How Ben Wallace used defense to lead Detroit Pistons’ renaissance: Flashback

Detroit Free Press
Jo-Ann Barnas |  Detroit Free Press

Editor’s note: To celebrate Detroit Pistons great Ben Wallace’s Basketball Hall of Fame induction, we look back at the story that taught us about his humble beginnings in Alabama, told by former Free Press sports writer Jo-Ann Barnas on March 26, 2002.

“She taught us to pray and be thankful for whatever we got. To realize that there’s a difference in the feeling between the things that you work for and the things that somebody’s given you. You appreciate the things you work for a whole lot more.”– Ben Wallace, talking about his mother, Sadie Wallace, 66, of White Hall, Ala.

The boys asked, “How much?” and the man said he wouldn’t go any lower than 20 bucks.

They stared at the worn piece of shaped steel. It was a beautiful thing, regulation size, a piece of summer they had to have. Give them a day or so, the boys agreed, and they would be back. They would find a way to buy that basketball goal.

So the boys headed down a country road, to the farms that hired daily help.

They found work picking pecans, earning about $15 each in one day. More than enough to buy the goal.

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But the boys knew they were only halfway there. The goal was in need of a backboard. So they ran to the old barn. Plenty of wood there.

Next they went into the woods and searched for the straightest piece of fallen timber they could find. They carried the trunk back to Ben’s house — the basket had to be at the Wallace home, everyone played there — and the boys took turns digging the hole. Then they stuck the tree in, nailed up the goal.

And there it was. Summer.

“I remember that being one of the greatest feelings I ever had,” Ben Wallace said after a recent Pistons practice. “I got my own basket.”

But there is more to this story — an addendum to that glorious day in White Hall, when Wallace, then a pre-teen, learned what could happen when he applied his mother’s philosophy to basketball.

But this part makes him laugh.

Imagine the sight of a group of boys after the last nail is driven into the tree, the moment when reality strikes. Again.

“Basket’s up, basket looks good,” Wallace said.

The problem?

“We ain’t got no ball.”

Pick a television sportscast from Sunday night — any which one, it doesn’t matter.

Chances are Wallace was on it after the star forward’s outstanding performance in the Pistons’ 109-101 victory over the Boston Celtics at the Palace.

For the Pistons, the nationally televised game on NBC exposed Wallace and his teammates to a generation of fans who previously equated the team’s success only with the championship days of the Bad Boys.

Finally, it seems this collection of hardworking players has begun to establish its own identity. And the word is spreading.

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The Pistons have been built around Jerry Stackhouse, but the ferocious energy of Wallace in full defensive splendor, the way he blocks shots and fights for rebounds, has made defense fun to watch. Especially for all those kids — not to mention middle-age adults — who have been showing up for home games wearing Afro wigs, all to pay homage to the Pistons’ No. 3 and his ever-changing hairdo and electric play.

Sunday afternoon, it was easy to see why.

In 44 minutes against the Celtics, Wallace was a real-life version of the twiN Tasmanian devils he has tattooed on his arms. He grabbed 28 rebounds, the best in the NBA this season and matching his career high. He blocked six shots, which moved him within 13 of the team single-season record of 247 set by Bob Lanier in 1973-74.

Already the league leader in blocked shots, averaging 3.39 per game, Wallace now is averaging 12.6 rebounds, second in the league to Tim Duncan’s 12.7.

And with a 1.62-steal average, Wallace is the only player in the top 20 in the NBA in rebounds, blocks and steals.

“For a guy his size, the number of blocked shots he gets is phenomenal,” coach Rick Carlisle said of Wallace, 6-feet-9, 240 pounds. “Pound for pound, he’s the best defensive player I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Which brings up something else. The NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award. In Carlisle’s mind, the voting shouldn’t even be close. Especially considering the success of the Pistons, who at 41-28 have the Eastern Conference’s second-best record, trailing the 45-25 New Jersey Nets.

The Pistons play at Indiana tonight.

“I think it’s going to be a landslide,” Carlisle said of the voting for defensive player of the year. “But I’m biased. He’s one of my guys.”

In his sixth season in the league and his second with the Pistons, Wallace has emerged after going undrafted out of college and spending his rookie season as the 12th man at Washington. As recently as the summer of 2000, he was expendable in Orlando, which sent Wallace and Chucky Atkins to Detroit so the Magic could clear enough salary-cap room for former Piston Grant Hill in a sign-and-trade deal.

But once he landed in Auburn Hills, Wallace, 27, immediately saw his minutes rise along with his reputation for outworking the hardest workers.

