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DBB on 3: Ben Wallace in the Hall of Fame

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One of the greatest defenders of all time finally gets his due

2021 Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

That familiar sound you here — a bellowing gong — heralds the arrival of Ben Wallace, one of the greatest defenders to ever play the game into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Wallace was joined by Pistons greats of both the past and the present. His former teammates that made up the “Best 5 Alive” — Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshuan Prince and Rasheed Wallace were in attendance. So was his Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, who introduced Wallace and sat on the stage as he delivered his speech.

There was also the next generation of Pistons — the players Wallace set a championship level example for — Cade Cunningham, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart.

We decided to round up some thoughts from the Detroit Bad Boys staff on all things Ben Wallace, and hopefully, you can share your memories below in the comments. Today, we have three questions, plus a bonus because, hey, you only get into the Hall of Fame once.

  1. What is your favorite Ben Wallace memory?
  2. Is Ben Wallace overrated, underrated or properly rated by the larger NBA fan community?
  3. For those who never saw Ben Wallace play, how would you describe how he was so effective on the defensive end despite being a “6-foot-9” center?
  4. BONUS: Could Ben Wallace succeed in today’s NBA?

What is your favorite Ben Wallace memory?

Brady Fredericksen: This is a tough one. I think it’s more the entirety of his 2002-03 season. It was really his best season, but I just remember being 13 years old and thinking, “Holy crap this dude is not big like the other centers in the NBA and he’s grabbing 15 boards a game and blocking 3-4 shots? WHAT!?” That was also the introduction to what we now know as the Goin’ to Work era. In many ways, Ben Wallace was the face of that. I know some argue that Chauncey Billups was the best player on those teams, or that Rasheed Wallace was the piece that turned them into true champions, but none of that happens without Ben. We talk about “culture” so much in professional sports, but the Pistons’ culture that we came to love during that era was a byproduct of him. He was the underdog. He was the unwanted player. He was the undersized, under-skilled guy who found a way. It’s hard to find an athlete who better represents Detroit than Ben Wallace.

One other memory that I want to mention: Back in the day, when the Pistons were whooping on somebody and Ben was playing his ass off or had made a bunch of plays on defense, Larry Brown would call a play to specifically get him the ball in the post or on a pick and pop. His jumper was one of the ugliest in the league, but somehow that shot seemed to go in when LB gave him the green light in those situations.

Justin Lambregtse: The pregame intros. The Big Ben bell ringing, Mason’s famous intro, the atmosphere was electric every time Ben Wallace was introduced.

enbiejowiec: Yea, right, like I could choose one. There was so much he gave to this franchise (and to the basketball in general). From the bruises he left on Joe D on picks when he played for the Wizards in the first game I saw him in January 1998, the bruises that maybe made the great Pistons guard want him on his team when he became the GM. The goal he realized when he traded Grant Hill for him (hehehehe) – but also the bruises that make me not like him so much at that moment as I was so pissed off by him because he single-handedly was shutting down every Detroit’s player.

Through his first years as a Piston, I remember marveling that my team finally had the best shot blocker, and I could go through his numerous blocks; his plays on both ends in the clinching game of 2004 NBA Finals; and his epic block on Shaq O’Neal.

Then there is his return for the second stint to Motown, where he belonged. Yep, there were numerous great moments to remember. And there was also a memorable crowning to all of those moments when on January 16, 2016, Ben grabbed the banner with his number that was about to go to the rafters like if he was saying “I wanted the challenge of every one of those moments, I worked hard to live through them, and I did a great job that forever will be a part of Pistons’ decorated tradition.”

Ryan Pravato: During Ben’s first Pistons season in 2000-2001, I vaguely remember George Blaha singing his praises during a blowout (remember, the 00-01 team was pretty consistently awful). Ben, Jerry Stackhouse and Chucky Atkins were making a run trying to get back into the game and Ben had a string of impactful defensive plays including a steal for a break-away dunk. Blaha said something to the effect of Ben’s energy being contagious and that it was such a welcome sight. Well, little did we know awesome things were to come...

Ben Gulker: I’ve been thinking about this for a couple days and can’t narrow it down to one. From his emergence during the Teal years to his absolute dominance during the championship run to the Benaissance to him representing the Pistons when they won the draft lottery - he’s simply a franchise-defining player whose entire career worth the team demands remembering.

