Ben Wallace was born September 10, 1974, in White Hall, Alabama. The 10th of 11 children, and the youngest of eight brothers, he spent his early childhood in nearby Benton, which was declared the smallest town in America back in the 1960s. Later, the family moved to White Hall. Ben’s mother, Mama Sadie, was the family matriarch—her word was law, and none of the Wallace boys dared to defy her. She raised food and a small cotton crop near the house, and made all the clothes for her family. Resourcefulness and hard work were a way of life, lessons which Ben took to heart.
There was not a lot of extra cash in the Wallace home (they never had a car and were the last family in the area to get electricity), so all the kids had to pitch in. When Ben and his brothers wanted spending money, they picked pecans or bailed hay for local farmers.
Ben spent a lot of time with his siblings fishing and playing basketball. They had put up a rim on the side of their tiny, three-bedroom house, and with so many kids around, it was easy to get together games of three-on-three and four-on-four. The battles could get mighty fierce. Because he was usually the smallest kid on the court, the only way Ben ever got his hands on the rock was by rebounding it, stealing it, or saving it from going out of bounds. Incredibly, he is still the smallest boy in the family all these years later.
Ben—who would eventually
grow to 6-7 and 240 pounds (he’s listed at 6-9, but that’s
counting his hair)—was a strong, wiry kid who excelled at baseball,
football and basketball. By the time he graduated from Central High School
in Hayneville, he would earn All-State honors in each of these sports.
He also ran track.
As a teenager, Ben liked to handle the basketball. He fancied himself as a new-age hybrid, blending the skills required by each different position. Sometimes he would take over games and actually play every position, much to the chagrin of his teammates and the annoyance of his coaches. Although Ben liked to boast he could shoot like Isiah, pass like Magic and dunk like Michael, the reality was something short of that.
The skill that turned it all around for Ben was his proficiency as a haircutter. He learned by clipping the ‘do’s of his brothers and sisters, and eventually was good enough to charge $3 a cut to people in the neighborhood. The summer after his sophomore year, Ben saved up enough haircut money to attend a basketball camp in York, Alabama, run by Charles Oakley of the New York Knicks.
Ben was clowning around with his friends when Oakley called him onto the court for a little one-on-one. Certain the teenager wasn’t taking the game seriously enough, the NBA star started hammering Ben on offense and defense, hoping to show him that hoops was a no-nonsense business. To Oakley's amazement, and then his delight, the kid bodied him back every time. Ben’s brother James (who today is probably the world’s tallest preacher) was in the stands ready to step in if things got out of hand, but he could see his little brother was enjoying himself.
Oak split Ben’s lip, Ben bloodied Oak’s nose, Oak bloodied Ben’s nose, and so on and so forth. Later, Oakley explained to Ben that the skills he just displayed might get him to the NBA. Forget about all the Magic Johnson stuff—Ben was a bruiser, and the minute he accepted that fact he could begin thinking about a pro career. Oakley decided to keep tabs on Ben from that point on.
Over the next two
years, plenty of scouts traveled to Hayneville, but they were most
interested in Ben
for his football skills. Tall and fast, he was a stud prospect on defense.
But by his senior year, Ben realized he could not give up basketball.
When the college recruiters came calling, he told them he would only
a school that let him “go both ways.” The Auburn University
staff gave Ben’s plan a thumbs up, and he signed a letter of intent.
But he soon found out that the football coaches meant he could play offense
and defense—basketball was completely out of the question. Unwilling
to turn his back on hoops, Ben decided that Auburn was not for him.
Oakley reentered Ben’s life at this point and took him under his wing. When Oak heard about the Auburn mess, he called a friend of his in Cleveland who offered the teenager a spot on the Cuyahoga Community College basketball team. It wasn’t Auburn, but it was a start.
ON THE RISE
Ben turned in two stellar season for Cuyahoga, averaging 24 points a game as a sophomore, with 17 rebounds and seven blocks. Those numbers attracted some of the same basketball scouts who had passed over him in Alabama. But Ben blew it when he stopped going to class after basketball season. There was no Division-I school that would accept his transfer.
Oakley stepped in again. Dave Robbins, the basketball coach at his alma mater, Virginia Union University, asked the NBA star if he knew of any big men playing JC ball. Oakley mentioned Ben. He had actually planned to point the youngster in Robbins’s direction two years earlier, but his SAT scores were too low.