“We recruited Ben really hard to come here, he and Chucky Atkins both,” Pistons president Joe Dumars said. “Now the fact that we went ahead and did a sign-and-trade, that was strictly for salary-cap purposes. He was going to come anyway, because we recruited him.”

Wallace signed a six-year contract worth $30 million.

Asked to assess Wallace’s play, Dumars shook his head in appreciation. From bud to blossom, in remarkable style. “It would be disingenuous of me to tell you that I thought we were going to get a dominating great player who has garnered league-wide respect — not only from the players, but the coaches and media as well,” Dumars said. “Ben is a man who has not only expanded his game from last year to this year, but as this season has gone on. He understands his teammates better. He understands whom he has to cover more than another, who the stronger defensive players are on this team, who the weaker ones are.

“And when he sees the weaker ones in trouble, he comes to their protection a whole lot quicker. He’s like that mother eagle; he spreads those wings and he’s everywhere. And that’s a comfort, to have a guy like that.”

A mother eagle. Sadie Wallace would be proud to hear that.

She took her homemade cornbread out of the oven and placed it next to the steaming platters of collard greens and okra.

It was Sunday morning, and Sadie Wallace wasn’t sure who all was going to show up. She just wanted to make sure there was plenty to eat if they did.

By game time, her three-bedroom house in the tiny town of White Hall, about 18 miles east of Selma, Ala., was filling with friends and relatives. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to be with her as she watched the Pistons play the Celtics on television.

“The phone calls were coming and they were saying, ‘Are you watching Ben? Turn on your TV!’ ” Sadie Wallace said Monday. “We had a nice crowd around, real nice.”

Asked what she said as she watched her son play perhaps the best game of his career, she boasted, “That’s my baby son!”

The 10th of 11 children born to Sadie Wallace in a 26-year span beginning in 1952, Ben Wallace talks about his childhood in loving terms. The Wallace family was poor, he knew that, but it didn’t matter to him.

He knew his mother used to make most of their clothing. When he picked vegetables in the fields with his family, he said his mother made it seem like fun. It wasn’t until much later that it occurred to Ben that he was helping keep the family fed.

“I just remember her always being there for us,” Ben Wallace said. “She always had a great attitude, always a smile, and you’d never catch her at a down moment.”

He knew his mother had chopped and picked cotton, long before he was born. He knew her first husband, Johnny Wallace, who died in the 1960s, was a chauffeur for the town doctor.

Ben said he barely knew the man who fathered him.

“He was never around,” Wallace said. “He just ran out on the struggle instead of doing whatever he could to make it better.”

Because of that, Wallace said he struggled with his feelings for his father.

But when he was around 15, Wallace sought him out for a “man-to-man talk.”

“I still didn’t like the fact that he wasn’t there, but getting those emotions out, I opened up and learned some of the things he was facing as a man,” Wallace said.

Three years later, Wallace’s father, Samuel Doss, died.

“I sit around sometimes and think about it, how my mom definitely has to be one of the strongest people in the world,” Wallace said.

He has another story to tell.

“I started cutting hair when I was about 16,” Wallace said. “Everyone in the neighborhood would come by, and I’d come out on the porch and sit and cut. I’d charge $3 a head. Every time I earned some money, I’d give it to my mom.

“Well, she came out one day and said I had $240. We only had one pair of scissors in the house, so I went out and bought myself a good pair of clippers. I gave the rest to my mom. She said, ‘You made this money, you can spend it the way you want to spend it.’

“Just the fact that she would say that, that meant a lot.”

A couple of years ago, Wallace took his girlfriend to White Hall to meet his mother. The girlfriend became his wife, Chanda.

Ben and Chanda Wallace met during Wallace’s senior season at Virginia Union in Richmond, Va.

Chanda will never forget the trip.

“The first time he took me to Alabama, we just drove around at night and he was pointing out stuff,” Chanda said. “He said, ‘I grew up there,’ and I was like, ‘How many people?’ He never complained about it.”

But as they approached the house, Chanda grew nervous.

“I remember when we were driving in, I said, ‘What if your mother doesn’t like me?’ ” Chanda said. “Ben looked at me and said, ‘Then I won’t marry you. My mom likes everyone, and if she doesn’t like you, then there has to be something wrong.’ ”

Chanda started to laugh.

“Ben and his mother, they’re identical.”

Not surprising, Wallace’s childhood was filled with nephews who were close like brothers. Nephews like Stephen Underwood, 29, and Michael Paul McBride, 27, the son of the Rev. James McBride, Ben’s 49-year-old brother.

