Defense, hustle — not numbers — carry Pistons great Ben Wallace into Hall of Fame

Detroit News

Detroit — In many years, the finalists for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame are pretty easy to sift through. In the 2020 class, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett were the headliners, and it even a panel of fifth-graders would have been smart enough to make them first-ballot selections.

It takes a more discerning eye to recognize Pistons icon Ben Wallace as a Hall of Fame talent. Wallace wasn’t the prolific scorer that Bryant was, nor was he one of the all-time greats at his position, as Duncan and Garnett were.

Wallace, who turned 47 on Friday, will get basketball’s highest honor, when he’s inducted into the Hall of Fame on Saturday in Springfield, Massachusetts. The 2021 class includes Detroit native Chris Webber, Paul Pierce, Chris Bosh and WNBA stars Yolanda Griffin and Lauren Jackson. Wallace will be introduced by Larry Brown, coach of the 2004 Pistons championship team.

The traditional statistics alone — 5.7 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2 blocks per game — don’t merit putting Wallace among the greats. The numbers don’t tell the whole story.

The eye test of a fan who watched Wallace during his first six standout seasons with the Pistons from 2000-06 tells a more complete tale of his greatness. Wallace was an undersized center at 6-foot-9, but on a nightly basis, his signature hairstyles — either an oversized afro or styled braids — helped him stand out as much as he did on the defensive end.

“I never thought about (making the Hall of Fame). When I retired, I retired — that was my career. I didn’t have dreams as a kid of making it to the Hall of Fame,” Wallace said recently.  “There’s no plays you can run to get me to the Hall of Fame. There’s no number of rebounds I can grab to get into the Hall of Fame.

“Getting into the Hall of Fame is you being judged by your peers, so when you close that chapter of your life, when you close that chapter on basketball, you just hope you wrote a good enough book that your peers would read and say he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.”

Wallace’s resume stands out above the traditional stats: four-time defensive player of the year, four-time All-Star, five-time All-NBA selection, along with leading the league in rebounding twice and in blocks once.

More: Pistons great Ben Wallace says his game would fit today’s style of play

In his 16-year NBA career, Wallace was one of the most versatile and feared defenders in the league, at a time when Shaquille O’Neal dominated as an imposing center, Wallace was his own kind of physical presence. His work ethic set him apart, and he was a self-made star after arriving in the infamous trade with the Orlando Magic in 2000, when the Pistons sent away franchise star Grant Hill, and got an underwhelming return of Wallace and Atkins.

At the time, Wallace hadn’t emerged as a top-tier player yet. After playing at Virginia Union, he becomes the first undrafted player to be selected to the Hall of Fame, and arriving to the Pistons, he was the heart and soul of the team that won the NBA title in 2004, part of six straight years they made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, including two trips to the NBA Finals.

“To have that type of journey and have it the end the way it’s ending, it’s an awesome feeling. I have to sit back and think whether I was in love with the journey, in love with the game or in love with the struggle,” Wallace said on ESPN recently. “Coming through that struggle to finally reach the top, it epitomized what my game has been about my whole career — going out there, working hard and leaving it all on the table night in and night out.”

Blue-collar big man

Wallace won’t be the headliner during this year’s induction ceremony; there likely will be much more fanfare for Pierce, Bosh and Webber. It’s similar to Wallace’s “Goin’ to Work” Pistons teams, which didn’t get much of the notoriety during their heyday, but they notably dispatched the star-studded Lakers team in 2004 that included a slew of future selections for the Hall of Fame: Bryant, O’Neal, Gary Payton and Karl Malone.

Those Pistons teams embodied the blue-collar work ethic of the city of Detroit. Wallace wasn’t the frontman, but he’s the first to be selected to the Hall of Fame.

That distinction wasn’t his goal at all, though.

“I never thought about it until they called me and said I was nominated for the Hall of Fame. I thought it was a prank call or something,” Wallace said. “I thought maybe there was a process you had to go through after you retired — I really didn’t know.

“After the first time, I got the call that said I was nominated, then it became nerve-wracking.”

Wallace doesn’t have to worry about nerves anymore, aside from his induction speech, which will put him firmly in the spotlight at the podium in front of his new peers, who are the all-time NBA greats.

Now, Wallace is among them — an honor that always was deserved, even if the stats didn’t always make that case easily enough for him.

It’s not a bad spot for the 10th of 11 children growing up in White Hall, Alabama, who went undrafted and wasn’t a standout basketball player until after he joined the Pistons. Wallace made rebounding, defense and hustling into his badges of honor, at a time when most in the league were focused on scoring and championships.

“The way I played is not always glitz and glamour, but somehow at the end, we found a way to get a win,” Wallace said.

He found a way into the Hall of Fame as well.

Hall of Fame induction ceremony

When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Springfield, Massachusetts

TV: NBATV

Outlook: The 2021 class includes 16 inductees, including Pistons icon Ben Wallace, Detroit native and former Michigan standout Chris Webber, Paul Pierce, Chris Bosh and Toni Kukoc, along with coaches Bill Russell, Jay Wright, Rick Adelman and WNBA stars Yolanda Griffith and Lauren Jackson.

rod.beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

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