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SLAM 89, featuring Ben Wallace, was published in July 2005
This is not Ben Wallace‘s kind of place. Pull into the plush Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, AZ, and immediately you know this isn’t him. The grounds crew tends to the golf course. Landscapers spruce up the foliage. Valets park the $75,000 whips. Inside the $585-a-night digs, things only get more ridiculous. Long, super-comfy couches. Three concierges for every one visitor. The place is MTC Cribs with some damn class to it. But it’s just not Ben Wallace.
Ben’s more of a Ramada Inn kind of guy. Don’t take that disparagingly, though. There’s nothing wrong with the Ramada. Honestly, that’s probably the kind of place Ben Wallace would find more conducive for chillin’ and popping in a Game or Geto boys CD. But here the big guy is, stuck in the lushness of the Phoenician.
The luxury resort destination–when your brochure is filled with so many amenities, you’re no longer a mere “hotel”–offers breathtaking visuals, though. With the cacti and cobblestone everywhere, Ben’s photo shoot has the potential for West Nile-like sickness. If Wallace stared down the camera and puffed on one of those Sugar Knight cigars, his spread could almost be a deleted scene off The Sopranos DVD. SLAM photo department, can you see the vision?
“I don’t smoke cigars,” B-Dub says in that take-it-or-leave-it tone only a 6-9, 240-pounder can. Aiight, that’s cool. How ’bout blowing out the ‘fro, tossing on one of those Armani three pieces we know you got packed upstairs and giving us a few poses on a golf cart or something? “Nah, bruh. What you see is what you get.” Like we said, this is not his kind of place. (And for the record, Ben’s hair stays braided on the road, but when home, and if the wife is up to seeing it, she’ll allow the ‘do to blow out.)
Today, like most days, presumably, Ben Wallace is a simple guy from White Hall, AL, in a State Property t-shirt who’s content to answer a few questions and hop back into bed. His Detroit Pistons, who have a big game with the Suns the ensuing night, have just come back from practice. Dude looks the part, too, moving slower than usual, the trademark hair all but slightly frizzy cornrows. But that’s the thing about Ben Wallace: None of the surface stuff really matters to him.
“I’m big into RC cars,” Ben says, just waiting on somebody to smirk. “I do those kinds of things. Besides that, that’s about it. I actually got my kids into it. I’ve been loving the RC cars since I was a kid.”
And it’s not just the lil’ Wallaces who like hanging around Big No. 3. Growing up in small-town Dixie with 10 siblings, Ben, the second-youngest, learned to get along with a whole lot of folks. And that may explain why so many youngsters around the country have gravitated to the Detroit Pistons center ever since his name became a force of nature at the turn of the century.
“I don’t know what it is,” the WWE-obsessed Wallace shrugs when asked about the adoration he receives at home and on the road. “Maybe it’s something they can relate to, something they can have fun with. That’s what it’s all about. They’re not caught up in all the other stuff, the stats and who’s doing this and who’s doing that. They look at TV and they wanna see something they can relate to. They don’t really know about pick ‘n rolls and traps. They’re out there to have some fun.”
It’s noted that some are beginning to question how far these fun and games should go. Back in the day, it was kind of cool to see a white kid impersonate Michael Jackson with the glove and red jacket. But that same kid in an afro wig today? To some, that’s crossing the line. A few critics have gone so far as to call the costuming blatant disrespect and mockery. Big Body, as Wallace is sometimes referred, is a southern boy who could probably point out racism in a sold-out Palace of Auburn Hills–and he disagrees. “Kids going to be kids. They’re innocent. They don’t understand that it might be offensive or that it’s borderline offensive or this or that. They just see something that they like and they just roll with it. It doesn’t bother me at all. I’m not uptight about every lil’ thing that happens. I’m just out there having some fun, trying to get a win. They love to see somebody out there who looks like they’re having fun. That’s what they relate mostly to.”
In other words, those kids are merely showing appreciation for good hustle and a unique style. Leave the tedious fundamentals for the San Antonio Spurs. Adults certainly aren’t checking for dissertations on the motion offense. They want to see the same thing. The common fan digs what Wallace does; they just don’t mind the dish and swish that go along with it. Ben, your 12.1 boards and 2.4 blocks a night are as nice as an April afternoon in Phoenix, but could we get 15 points and a couple of Vlade-like no-look passes to go along with it?
Of course, it’s the public’s highlight-reel obsession that makes stat stuffers–word to Andrei Kirilenko and Larry Hughes!–in those non-glitzy categories like blocked shots and steals so unheralded. But again, Ben could care less about making anyone’s top 10: “It doesn’t bother me. I can score the basketball. Anybody in this League can score the basketball. But what can you do when you’re not scoring? That’s the big thing for me. I don’t need to score to impact the game. I can impact the game in many other ways.”
The two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year–with a decent chance at a third DPOY by the time you read this–takes a breath and continues. “Nobody can score without the ball. IF you’re a scorer, you’re going to need a guy like me to get the rebound for you. If nobody rebounds for you, you can’t score. I rebound the basketball. I just take pleasure in getting wins and seeing everybody out there just having fun. I just love to see the ball go through the basket, especially when it’s for my team.”
Alas, there is something besides his boys and remote-controlled toys the man cares about–winning.
Phoenix’s America West Arena. Nah, this isn’t Ben Wallace’s kind of place, either. If this isn’t the loudest, most rambunctious gym in all the NBA, the poll is a damn lie. The light show is Vegas quality. The dunking gorilla is in full effect. Kids are everywhere–a few, in fact, wearing red, white and blue No. 3 jerseys (no wig sightings though.) And hey, isn’t that Ray J’s sister? Brandy’s gesturing with her fingers, making sure everyone knows that fiance Quentin Richardson just dropped another three. Former Sun Cedric Ceballos is in the building, too, serving as hype man, getting on the Jumbotron during timeouts and asking the guy in section 110 if he knows the capital of Venezuela.