The two nephews were part of the group that built the basketball goal in Ben’s backyard when they were kids.

But James McBride, pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church in Centreville, Ala.— he’s affectionately called “Rev” by his siblings — provided much of Ben’s male support when he was growing up.

“He reminded me at Thanksgiving how I used to have him out there running laps around my neighborhood,” McBride said. “Ben must have been about 7. I was getting him ready for athletics.”

By the time Wallace reached high school, McBride had been coach of many of Ben’s summer league teams at the Selma YMCA.

“His senior year in September, he was the same height as me, 6-6,” McBride said. “That May, he shot up to 6-9.”

An all-around athlete at Central High in nearby Hayneville — he was also a standout in baseball, football and track and field — Wallace became especially motivated in basketball after attending NBA forward Charles Oakley’s camp in Livingston, Ala., his senior year.

With Oakley’s help, Wallace attended Cuyahoga (Ohio) Community College and, two years later, Virginia Union, an NCAA Division II school in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association.

“I remember Rev. McBride told me, ‘You watch it; Ben’s got a bad attitude,’ “said Virginia Union coach Dave Robbins. “I never saw it. Ben was a special person from the very beginning.”

In the off-season, Wallace, who lives during the summer in Chesterfield, Va., just outside of Richmond, works out and plays basketball at the Virginia Union gym.

Robbins can remember how he wished hard for something good to happen for Wallace when he left school. Wallace averaged 12.5 points and 10.5 rebounds in his senior season at Virginia Union, which lost in the semifinals of the Division II national tournament.

Undrafted, Wallace was cut by the Celtics — his first tryout — before he went to Italy. He was there for about a week but left when he didn’t get paid after his team lost a game.

“Then I got a call from Washington — got invited to veteran camp,” Wallace said. “I pretty much knew that was my break.”

Two years later, Wallace was the Wizards’ leading rebounder. The next season, in 1999-2000, he was traded to Orlando. He played there one season before the Pistons picked him up in the sign-and-trade deal for Hill.

Last season, Wallace finished second in the league in rebounding and 10th in blocks, but his efforts largely went unnoticed. Why? The Pistons had the ninth-worst record in the NBA.

And now here he is, with an improving team, determined to take it as far as he can in the playoffs.

Wallace improved his post moves at Pete Newell’s camp for big men last summer in Hawaii, but McBride thinks the Pistons should send him to a point-guard camp after this season. He’s not joking.

“The only thing Ben and I have a difference on is his ball-handling ability,” McBride said of his brother, who’s averaging 7.5 points a game. “Right now, if he’d go to a point-guard camp, you’d be surprised at the difference it could make. Why could James Worthy get open? Because he had that ball-handling ability. Ben didn’t need to go to a big-man camp — no man can handle him down low. Ben can shoot the ball. He just needs to learn how to get open better.”

Wallace appreciates his brother’s support. He and Carlisle have talked about Wallace’s hope of becoming more involved in the Pistons’ offense.

“I’ve never been on a team where they’ve actually needed me to score,” Wallace said. “So when they say that I’m just scratching the surface, I say you’ve never really seen me play the game but on one end of the floor.

“Me and Coach talked 35-40 minutes one day just about being more aggressive on offense and not being afraid to take chances. Don’t worry if I miss, who’s going to get the rebound. So I’m starting to take those chances.”

After 1½ years with the Pistons, Wallace and his wife have grown fond of the area — and the fans. They have a home not far from the Palace and live across the street from Pistons swingman Michael Curry, Wallace’s best friend on the team.

“If the weather is nice, then Ben is out there almost waiting for the kids to come over,” Curry said. “In the springtime and the fall, you have to look out. You have to make sure the kids have their homework done before going to play at Ben’s house.”

In a couple of weeks, as the Pistons position themselves for the playoffs, Wallace hopes his mother makes good on her word and takes her first trip to the Palace to see him play.

Wallace said he thinks about White Hall almost every day. He wants to move his mom into a new house, but he understands why Sadie refuses to budge.

“Home is home,” Wallace said. “Me and my nephew, Michael Paul, were just talking and reminiscing the other day about the little things that we did. How we remembered the grownups sitting under the tree and we’d be in the yard playing, not having a care in the world. We were totally unaware of the struggle we were going to have to face the next day. Looking at our parents, laughing, giggling and eating, it made us happy.”

Wallace smiled at the memory.

“Come to think of it, we didn’t have one toy,” he said. “We were just happy.”

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