Pistons great Ben Wallace personified Detroit: An underdog in an underdog city

Detroit Free Press

“At 6-9, the center wearing the big red three, from Virginia Union University, buh-buh-buh-buh-buh … buh … buh … buh … Ben …. Wallace!”

If you attended a Detroit Pistons game during the Goin’ to Work era, a video clip of John Mason’s introduction for Ben Wallace should bring back vivid memories. The gong that echoed throughout the Palace of Auburn Hills. The heat radiating from the pillars of fire jetting from the top of the basketball rims. The deafening roar of the crowd.

Mason, the Pistons’ longtime PA announcer, would introduce Wallace last during the peak years of that era. The rest of the starting five — Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace — were beloved. But Wallace was the soul of the team. The backbone. He intimidated opposing teams with his snarling brand of defense, and won over fans because of it.

Wallace will be one of 16 people inducted into the 2021 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame class in September. He’s the first undrafted player to ever receive the honor. It’s an incredible achievement, particularly for an athlete who represents the city in a way that few have.

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Wallace personified Detroit. Most athletes consider themselves to be underdogs, but Wallace truly was one. He didn’t play Division I basketball, and went undrafted in 1996 after two seasons with Virginia Union, a historically black D-II school. He started just 32 games during his first three NBA seasons with the Washington Bullets and Wizards. It wasn’t until 1999, at the age of 25, that he became a full-time starter with the Orlando Magic.

When the Pistons acquired Wallace from the Magic in the Grant Hill sign-and-trade in 2000, he was merely trade fodder. Then, he became the backbone of the Pistons.

He won his first of four Defensive Player of the Year award in 2002.

As Wallace rose, the team followed. Detroit won 32 games and missed the playoffs during his first season. During his next five, the Pistons never won fewer than 50 games. They took home the 2004 NBA championship by upsetting the Los Angeles Lakers, and followed that with another Finals appearance against the San Antonio Spurs in 2005.

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Wallace was the defensive anchor for a team famous and successful because of its defense. He gave the Pistons’ an identity. He swatted shots into the stands and rebounded with intensity, his afro bobbed in rhythm with his movement.

That identity helped Wallace become a superstar. Fans of all ages, all races and all across the country wore afros to Pistons games in support of him. He made defense cool and exciting. In an era that saw talented scorers such as Allen Iverson, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady grace video game covers, Wallace appeared on the cover of NBA 2K5 and became the first non-Iverson athlete to do so.

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Wallace was popular in spite, or perhaps because of, his offensive limitations. He never averaged more than 10 points a game during the regular season — averaging 5.7 for his career — and largely relied on dunks and layups to score. He never shot better than 50% from the free-throw line. For his career, he tallied more rebounds (10,482) than points (6,254), and blocked more shots (2,137) than made free throws (1,109).

It’s all part of his legacy, and why Detroiters love him so much. Detroit will always root for the underdog, because it is the underdog city. No one represented that better than Wallace, who didn’t need to hit a 3-pointer for his presence to be felt.

There is no Goin’ to Work era without Wallace doing the dirty work. And now, that legacy will live on forever.

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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