The deal was done, and Ben started the fall ’94 semester as a VUU Panther. Though somewhat humbled by the turn of events that led him to the Richmond campus, he still arrived a little full of himself. He soon realized that the team already had several established scorers, however, which caused him to think about the things that made his mentor an all-star. It soon dawned on Ben that he might indeed have a shot at the NBA if he learned to play Oakley’s game. When coach Robbins saw this metamorphosis begin, he knew he had a player.
During Ben’s junior and senior seasons, he transformed himself into a rebounding, shot-blocking enforcer on one of the top small-college teams in the country. He also scored in double figures, with most of those points coming from the paint. Had Ben shot anywhere near 60 percent from the line, he might have averaged 20. Even so, he led the Panthers to the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship in 1995 and 1996.
Ben had grown to his full height and his body had filled out, making him an inside player of considerable magnitude. He was easily the best big man in the league, but at the same time he had learned the importance of playing a role. The Panthers won by wearing down opponents in waves. Virginia Union’s second five was almost as good as its first five, and better than most other first fives in the league. Instead of one guy doing it all, Ben saw how well the team functioned when each man did his job. For Ben, that meant swatting shots, ripping down rebounds, and firing bullets to his outlet men.
Ben finished off
a solid college career by getting the Panthers to the Division-II Final
Four and earning
All-America honors. Then he set his sights on the NBA. The only problem
was the pros didn’t know he was alive.
Draft day came and went, and Ben’s name wasn’t even whispered. He hooked on with the Boston Celtics summer league team, but coach M.L. Carr told him he was not big enough, tall enough or strong enough to be an NBA power forward. Carr played him on the perimeter, hoping he could become a shooting guard. One problem: Ben couldn’t shoot. He was cut soon after, but vowed to prove Carr wrong.
He accepted a job playing in Italy at the end of the summer, then a month later got a call from Wes Unseld, GM of the Washington Bullets. An undersized big man himself, Unseld was intrigued by Ben’s raw skills, and the Bullets signed him as their 12th man.
Though he barely played, Ben clung to his roster spot, spending the season bringing his inside game up to NBA caliber, and working on his shooting and free throws. The Bullets liked the effort Ben was showing, especially when big men Chris Webber and Juwan Howard were complaining that he was killing them in practice.
Of course, Ben was strictly
a defensive player at this point. The coaching staff often kept him after
morning workouts that first year, trying to teach him post-up moves, jump-hooks
and turnarounds. He was game to try, but had no illusions about his offensive
potential. His points would come on layups, tip-ins and assorted garbage
he collected on the offensive boards.
Ben saw a little more quality time in 1997-98, and fans saw a lot more of him. The close-cropped hairstyle he had sported for years was replaced by an unruly afro that looked like a cross between Jimi Hendrix and Buckwheat. He grew it out after a bet with teammates Webber and Darvin Ham on who could last the longest without cutting his hair. With his old-school ’do, Ben did some old-school work in the paint and contributed about five rebounds a night off the bench.
Though they were renamed the Wizards before the year began, there was no extra magic in their tank. Washington struggled to win more games than it lost for the second year in a row.
In 1999, after the post-season labor dispute was settled, the Wizards rewarded Ben with a two-year contract worth $1.6 million. Come the shortened campaign, he earned a few more minutes a game. With Webber moving on to Sacramento and Howard hobbled by an injury, Ben was bumped up in the rotation. Late in the year, he put it all together and had a career night, hitting on all nine of his shots from the floor with three dunks, a reverse layup and a finger roll. His effort ended a Washington seven-game losing streak. Over the last month, Ben averaged a double-double, and by season’s end, he was the team rebounding leader despite playing just over 26 minutes a night.
For Washington, Ben was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal season. Of course, this made him attractive trade bait, and in August of 1999, the club went fishing for a center. The Wizards liked Isaac Austin—named the NBA’s Most Improved Player two seasons earlier—and put together a package to entice the Orlando Magic. Ben was the key man in the deal, along with a trio of bench players. The Washington press bemoaned the loss. They knew Ben was a fiery up-and-comer, while Austin was not exactly the Rock of Gibraltar.
