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Trouble in paradise? Ben Wallace refused to play

Pistons fans watching the end of Friday's loss to the Magic may have wondered why Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace played so little down the stretch. Getting the bench some action is one thing, but putting a cold Jason Maxiell and Dale Davis on the court for the first time all night in the closing minutes of a winnable game is another. Unfortunately, as many of us initially assumed, that wasn't just a quirky substitution decision by Flip Saunders.

Rasheed Wallace was troubled with minor back spasms, so his absence is explainable. As for Ben, his absence was a different story, and one that puts the first stain on his otherwise impeccable reputation as a Piston. Dana Gauruder of the Oakland Press appears to have been the first to relate the situation, including in his game recap on Saturday this telling quote:

Ben Wallace didn't play the last 7:57 of the game, apparently because he was unhappy about being removed at that point and didn't want to go back in. Rasheed was replaced with 3:41 remaining in the third quarter and didn't return.

Coach Flip Saunders said his frontcourt duo wasn't feeling well physically.

"Both Sheed and Ben said they couldn't go," Saunders said. "Rather than let them chance it, we let them sit."

When Ian showed me the quote, I was a bit confused. There was no mention of the fact that either Wallace missed the last portion of the game in the Associated Press recap, and there was only a vague reference in the Detroit Free Press, one that made it sound like it was more or less Saunders' decision.

Was Gauruder confused? Did he misinterpret the whole thing? Unfortunately, "no" and "no." Chris McCosky finally explains in today's Detroit News:

Sometimes you snap. Even the great ones snap.

An 82-game schedule is as much a mental grind as it is a physical one. Over a three-week span, you've had to knock heads and elbows and knees twice with Shaquille O'Neal. You are playing against the biggest, strongest and fastest of your profession -- Miami, Indiana, New Jersey, Dallas, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Phoenix -- one after the next.

You get weary. Your body aches and your nerves get frayed. Things that used to roll right off you are starting to get under your skin.

You are, after all, human. You snap.

On Friday night, Ben Wallace snapped. With 7:57 left in the fourth quarter of a 89-87 loss in Orlando, and the Pistons trailing by eight points, coach Flip Saunders took Wallace out of the game. Wallace was clearly peeved. Never mind that he had played all 15 minutes of the second half to that point, he stormed to the end of the bench uttering a torrent of unprintables directed at Saunders.

Saunders explained the move to Wallace, who waved him off.

A couple of minutes later, Saunders wanted to put him back into the game. Wallace didn't move. He wouldn't even look at Saunders. With the Pistons back in contention and threatening to steal a victory, Saunders again summoned Wallace.

Again, Wallace waved him off and stayed seated at the bench, not even getting up to join the huddle during timeouts.

"He said he couldn't go," was all Saunders would say after the game.

First and foremost, I'm shocked. Ben Wallace is a self-made player whose hard work and determination helped him go from being a fringe player simply trying to stay in the league to a perennial All-Star and the face of an entire franchise. Never, ever in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that he'd pull a Scottie Pippen or a Carmelo Anthony by refusing to re-enter a game, that the Pistons would be just as well off in crunch time (for even one night) had they invested $50 in an Inflatable Defender rather than $7 million this year on the real thing.

As a fan, I'd like to concoct some kind of explanation in my head such as Wallace realizing he wasn't playing well and simply deciding to sit out the remainder of the game for the betterment of the team ((The Magic outscored the Pistons by seven points in the fourth quarter with Ben on the floor, but the Pistons outscored the Magic by six points after Ben left. . . .)) but even I have a hard time believing that. Instead, if everything we've read is true, it's clear that Wallace made a mistake -- an out-of-character mistake, sure -- but a selfish mistake nonetheless.

What shouldn't be lost in the shuffle, though, is how Saunders handled the situation in the press, or more accurately, how Saunders didn't handle the situation. He could have easily called out Wallace after the game, telling everyone how he twice refused a request to get back into the game. Instead, he refused to directly address the issue, leaving most of us in the dark. Most fans aren't even learning about this until two days after the fact. ((Can you imagine Larry Brown ever passing up the opportunity to tear down an insubordinate player?))

Wallace was clearly annoyed after Friday's game, but I didn't read a single comment in which he blasted his coach. Instead, he pinned the loss squarely on himself and his teammates, saying the team put itself in a hole by playing "garbage basketball for the first 24 minutes." ((From the Free Press: "We dug a hole and had to fight to try and get back in the game," Ben Wallace said. "And when you play like that, sometimes it just bites you in the end -- when you play garbage basketball for the first 24 minutes.")) Whether he realizes it or not, Saunders did him a favor by not letting this turn into a story immediately following the game -- now that Wallace has had some time to cool off, I'm guessing his responses to today's questions will be much more contrite than they otherwise would have been on Friday.

I'm going to withhold judgement on this issue until Wallace has had a chance to say something, and presumably apologize -- his track record with the team affords him that much, at the very least. But man, the irony of this is all is striking -- on a night the Pistons faced Darko Milicic, a kid skewered in the Detroit media for allegedly not trying hard enough, the Pistons were suddenly forced to deal with one of their hardest workers slacking off.

Oh well. It's over and done with, and if history is any indication, this will be the last time something like this ever happens again. But so much for thinking that these last two weeks of the regular season would be without any new storylines -- this is just not one I wanted (or expected) to deal with.

Sluggish Pistons fall to Orlando [Oakland Press]
Ben Wallace flips out at Saunders [Detroit News]
Conjuring up twists, reunion [Detroit Free Press]