Sean Corp: It’s hard to think of singular moments in Ben Wallace’s career since his greatness was defined by an unrelenting will he brought night in and night out and less about particular highlight plays. Did you know that Since 2000, only 14 players have recorded a triple-double with at least 10 blocks and Wallace has done it twice?

And then there is that string of hold five consecutive opponents under 70 points anchored by Wallace’s defense, especially as we are now in an era when a team eclipses 70 points by halftime and the only response it elicits is, “huh, they’re having a pretty good game.”

Really, though, I will also think about Ben celebrating the Pistons championship with trophy in hand. It was such a moment of pure joy and elation, and you could tell for Wallace it was a culmination in a lifetime of hard work and perseverance paying off.

Is Ben Wallace overrated, underrated or properly rated by the larger NBA fan community?

Brady: Properly rated. His prime was short, but he was great in a tangible way. When he was on the floor, you could feel his impact. Being the first undrafted player to enter the Hall of Fame is a hell of an accomplishment, and one well-deserved by him. It’s crazy that the trade that sent him to Detroit was one, in the moment, that looked like the start of a rebuild with Grant Hill heading to Orlando. It’s funny, a trade involving a legitimate star and a backup center then ended up being a swap of Hall of Famers — one who’s star was rising and another who’s prime was stolen by injuries.

Justin: I think a bit underrated still. There was a large contingent of people that think he doesn’t deserve the Hall of Fame because he only played one end of the court. But he was so dominant defensively in an era that featured a lot of defense and a lot less offense, that he starred on the end of the court that mattered more for his era, just like offense is viewed as “more important” today.

enbiejowiec: Way underrated not only by the larger NBA fan community but also by NBA itself. With all the rules changes, the league has evolved towards un-Ben Wallace game to the detriment of basketball itself. Expectantly, there’s a third wave of Pistons’ uncompromising defense right around the corner that will prove the futility of those changes, as Ben’s Goin’ to Work Crew proved the futility of changes aimed at stopping Pistons defense in Bad Boys era, and allow Detroit basketball to prevail once again. As regards the larger NBA fan community, well you need to bleed Pistons blue, red, white to understand the virtuosity of Big Ben defense, so it’s no wonder that they live in unawareness.

Ryan: Properly rated. I believe educated NBA fans realize how vital Ben Wallace was to the Pistons. There’s two ends of the court and while he was barely mediocre overall on one end, he was elite as can be on the other, and was a leader. The Pistons won a ton of games and had many deep playoff runs, and people know Ben was the anchor of that spectacular and consistent defense.

Ben: He remains criminally underrated. That there was even a debate about whether he belongs in the HoF demonstrates this. Ben wasn’t just a good rebounder and defender. He was completely dominant defensively. He harassed ball handling guards after switching pick and rolls. He played passing lanes beautifully. AND he dominated the glass and paint. He was the foundation of an NBA championship and to this day isn’t universally recognized as such.

Sean: Big Ben was underrated if not in his time then definitely now. People always discount defense to a certain degree so I get it. But there are two ends of the floor and Wallace dominated the defensive side of the ball to a larger degree than many prolific scorers — your Carmelo Anthonys, Allen Iversons, or Tracy McGradys — ever did.

Ironically, I think people in his era understood how valuable Wallace truly was as he was a multi-time All-Star, won four defensive player of the year awards (it should have been five but I think they got bored of giving it to him) and he finished in the top 10 of MVP voting multiple times.

But Wallace and the Pistons (along with the Spurs and others) were so defensively dominant that the league changed the rules and ushered in a new offensive era to the sport. I’m not going to pretend that the decision was a mistake, but it created a generation of fans that don’t understand what Wallace was able to affect on the court. They see his points per game and move on. Big mistake.

For those who never saw Ben Wallace play, how would you describe how he was so effective on the defensive end despite being a “6-foot-9” center?

Brady: He was so much more athletic than the guys he was playing against. The most impressive thing about watching Ben Wallace highlights today was seeing how high he jumped, how quick his feet were and how explosive he was recovering. There are a lot of great shot-blocking bigs in the league now, but none are quite the eraser from the help side like Ben was. That’s what allowed him to thrive despite being undersized — he may not have had the offensive skill and size, but he was faster and more explosive than every other center in the league at that time.

