During his first six seasons in Detroit, Ben Wallace’s hair was something to behold. Though he was listed as 6 feet 9, he says at least two inches of that was actually his untamed Afro.
From 2000-06, Pistons fans were so crazy about his wild coiffure that they came to home games wearing big wigs in tribute. Sometimes, after making a block or other game-turning play, Wallace would raise his arms to the heart-stopping gong of the “Big Ben” bell reverberating through the Palace and let his opponents know he was playing what he called his “Fear the ‘Fro” defense.
Over 16 often hair-raising NBA seasons, Wallace showed you didn’t have to score lots of points to be a big-time star in the pro game.
With him anchoring the front court, Detroit won its last two Eastern Conference finals and the 2004 league title over the Los Angeles Lakers.
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“At a time of great centers like Shaquille O’Neal, Yao Ming and Jermaine O’Neal,” recalls Larry Brown, his former Pistons coach, “Ben had to face one just about every night, and outplayed them all.”
On May 16, Wallace has an excellent chance to become the first pro player in the modern era to go undrafted and make it into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He’s a finalist, but history, admittedly, isn’t on his side. The honor traditionally goes to the players who rack up points like pinball wizards, and over those 16 seasons, Wallace never even averaged double digits — his career-high was 9.7 points in 2004-05. Still, I’m confident he’ll get elected.
“As long as you go out there and grind and go hard, good things will continue to happen for you,” he said.
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I was Wallace’s player agent during his two stints in Detroit. Of the hundreds of athletes I represented during my 35-year career as an agent, none put in more effort or was more professional. Nor were any in greater accord with a city’s sensibilities.
“If you take somebody that never had anything, and all they knew was hard work and determination and then you give them something, that’s why I do what I do,” he said.
No player epitomized the “Going To Work” credo of that 2004 championship team more than Wallace. His career was practically a hymn to the work ethic. Not only was he the first Piston to arrive at practice, but he also often returned for a second session.
“Anybody can be taught to be an offensive player,” he said. “You’ve got to have the heart and desire to be a defensive player.”
Wallace is one of two players in NBA history to win the Defensive Player of the Year award four times, and he achieved All-NBA honors five times. He was the first undrafted player to be voted an All-Star starter, and his four All-Star appearances are the most by any undrafted player, as are his 10,308 rebounds and 1,088 career games.
And though the Hall of Fame seldom honors the NBA’s defensive stalwarts, Wallace’s career compares favorably with Dennis Rodman, Bobby Jones and Dikembe Mutombo, three great players elected on the basis of their lockdown D.
Few athletes have scrapped to get where they are as Wallace did. The 10th of 11 children growing up in tiny White Hall, Ala., he and his brothers picked pecans and bailed hay to earn money to buy a basketball hoop.
“My mother went through a lot with us — just a lot of trials, tribulations and failures — and we didn’t have a lot of anything besides love,” he said. “So, when it came my time to do something, she refused to let me fail. She didn’t want me to fall into the trail that our family followed to stay in Alabama.”
In 1990, following his sophomore year of high school, Wallace spent Fourth of July weekend cutting his friends’ and neighbors’ hair for $3. With his profits, he was able to afford the $50 fee to attend a one-week basketball camp New York Knicks great Charles Oakley held for kids in nearby York, Ala.
One afternoon, Wallace and Oakley went one-on-one on the court. Wallace’s nose was bloodied, as was Oakley’s lip. Oakley was so impressed that he took the teenager under his wing, encouraging him to enroll at Cleveland’s Cuyahoga Community College and giving him a part-time job at one of the car washes he owned.
Later, Oakley got a call from the coach at his alma mater, Virginia Union, asking if he knew of an available big man. Oakley recommended Wallace, saying, “He ain’t that big, but he’s a man.”
Despite being named the MVP of the 1996 NCAA Division II tournament, no NBA team picked Wallace in that year’s college draft. The Boston Celtics invited him to the Summer League, but coach M.L. Carr told Wallace he wasn’t tall and strong enough to play center in the pros.
Cut by the Celtics, Wallace played briefly in Italy before getting a call from Wes Unseld, the general manager of the Washington Bullets (later Wizards), who himself had been dismissed early on as an undersized center. Wallace spent three years with the Wizards, mostly as the 12th man, and one with Orlando, before the Pistons got him in 2000 along with point guard Chucky Atkins in the sign-and-trade deal that sent Grant Hill to the Magic.
In Detroit, Wallace became known for his energy and the will to sacrifice himself for his teammates.
“Ben was selfless,” remembers teammate Richard Hamilton. “He didn’t care about credit or glory, which set the tone for our team, and was the key to winning.”
Every big man in the NBA came to fear the ‘fro, which Wallace grew unshorn for a solid decade. He had made a $100 bet with former Wizards teammates Chris Webber and Darvin Ham about who could go longer without a haircut. Though Big Ben won the wager, he still hasn’t collected a cent.
The take-home lesson: Never bet against Wallace. He overcame big odds to become a star, a champion, and hopefully, this May, a Hall of Famer.