player whose identity is so closely tied to his energy and effort, to his ability to completely disregard his own physical well-being in the pursuit of trying to help the team.
How Wallace came to his realization began when Celtics coach Brad Stevens asked him to come off the bench seven games ago. Wallace had been a starter for most of his career and he wasn’t happy with the move.
“I was [angry] at first,” Wallace said.
But when dealing with such a change, Wallace said a player must look in the mirror and evaluate himself to see if he can still play at the level he once could for 40 or more minutes a night.
Then he watched the game tapes.
“And I just kind of looked at myself and I understood, I can’t do that on an every-night basis,” he said.
He said his mind still wants to play a certain way, as does his heart.
“It feels like you can do the same things, but you can’t, and your body lets you know that you weren’t the same person you were five, six years ago,” he said.
In a way, then, moving to the bench is a blessing in disguise. He has played 24.1 minutes per night since, averaging 5.3 points and 5.1 rebounds per game.
“I still try to play at the high level that I’ve always played at,” he said. “I don’t so much dive at loose balls.”
But that isn’t true, Wallace is told. He went for one in a recent home game against Orlando, landing in the second row.
“Yeah, I caught myself, though,” he said, with a smile. “Usually, I would’ve dove about three or four rows up into the stands.
“I’m getting better at it. I’m playing the game more at a slower pace. Coming off the bench, I don’t have to be so aggressive, attacking all the time. I’m able to take care of my body, kind of keep it healthy. It’s sore, but I’m not hurting. I think that’s the good thing about it. I think it’s helping.”
He is sore. That’s how he generally feels, day to day.
But before, when he played with Charlotte and carried the team every single night for nearly seven seasons, when he ranked second in the NBA in minutes played (41) in 2009-10, his postgame routine was to drag his body into a cold tub, where icy waters would numb his beaten and battered frame.
“I literally needed the cold tub,” he said. “I needed to soak.”
Now, he said he just stretches after games. It’s better now, he said.
If he isn’t the same player he was five years ago, then there is a question of what he’ll be like five years from now, or even 10.
What, exactly, will be the final toll of all his injuries?
He doesn’t deny what he has done to himself, but he doesn’t think about tomorrow. He’ll deal with it when it arrives.
“I’ve put a lot of punishment on my body over the years,” he said. “It’s there, but I understand it. I’m happy with it.”
Jeff Green sat across the locker room, listening to Wallace explain to a reporter how he once played and how he’s physically unable to play that way anymore.
Green is 27. He has many good years left. He hasn’t even reached his prime. He smiled a bit as he listened, and he jokingly called Wallace “old” at one point.
Wallace went quiet for a moment. He knows Green meant no harm. It was just a joke.
“I feel like it, though,” Wallace said.