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Ben Wallace was an NBA superhero every basketball fan could love

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A fan favorite defensive superstar helped define the era before LeBron James

NBA Finals Game 3: San Antonio Spurs v Detroit Pistons Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

When Ben Wallace was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame, I expected an exuberant reaction from Pistons fans and a fair share of eye rolls from some skeptics. As a longtime defender of Ben Wallace and his legacy, I was ready to take on all comers.

I got all of that in a volume I couldn’t have anticipated as everyone online seemed to have a definitive Ben Wallace take. I also got something I didn’t expect, however. I saw an endless outpouring of love and appreciation for Wallace for introducing multiple generations to basketball and beginning their NBA fandom. And it wasn’t just those were 10-year-old boys in the early 2000s who took a liking to Wallace. It was young and old, grandma’s and young hoopers, casual fans, and NBA die-hards. Everyone loved Wallace.

Not bad for a player who averaged 5.7 points throughout his career.

Ben Wallace on cover of Sports Illustrated
Cover of Sports Illustrated featuring Ben Wallace from June 2004.
Sports Illustrated

It made me realize something. This player, who I always appreciated for his blue-collar work ethic that so perfectly fit the city in which he played, was not a hard-working everyman. Not just that, anyway. He was actually an NBA superhero who helped defined basketball in an era sorely in need of heroes and someone people could root for.

In the modern talk of NBA G.O.A.T.S. there is the Michael Jordan Era and the LeBron James Era. Wallace lived in that brief period between. It was an often unloved, underappreciated and forgotten era. Big Ben, along with Kobe Bryant (certainly the logical bridge between MJ and LBJ), Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett. And four-time defensive player of the year Ben Wallace.

Wallace had everything you’d look for in central casting when trying to find a player everyone could get behind (Pacers fans excepted, perhaps). He didn’t dominate the ball, but he dominated the game. He was unassuming in stature by NBA standards, but so much about him was larger than life. He was Detroit’s Clark Kent.

A quiet, rural kid from Alabama who was able to transform himself into Big Ben. He had the signature look that made for a great costume for kids and was always fun to draw whether you’re doodling or a serious artist. He had gigantic Superman muscles and the iconic afro. Talk to any cartoonist or artist and they’ll tell you, the only way you’ll have a character with staying power is if they are instantly recognizable via only a silhouette. That was Big Ben.

He donned armbands and headbands and even had his signature sound — the Big Ben gong that would ring out in the Palace of Auburn Hills anytime he sent a shot near the rim five rows into the stands.

Fundamentally, Ben Wallace did all the little things, but he did it in a larger than life way. And the world loved him for it. And as much as he’s underappreciated now in certain corners, it’s important to remember just how easily he was embraced throughout the NBA during his days in Detroit.

He won four defensive player of the year awards (and it should have been five). He was named to four All-Star games, joining Dikembe Mutombo as the only players in the 3-point era to make at least four All-Star games while averaging fewer than 10 points per game. He aws named to five All-NBA teams and six All-Defensive teams.

The Detroit Pistons won a title, nearly repeated and played the most suffocating defense the leauge had ever seen in their title year after trading for Rasheed Wallace. They were so dominant on D during a time when the league was desperate to inject more offense into the game, the league changed the rules to disallow hand-checking among other tweaks.

And it was all behind Ben Wallace.

To stretch the superhero analogy beyond its breaking point, those superstar-less Pistons teams were essentially a superhero team-up. Just like people love the Avengers for all the unique personalities working together to thwart evil, the Pistons had their own little Avengers-style team.

Wallace was the heart, soul and muscle of those Pistons teams and that era of NBA basketball. Sheed was the class clown, Chauncey Billups the steadying hand, Rip Hamilton the perpetual motion masked man and Tayshaun was the “long arm of the law.”

And they had to face their own Thanos in the form of the most imposing, dominant player of the era in Shaquille O’Neal. And it was Ben Wallace, all 6-foot-8 (but actually closer to 6-foot-4) trying to slow down 7-foot-1 and 340-pound Shaq.

Dwight Howard, also a feared defender in his day, doesn’t seem to have nearly the recognition or support of Wallace. Famously, of course, Howard donned a Superman costume during the NBA dunk contest.

The stunt was actually symbolic of why Howard struggles to earn the support and respect of the NBA community. For Howard, it was a costume to celebrate his greatness.

But what made Superman Superman wasn’t really the colors and the cape and the superpowers. It was the decency of Clark Kent. Wallace wouldn’t be Wallace without the Fro, the armbands, the gong, the muscles. But what really defines him is his upbringing, his soft-spoken nature, his tireless ethic that saw him in the gym and never afraid to back down from anybody. To do what was required to win. He clocked in and he clocked out every single day, and he played winning basketball.

Everyone points to the departure of Chauncey Billups in the disastrous Allen Iverson trade as the end of the Going to Work Pistons, but in reality, that team died when Wallace wasn’t re-signed and moved on to the Chicago Bulls.

Once the Pistons’ heart, its engine, was removed, the era was over. The very next season, the ascendant LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers scored 25 consecutive points against the Ben Wallace-less Pistons in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. In fact, we just “celebrated” that moment’s 14-year anniversary on May 31.

The extended game recap does not do justice to the existential crisis of watching that game live. To know for two overtimes and half a quarter that one player is going to shoot the ball and being unable to stop him. It was painful.

Detroit had no answers, no hope and the LBJ era was upon us — and we are still living in that era 14 years later. The Pistons were dead, and they have still not recovered.

But we’ll always have the gong echoing in our memories, “Fear the Fro” as our montra, and one of the most fun, easiest and dominant players to root for with Ben Wallace.

By the time he clocked out for the last time, Wallace left an indelible mark on the sport of basketball, the city of Detroit, his teammates and multiple generations of fans — young and old, casual and die-hards alike.

That’s what made him great. That’s what made him unique. And that’s why he is more than worthy of enshrinement in the Hall of Fame and one of the greatest players of his era.