If you're a Detroit Pistons fan, there's a reason for it.
It's similar to the reason you're not a Cavs fan, then a Heat fan, then a Cavs fan again. Or a Kobe worshipping Lakers fan. Or a Knicks fan, because after all your mom's great aunt once lived in Albany so you're basically a New Yorker.
You like the underdogs, the team that other teams can't stand, the gritty team that wasn't just handed its success. Because of that, Ben Wallace is the greatest to ever wear a Pistons uniform.
Statistically, it's tough to make a claim that there's a clear Pistons GOAT. Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer, Bob Lanier, Chauncey Billups, Grant Hill, you could make a legitimate argument for any of them. But when you take the intangibles into account, Big Ben rises above all of them.
It's one thing when you carve out a career after being a top 5 pick. These are the guys expected to be among the best in the league one day. Isiah Thomas was expected to help take whatever team drafted him in the 1981 draft to the next level. It was no surprise that 3rd overall picks Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups became great players. Bob Lanier was the top player taken in his draft in 1970.
But no one expected much out of Ben Wallace. He went undrafted after two years at Virginia Union University and two years at a community college. Teams don't exactly trip and fall over themselves for a center who needs a hefty afro to crack 6'9, even when they do average 10 rebounds and 3.6 blocked shots per game in college.
Wallace spent the first summer league with the Boston Celtics, but their coach M.L. Carr played him at small forward, thinking him too small to play in the post. But the Washington Bullets had an undersized center of their own as a general manager, Wes Unseld, who then signed Wallace as an undrafted free agent.
Wallace worked his way up the rotation in Washington until year three when he became essentially the Bullets' sixth man. Though he was traded at the end of his third year in a group of players for 30-year-old journeyman Isaac Austin, the clues were there for the type of player Wallace would eventually become. He finished that season 9th in the league in block percentage, 11th in rebound percentage, and 20th among big men in win shares per 48 minutes.
He started every game in Orlando, but it wasn't until he came to Detroit the following season that he was finally turned loose for more than 30 minutes per game. It wasn't until he was 26 years old that he finally figured into a team's long-term plans.
Ben Wallace only made four All-Star games. Fans like points, evident by Thomas' 12 All-Star game appearances.
Still, he was one of the most dominant players of his era. As Wages of Wins pointed out (and Devin this morning), Wallace spent seven years in the top 10 in wins produced. In back-to-back seasons in 2001-02 and 2002-03, he actually led the league in wins produced. When the Pistons won the championship in 2003-04, he was second in the league in wins produced behind only Kevin Garnett.
By the way, in those two years Wages of Wins considered him the league MVP, he didn't even make the All Star game. The win shares metric is less bullish on Wallace, but still considered him a top 12 player in the league during those years.
And Wallace pulled all of this off despite never cracking double-digit scoring any season in his career. It was thanks to being the best rebounder and defensive player in the league. He led the league twice in rebounds per game and finished in the top five for six straight seasons. He also won Defensive Player of the Year four times and made six All-Defensive teams.
He's one of 41 members of the 10,000 rebound club and has the 15th most blocked shots of all time. Wallace ended his career with the 12th best rebounding percentage all time and 14th best block percentage.
Wallace has the fifth lowest defensive rating of all time and the best career defensive plus/minus rating. The value over replacement player metric rates him as the 32nd best player ever.
Folks may complain about advanced stats sometimes getting more credence than they deserve, but in Ben Wallace Pistons fans should be grateful they are more of a modern mainstay. Otherwise, Wallace would have figured into a team's long-term plans far earlier than the time he was 26 years old.
Few players all time have been as essential to their team's identity as Ben Wallace was to the 2001-2006 Pistons. During that stretch the Pistons averaged 54 wins per season, always led by their dominance defensively and on the boards.
They finished in the top three in fewest points allowed in four of the five seasons and held teams to 70 or fewer points 37 times during that stretch. On November 16, 2002, they held the Denver Nuggets to the second lowest point total during the shot clock era (since 1954), just 53 points. Wallace played 41 minutes in that game.
Their dominant defense started with Wallace in the middle where the team led the league in blocked shots twice and always finished toward the top of the pack.
And Wallace was the tough guy in the middle, who looked as much like a professional wrestler as he did an NBA player. And played about as physically. He was the one who battled Shaquille O'Neal in the Finals, despite giving up at least four inches and nearly 100 pounds. He was the one who (probably) used his biceps as a whetstone. He was the one who never backed down to anyone -- including Ron Artest in what would later become the infamous Brawl due to Artest and Stephen Jackson storming the crowd with haymakers.
He essentially was the old song "Big Bad John" carved into life:
Every mornin' at the mine you could see him arrive
He stood six foot six and weighed two forty five
Kinda broad at the shoulder and narrow at the hip
And everybody knew ya didn't give no lip to big
But that era of the Pistons is regularly regarded as one of the few NBA championship teams to win despite the lack of a star. But in truth, Wallace was their star. In performance and persona, he was the engine that led to the Pistons' first four trips to the Eastern Conference Finals.
They were never quite the same after Wallace left to sign with the Bulls, when Joe Dumars balked at keeping up with the Bulls' four year, $60 million contract. They were still dominant, making two more Eastern Conference Finals thanks in a large part to finding a rejuvenated Antonio McDyess.
But they lacked the same toughness. Even worse, it fed the perception that the team's core was more replaceable than it actually was, leading to the eventual franchise-crippling decision to trade Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson and his expiring contract. Which led to the Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva signings. And all sorts of bad things to follow.
And Ben Wallace needed the Pistons as much as they needed him. In his following stops with the Bulls and Cleveland Cavs, he was still the same great rebounder and defensive player. But they call it the dirty work for a reason - not everyone appreciates it.
After being traded to Phoenix and bought out, fortunately he was able to return home to Detroit and enjoy his Benaissance season before eventually retiring.
If you're a Pistons fan, it's because you're not a hero-worshipper. You'd rather win without a superstar than with one. You love the team ball, ugly wins. Toughness.
The Pistons have had plenty of great players come through Detroit, each with their own claim to be the greatest. But none characterize the franchise better than Ben Wallace. He wouldn't be every team's greatest player. And that's a major part of what makes him the Pistons' GOAT.