There was this game between the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards in January 1998 in the nation’s capital. Detroit, built around core of Grant Hill, Jerry Stackhouse and Brian Williams (who didn’t play that match), lost in disappointing fashion during a disappointing season a year after two consecutive early playoff exits. This nondescript January game was the first time I noticed Big Ben. It was hard not to. Ben Wallace was all over the place, and it seemed that “Wallace” was the most used word by the commentators.
Wallace was not supposed to be a standout player in Washington — not that team with its imposing front court. When Chris Webber – another Detroiter to be inducted to the Hall of Fame this autumn – was acquired by the Washington Bullets in 1994, I thought they were building an up and coming team with a very potent, dangerous young core. A couple of months earlier, they drafted University of Michigan’s Juwan Howard, and they also had the tallest NBA player in history, 7-foot-7 Gheorghe Muresan. The following year, they added Rasheed Wallace through the draft.
It turns out, you can have too many big men — even in the 1990s, and Sheed was dealt to Portland for Rod Strickland and Harvey Grant in the 1996 offseason.
Sheed was gone, but for some reason the name “Wallace” was inescapable. I didn’t hear Webber nor Howard nor Strickland but ... Wallace. As a Pistons fan, I had my eyes stuck onto Detroit’s players, nevertheless I couldn’t help but see that Wallace everywhere doing his undersized big man thing — playing relentless (sometimes to the point of arrogance), hard-nosed basketball. He couldn’t be kept off the glass. He was lethal protecting the rim. He didn’t allow any ball to pass him by. And he refused to back down whether facing an NBA legend like Joe Dumars or a rising young superstar like Grant Hill.
In short, he was Big Ben in all but name.
The following year, Wallace turned the occasional flashes into a whole season of winning basketball, averaging 6 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 2 BPG and 1.1 SPG in 26 minutes off the bench for the Bullets. Wallace was then traded to the Orlando Magic where he was able to establish himself as a starter on an ascending team. The Magic were serious about adding superstars, eventually locking into adding Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady. Then new President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars was about to lose his best player and brightest star for nothing. Shrewdly, Dumars arranged Hill’s new contract as a sign and trade.
Luckily, one of those players happened to be four-time defensive player of the year, five-time All-Star, three-time top-10 MVP finalist and eventual Hall of Famer Ben Wallace. Dumars remembered Wallace, and he liked what he saw from the defensive-minded big man. But nobody could have anticipated how much he blossomed in Detroit.
In Detroit, Ben Wallace became Big Ben, the most dominant defensive force in the NBA. And he quite literally saved an entire era of Detroit basketball.
The Pistons went from the verge of a catastrophic loss of its superstar player in Hill to forging a new identity around Wallace who sealed off the paint and led the Pistons in rebounds, blocks and steals in year one that saw the team jump 13 spots in defensive rating. By year two, Detroit finished first in its division, winning 50 games behind Wallace, new coach Rick Carlisle and an overpowering defensive identity.
Big Ben, more than anyone, was the heart and soul of the team and the engine of the Pistons defense. Wallace went on to win four Defensive Player of the Year honors, was five times in NBA All-Defensive First Team (2002-06), he won two rebounding titles (2002-03) and a blocking title (2002). That incredible defense he anchored yield Motor City its third championship, two final appearances and, count them, four straight Conference Finals.
Wallace and his tough, unselfish play was embraced by everyone. The hardcore basketball fans knew he was having a huge impact on defense and he brought new fans to the game who appreciated his style, his afro and his electric highlights. Most of all, as former coach Larry Brown would say, he “played the right way.”
It’s easy to forget now just how much he was embraced the league and the fans. Big Ben was selected to four All-Star Games (2003-2006), to three All-NBA Second Teams (2003-2004, 2006) and two All-NBA Third Teams (2002, 2005) and finished in the top 10 of MVP voting twice (2002-04).
Eventually, though, the league office soured on the dominating style of defense employed by Wallace and the Detroit Pistons, and changed the rules to create more offensive flow and fewer games that ended in the 80s. Though I can’t figure out how you can overlook the beauty of 26 blocks, especially 19 from the good guys, such as in Game Two of 2004 Eastern Conference Finals between Pistons and Pacers, or the way Detroit held the Los Angeles Lakers to 68 points in Game Three of that year’s NBA Finals.
Maybe they were “smash mouth […] games” instead of “styled basketball they play out west” as Corliss Williamson, Big Nasty himself, described it. But it was the kind of basketball Pistons fans couldn’t get enough of.
As on the court, however, Big Ben could not be denied. And now he’s entering the Hall of Fame.
This induction, like Ben’s basketball history, is a story about the power of uncompromising persistence. As much as you cannot erase the defensive end of basketball, you cannot erase the fundamental role a defensive virtuoso, Ben Wallace, plays in the development of the sport. And even though for Pistons fans this induction is long overdue, it might come at the perfect time for the franchise.
There is a young Piston who in his first season in the League has shown traits of the same relentless dedication to winning every ball and every play and giving your best which were archetyped by Big Ben. His name is Isaiah Stewart. Ben’s success should inspire Stewart to work even harder (perhaps with Ben himself as is wished by Pistons head coach, Dwane Casey) on his promising rookie campaign to help once again prove to the outside world that Detroit is a storied basketball city. And that great basketball stories will keep on coming from it (even out of down years topping lost decades). And that they will persistently start on the defensive end of the ball.
Hail, Big Ben Wallace, the epitome of Detroit Basketball!!!