One of the first
players Ben befriended in Orlando was rookie Chucky Atkins, a 5-11
point guard out
of South Florida who had grown up in Orlando and played two years in
Croatia before finding his way to the NBA. The two hung out together,
remote-controlled cars in the street outside Ben’s house.
With his first real shot at a full-time job, Ben flourished, starting all 81 games for rookie coach Doc Rivers. At only 24 minutes a night, he led the team in rebounding and finished second in blocked shots—despite being slowed by bone spurs that required him to wear a walking cast between contests. The Magic were the league’s surprise team thanks to Ben, Chucky, and other overachievers like Darrell Armstrong.
MAKING HIS MARK
During the summer of 2000, the Magic decided to make a bold move. They obtained Tracy McGrady from the Toronto Raptors for a first-round pick, then paired him with superstar Grant Hill of the Pistons. Detroit hated to lose Hill, who was coming off a monster year, but in return they got two vital pieces they were missing: a physical presence in the paint and a point guard. Ben changed his address once again, this time to Motown, along with his pal Atkins. Both were sign-and-trades.
The Pistons were
a car wreck. Coach George Irvine had little to work with, and new club
Dumars had to instill a fresh attitude in his club, which had been notoriously
soft in the middle. In Ben, Dumars saw a player who could anchor this
effort, and signed him to a six-year contract. With his long-term security,
Ben begged Mama Sadie to let him buy her a new house. It took a couple
of years, but she finally agreed—as long as the old house was
torn down and the new one built on the same land.
The Pistons’ top player was Jerry Stackhouse, who had blossomed into a 20-point scorer. Mateen Cleaves, fresh off a national title with Michigan State, represented the team’s future. With Jerome Williams at power forward, Ben slid into the center position, making Detroit the league’s most undersized team.
The Pistons made up for their lack of size with hard-nosed defense. Inspired by Dumars, they did whatever they could to disrupt their opponents’ halfcourt game. Speed and aggression became the hallmarks for Detroit, and Ben was the man in the middle of it all.
This was a golden opportunity for Ben to show his stuff. Despite the team’s pronouncements that it had a “special player,” he knew they were blowing a little smoke. Determined to show the Pistons just how special he was, he had a super year—finishing second in the NBA with 13.0 rebounds per game, and leading the league in total rebounds and defensive boards.
With Stackhouse pouring in more than 30 percent of the Pistons’ points, the team lacked depth but put up a good fight every night. And they were fun to watch. The team finished 32-50, however, missing the playoffs.
As the Pistons prepared for the 2001-02 season, new coach Rick Carlisle switched Ben to power forward so he could concentrate on hitting the boards without getting pounded by guys taller and heavier than him. Veteran Clifford Robinson volunteered to play center, and Corliss Williamson, picked up from the Raptors midway through the previous season, filled the small forward slot. Cleaves was gone, traded for Jon Barry and a first-round draft pick, leaving the point guard job to Atkins.
Ben had another monster season, leading the league in rebounds per game and blocked shots. No forward had ever done this before, and only three other players in history had accomplished the feat—Hakeem Olajuwan, Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
In two short seasons, Ben had
gone from obscurity to being a highlight-reel regular. Part of it had
to do with his wild afro, but he had also become a more complete player.
Not only was he murder on the glass, but now he was finishing plays on
the offensive end. Whenever Stackhouse drew a double team in the lane,
he looked to Ben for a dump-off. The big man probably got 100 dunks on
The Pistons, given up for dead two years earlier, found themselves atop the division in the spring of 2002 with a record of 50-32. And Ben was a near-unanimous choice for NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
Detroit won its first series against the Raptors but fell in the next round to the Boston Celtics. Time and again, the Pistons looked for Stackhouse to give them a lift with a key bucket. But more often than not he missed, finishing the post-season shooting a lackluster 32 percent over 10 games.
The Pistons retooled after their playoff exit, trading Stackhouse to the Wizards for 24-year-old rising star Richard Hamilton. Though Stack had been the team’s best scorer and an important voice in the locker room, business is business and the seven-year veteran was not going to get max money from Detroit when his contract expired at the end of the season. The club also signed point guard Chauncy Billups, relegating Atkins to a reserve role.
Hamilton did not have Stackhouse’s strength in going to the hole, but he was a more consistent mid-range shooter. In other words, he would be a superb support player though not necessarily a go-to guy. But that was part of Dumars’s grand plan. He wanted to assemble a group of complimentary starters and a solid bench before the team went to the well for a mega-star. In the meantime, the Pistons still had the horses to compete for the conference championship in a so-so NBA East.