Wallace and his Pistons don’t care about Caracas or much else. For a week now, the talking heads have hyped this match-up as a possible Finals preview. The statistical best in the West versus the second best in the East. The game lives up to the hype. Steve Nash and the crew win a 100-97 nail-biter, but they have to do it in a neutral pace more to Detroit’s liking.
“We didn’t shoot the ball as well as we would like,” Wallace attests, “but we did a lot of good things out there. We did what we said we were going to do. We crashed the boards, we kept them off the break. But a game like this doesn’t help us at all, when you lose. But we’re ready. We’re pretty much prepared for anything, you know? We’re not looking for one game to help us. We’re already where we need to be.”
Reporters step to Pistons head coach Larry Brown with that same was-this-a-good-loss crap. LB ain’t buying it. NBA title defenders know nothing about “good” losses. But you know what? Maybe the sportswriters simply forgot that the Pistons are the reigning NBA champs–sure looks as if everyone outside the 313 has.
Not since Halle Berry won Best Actress for Monster’s Ball and then followed it up with Gothika and Catwoman has a top dog fallen off the proverbial radar so fast. Ask your average fan back in November who’d win the Eastern Conference and the consensus would have been Miami, Indy or Cleveland. Ask again around Christmas and you would’ve gotten Miami, Cleveland or Washington. After the trade deadline? Miami, with Boston or Philly as the darkhorses. And you thought the only thing slept on in the D was Slum Village.
“It doesn’t bother me at all,” says Wallace, who came to Detroit from the Orlando Magic back in 2000. “That’s the reason we’re the champs. That’s the same thing they did last year. Nobody gave us a chance. Nobody was talking about Detroit until it was all said and done, and then [when we won the East] it was Detroit this and Detroit that.”
But the haters didn’t stop there. “Even when we got to the Finals,” continues Wallace, already Detroit’s career leader in blocked shots, “the media was saying that we were crazy even if we showed up in L.A. to play the games. It doesn’t bother me. It’s just taking the same path it took last year. Go ahead and talk about those guys. But at the end of the day, the Pistons are going to be there. We ain’t going nowhere.”
Projected finish after a quote like that? Miami, Detroit and everybody else. “We pretty much got the same team,” adds the ninth-year vet. “We lost a couple of key guys off of our bench– Mike James, Corliss Williamson, Mehmet Okur and then Elden Campbell. So, it took us a little while to get that rhythm.”
As of early April, they’d officially found it, squashing less physical squads like they were supposed to and putting up a helluva lot more fight with heavies like San Antonio than many expect. Roles on the team are pretty straight-forward: Ben guards the paint; Rasheed Wallace grinds it out in the post or drifts out for threes; Richard Hamilton works that midrange game; Tayshaun Prince glides down the baseline; Chauncey Billups gets his however. “Everybody is starting to fit in their lil’ role and knows exactly what the coaches are asking of them. Now we just got a nice rhythm going. We got everybody on the same page, and everybody understands what LB wants from them.”
And while we’re on Larry Brown, go ahead and give credit to the well-traveled Hall-of-Fame coach for keeping the Pistons together after things got ugly with Indiana back on November 19. Thought it’s totally unnecessary to relive the details of the Melee in Motown, it certainly merits mention that Detroit’s record before Ron Artest‘s jersey was torn and doused with beer was 4-3. And by the time they played the Pacers again in March, the Pistons were about 20 games over .500. It seems UPS isn’t the only one that knows what Brown is capable of doing.
“If you look at it,” explains Ben, one of the brawl’s chief instigators, “we had three or four guys suspended after that situation. And it was an unfortunate situation, but everybody stuck together as a team. Once you’re out there on the floor, it’s just you and your teammates. Y’all gotta do things together. We stood up for each other and guys went down together. That’s what it’s all about, staying together as a team and not letting everything sidetrack you, not letting the media talk you into being this person and that person, but knowing who you are and knowing what you represent and just going on about your business.”
As they hit the postseason, the repeat-minded champs were looking more focused than the Ford in your neighbor’s driveway. The Heat, Suns and Spurs weren’t making plans to visit George W’s crib yet for a reason. The Pistons–Ben especially–won’t let ’em. And beyond the numbers, his teammates know what Ben brings. As Chauncey says, “Ben gives us a sense of confidence. We’ve always got a chance. Whether we’re up or down, he’s gonna be a warrior–he’s playing the same way. You never know if we’re up or down from looking at his expression. He’s going out there and going hard. He’s our emotional leader and we feed off him.”
It’s that gluttonous desire for every loose ball that teammates love. It’s that screw-you-play-me look on his face that Pistons fans absolutely adore and even haters have to respect. It’s that whole 12.1 rpg/9.6 ppg/one afro pick package we check for every single night. And contrary to the defense-slanted, tyrannical image TNT paints of Ben Wallace, “Scoring is one of those things I know I can do. Everybody around me knows I can score. I don’t consume myself going out there trying to score 20 or 30 a night. I think I can make my biggest impact stopping you from scoring.”
Not caring about his own numbers while making sure others’ stats are held in check…and claiming hardware in the process? That sounds exactly like Ben Wallace’s place.
DeMarco Williams is a SLAM contributor. Follow him on Twitter @demarcowill.
Photos via Getty.