Justin: His motor. He was always going balls to the wall no matter what. It also helped that he was probably the strongest player in the league of his size.

enbiejowiec: It can’t be described. So you better go and watch the film.

Ryan: If I was a bettor, I’d put some deep dough on Ben not even being 6-foot-9 in shoes.

That aside, Big Ben moved like an All-Pro NFL tight end. He could run with almost anyone, could jump quicker and higher than most no matter their size, and he had great instincts and smarts. To steal a former Detroit Tiger commentator’s baseball reference, Ben was country strong. He had such quick hands, too. And he played at one speed — fast!

Ben: Ridiculous athleticism. Most people will rightly point to his verticality, but it was much more than that. His lateral quickness was also fantastic which allowed him to guard basically all 5 positions when needed. But the thing that really set him apart was his sense of timing. Lots of guys can jump as high or higher than prime Big Ben, but very, very few posses his innate abilities and instincts that allowed him to know exactly when to turn that those hops into a monster block, perfectly timed lunge in the passing lane, or highlight reel putback dunk.

If for some reason you’ve never done this, fo get lost in the YouTube rabbit hole of Ben Wallace. No description does him justice.

Sean: If I had to distill it down to anything, I would say Wallace had a fierce intelligence on the court that is hard to understand or appreciate unless you were watching it every night. He was this thick, chiseled physical specimen, yes, and his motor was unbelievable. But he used his smarts to ensure he was in position to take advantage of his other attributes and not waste a moment on the floor.

I saw a stat the other day that really put it all in perspective for me. Ben Wallace had more blocks than fouls and more steals than turnovers. That, I think, points to just how brilliant Wallace was at executing on the floor at all times

BONUS: Could Ben Wallace succeed in today’s NBA?

Brady: Oh, for sure. I think his no-offense, no-shooting game would be challenging come playoffs, but he’s the prototype for what you’d want defensively from a center in today’s NBA. He would be able to switch pick-n-rolls at will. He wasn’t the biggest screen-and-roll threat back in his day (because it wasn’t quite as important as it is today) but if he focused on that part of his game offensively, he’d be a more mobile and athletic Rudy Gobert. I don’t think he’d be a superstar or anything, but he would be a disruptive force who’s in the running for Defensive Player of the Year every season.

enbiejowiec: I put it this way: if Big Ben wouldn’t succeed in today’s NBA then the NBA lost something precious and it better retrieve it.

Ryan: He would succeed because of his athleticism. Although most teams spread the floor more than they did 15-20 years ago, Ben’s lateral quickness and motor would wreak havoc on offenses. He could guard most players on the perimeter but help on the weak side when necessary at the rim. Ben would grab all the rebounds from the plethora of threes jacked up. He may not make any All-Star squads due to there being more and better bigs in the league these days, but if he was in his prime right now, he would be an obvious difference-maker for any playoff-caliber roster and play typical starter minutes. He could put a very good team possibly over the top to become a championship team.

Ben: With zero hesitation, yes. The interior defense and rebounding would obviously translate, and some of his skills might be more appreciated now than they were then.

Consider the lateral quickness I mentioned and how valuable versatile big men are in today’s pick and roll dominant NBA. Ben Wallace would be an absolute menace for ball handling guards and his ability to switch in the pick and roll would blow up the offensive staple of many NBA teams.

I part with most conventional wisdom on this, but I think he would be just as dominant now as he was 20 years ago in the right situation, and I don’t think the right situation is actually all that rare. Great players aren’t defined by era in which they play. Great players do the defining.

Sean: Water always finds its level, so in some respect, yes. Wallace was a great player, and he would have been able to figure out how to be great on the floor. He would have been one of the best multi-position defenders in basketball, led the world in rebounding and won multiple defensive player of the year awards.

I think considering his lack of a shot, he likely would have leaned more into utilizing passing on the short roll to keep the ball moving and defenses honest.

The biggest question is the free-throw shooting. Wallace was terrible and never really got it to an acceptable level. Would that mean Wallace would have been hacked and played off the floor in key situations? Ehhhh, maybe. So I’ll choose to be thankful he played in the perfect era for his skillset. Sheed, however .... man, I wish he played in today’s game where a big man is encouraged to shoot 200 3s and also spent his prime in the online/GIF era.