And compete they did. Behind another sensational year from Ben, the team established itself as the league’s elite defensive unit and again posted a record of 50-32 to repeat as division champs. Ben made the All-Star squad for the first time and even garnered some support for the regular-season MVP award. He also made the cover of ESPN The Magazine.
Ben finished with a league-high 15.4 rebounds (after being hobbled by a sprained knee ligament), but was edged by Theo Ratliff for the blocked-shot crown 3.2 to 3.1. Despite stiff competition from Ron Artest, Ben won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award again.
What should have been a superlative
season for Ben, however, was a heartbreaking one. Prior to the All-Star
Game, his mother passed away suddenly at age 68, after collapsing in a
grocery store in White Hall. Ben buried her in Selma on Saturday and was
on the floor with his fellow All-Stars on Sunday. He says she would have
wanted him to play.
Ben took the Pistons into the playoffs as a favorite to unseat the New Jersey Nets. After winning its first- and second-round matchups, Detroit faced the defending conference champs. It was a brutal, rugged series that featured tenacious defense and grinding offense. Experience, along with the play of Jason Kidd, gave New Jersey an edge and they closed out the Pistons in four ugly games.
Over the summer, the Pistons acquired the mega-star the fans were expecting, sort of. Dumars showed Carlisle the door and brought in Larry Brown to run the team. In the draft, Detroit surprised some by passing on Carmelo Anthony, opting for Darko Milicic instead. The teenager projected as an impact player—thought not in the 2003-04 season.
Midway through the campaign, the Pistons were still looking to finish the puzzle. Ben was doing his thing, the backcourt of Billups and Hamilton had developed into a great tandem, and Tayshaun Prince was settling into his role as a starter. Defense continued to be the team’s strong suit, keeping the Pistons a prime contender in the East.
To challenge for an NBA title, however, Dumars needed to fill out his roster with one more star. He found him in February with a three-team trade for Rasheed Wallace. The former Tarheel meshed perfectly in Brown's system. Ben and Wallace combined to give Detroit an even nastier presence in the paint. Fans had visions of the Piston dynasty of the late 1980s.
Featuring the best defense in the league—the best anyone had seen in years, in fact—Detroit posted a 54-28 record. Ben ended another excellent season averaging 12.4 rebounds (3rd in NBA), 3.4 blocks (2nd) and 1.77 steals (8th) per game.
The Pistons entered the playoffs as the East's third seed, matched against the Bucks. The club took the series easily, four games to one, and advanced to face the dreaded Nets.
Enjoying homecourt advantage, Detroit buckled down in the first two contests with stiffling defense. (In Game One, the team held New Jersey to 56 points, the second lowest total in playoff history.) The Nets responded by winning the next three, including a triple-overtime thriller in Game Five.
Facing elimination in New Jersey, the Pistons played with poise and determination. Ben offered a huge lift, pulling down 20 boards. Detroit fed off his boundless energy, and won Game Six, 81-75. Four nights later, riding a wave of momentum, the Pistons dominated New Jersey. Ben went for 18 in the 21-point blowout, as Detroit kept Kidd off the score sheet for the first time ever in a playoff game.
Atfer passing the test against New Jersey, Detroit looked like a more relaxed club against the Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Though the Pistons dropped Game One, Ben set the tone with 22 rebounds, five blocks and five steals. With injuries wearing down Indiana, Detroit seized control of the series. Ben wasn't scoring—he totaled just two points in Games Four and Five—but his gritty effort on the boards and in the paint on defense supercharged the Pistons. Carlisle, now the coach of Pacers, had no answer. Detroit closed out the series with an ugly 69-65 victory in Game Six.
In the Finals, the Pistons squared off against heavily favored Lakers. Few outside of Detroit gave the club a chance. But their physical and athletic style quickly had Los Angeles on the ropes. The Pistons shocked the Lakers in Game One with an 87-75 win. Ben was quiet in the victory, but Billups stepped up with a great shooting performance.
Los Angeles struck back in Game Two with a victory in OT, though they needed a miracle three-pointer from Kobe Bryant to get to the extra session. Ben and his teammates, in fact, were bolstered by their showing. Heading home, they had come within a couple of seconds of grabbing a commanding 2-0 series lead.
Detroit blew out the Lakers two nights later, which turned Game Four into the most pivotal of the Finals. By now, Brown had adopted an interesting strategy. The Pistons allowed Shaquille O'Neal to put up his numbers inside, but they shackled Bryant, constantly running two or three defenders at him. Ben was often the last line of defense when Kobe drove the lane. Finding a clean look at the basket was nearly impossible for the All-Star guard.
When Detroit gutted out an 88-80 victory, the series was all but over. The Lakers mounted a bit of a fight in Game Five, but faded in the second half. Ben was all over the place, stepping into passing lanes, tipping in missed shots and even knocking down a jumper or two. In the 100-87 whitewash, he posted 18 points and 22 rebounds.
Billups was voted
series MVP, but Ben's contributions were not overlooked.
Looking to repeat, the Pistons started the 2004-05 on an odd note, when a game at home against the Pacers turned into a wild brawl between fans and players. Ben was disciplined for his role in the melee, though neither he nor any of this teammates had anything to do with the ugly scene in the stands. Once Ben returned from his suspension, he re-assumed his role with Detroit, clearing the boards and intimidating opponents on defense. The team had changed little from the previous year, save a few more big bodies in the paint, including veteran Antonio McDyess. Detroit's increased depth in the frontcourt benefitted Ben, who didn't have to log as many minutes to post the same production. He stayed fresher as the campaign progressed, putting up huge numbers down the stretch. The Pistons finished the regular season at 54-28, and Ben wound up ranked third in the league in rebounding (12.2 a game), second in blocks (176 overall), and 17th in double-doubles, most of which came in March and April.
Detroit opened their post-season defense of their title impressively, handling the Sixers in five games. Ben was again a demon on the boards, and exploded for a playoff career-high 29 points in Game 3. Next up were the Pacers, in a series that received a good deal of hype. Detroit won in workmanlike fashion, taking Game 6 in Indiana to end it. Ben's effort against Jermaine O'Neal was notable. He played great defense, and grabbed 26 offensive rebounds, giving the Pistons plenty of opportunities at second-chance points. It was more of the same against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. Detroit had to comeback after dropping Game 5, but they won the final two, including Game 7 in Miami. Ben's greatest contribution came on the defensive end, as he helped neutralize Shaquille O'Neal and put the clamps on Dwyane Wade.
In the NBA Finals against the Spurs, the Pistons fell one game short of claiming their second straight championship. Still, they earned respect for a gutty performance, forcing San Antonio to win Game 7 on their home floor. Ben was at his best when Detroit needed him the most. Down two games to none heading back home, the Pistons blew out the Spurs in Games 3 and 4. Ben had 15 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks the first night, and 11, 13 and three the second. In the decider, he was Detroit's top player, though it was little consolation as San Antonio celebrated its third title in seven years.
As Ben has proved time and again, he knows a thing or two about proving doubters wrong and accelerating timetables. For him, it all comes down to hard work—and a helping hand or two from people looking out for you.
BEN THE PLAYER
When a shot goes up, Ben’s mind starts clicking away. It’s his premise that every rebound is his to win. From there, he calculates where the shot is coming from and who’s taking it, then he moves toward the spot he knows their misses are most likely to bounce. Ben does not battle for position as much as he gets into position to outjump everyone else for the ball. If he can’t grab the ball off the boards, he tries to get a hand on it and keep it alive.
Comparisons to Dennis Rodman make sense, given Ben’s boardwork and the uniform he wears. He does fill the same role the Worm did on the great Detroit teams of the '80s and early '90s. But Rodman was a quick, agile player. Ben is stronger and more powerful, and goes about getting his rebounds in an entirely different way. It should be noted, however, that Rodman grabbed a lot of boards by playing off his man when he was on the weak side. Ben’s man can often feel his breath on the back of his neck.
No one in the league works harder or hustles more, and even though knock-down jumpers are still not in Ben’s repertoire, he has other weapons—in the trenches and on the open floor—that make him one of the best big men in the East. When he gets the ball near the basket, his power is nothing short of explosive.
Ben does things that don’t show up on the stat sheet. He changes shots, sets killer screens and is always jumping out on defense to help his teammates. And he never takes a play off. Ever.
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