Unwanted Ben Wallace Started Detroit Pistons' 21st Century Re-BirthAugust 8, 2009
The unwanted basketball player piled his worldly possessions into his college-kid car and drove west.
Not sure if he made the trek non-stop, but David Bing left the campus at Syracuse University and made a road trip to Detroit.
The Pistons’ first round draft choice was sloppy seconds in the minds of the pro basketball fans of Detroit back in 1966—all 3,000 or so of them. They wanted Cazzie Russell from the University of Michigan, not the kid from out east.
Today, Bing is the Mayor of Detroit—and in no small part because of how he thrilled Pistons fans from 1966-75 and then helped repair the area as a businessman and community leader.
Not bad for an unwanted.
Nine years ago, another unwanted basketball player arrived in Pistons Land.
When Joe Dumars retired as a player in 1999, he was given one year to function as a sort of observer before taking over the reins of the front office in the spring of 2000.
For that entire first year of observing, folks knew what Joe D’s first challenge would be, and it would be a doozy.
The superstar forward Grant Hill, the Pistons’ prized first round pick of 1994, was at a crossroads.
After six years of being the team’s best player with not much support around him, Hill had a choice to make: stay in Detroit, or test the uncharted waters of free agency.
What would Grant do?
And what would Dumars do, should Grant opt to leave?
Hill was a poor man’s Bob Lanier—a front court gem among scuffed, dirty cubic zirconium. A perennial All-Star who often had to suffer the fools on the court wearing “PISTONS” on their jerseys.
Lanier, though, had another All-Star with him, at least: Dave Bing. But then Bing was traded, and Lanier was truly alone as a star basketball player.
Hill didn’t even have that luxury of playing part of his career with another star. He had the frenetic defender and crooked shooter Lindsey Hunter at point guard, and the gunslinger Allan Houston at the shooting guard position. But Hunter and Houston, even when combined, didn’t make one Dave Bing.
There were some playoff appearances for Hill, but just as with Lanier, they were brief and of the cameo variety.
In the playoffs of 2000, Hill and the Pistons gamely took on the superior Miami Heat in one of those best-of-five challenges.
Hill hurt his ankle, badly, in Game Two in Miami. It was so mangled that the Pistons’ best player was reduced to that of cheerleader on the bench as his teammates gave the Heat all they could handle before succumbing in the final moments.
A couple nights later, the Heat finished the Pistons off at The Palace.
So, would Grant stay, or would he go?
It wasn’t the best way for a rookie GM to become indoctrinated into the front office wars of the NBA. But Dumars would soon prove to not be any ordinary rookie GM.
The Orlando Magic fancied themselves just one more star player away from serious championship contention. Someone to complement the high-scoring guard Tracy McGrady.
They wanted Hill. It wasn’t determined whether Hill wanted the Magic, though.
Dumars made a play for keeping Hill in Detroit. But Joe played 14 years in the league and he knew when players wanted, in their heart, to change their scenery.
It didn’t take Dumars long to realize that he didn’t have a prayer of keeping Grant Hill in a Pistons uniform.
So a sign-and-trade arrangement was made with the Magic.
The Pistons would sign Hill, then immediately trade him to the Magic for a scowling guard named Chucky Atkins, and a sculpted big man named Ben Wallace.
The Pistons got rooked.
How could these guys possibly make up for the talents and skill lost when Hill fled for Orlando?
Atkins only had one NBA year under his belt, but was a better shooter than Hunter, who also departed in the summer of 2000. But he was a far less experienced player than Lindsey, who’d played seven years in Detroit.
And this big guy, Ben Wallace?
Undistinguished, Wallace was—first in Washington, then in Orlando. No scoring skills to speak of. A pretty good defender, we were told. Could block some shots with the best of them.
A second-year guard and a one-dimensional center, for Grant Hill?
Soon after the trade was consummated, Hill was seen stepping off a plane in Orlando, where he was greeted like a returning war hero. The Magic all but wet themselves, imagining what Hill and McGrady could do as a dynamic duo.
Ben Wallace?! Chucky Atkins?!
But Hill’s damaged ankle was, it turned out, far more damaged than originally suspected. After signing a $92.7 million contract, Hill played a grand total of four games—four—for the Magic in 2000-01.
Wallace, meanwhile, endeared himself to Pistons fans with his blue collar work ethic and his fearsome defensive presence near the basket.
A rival player would dare drive to the hoop, and Big Ben was there to dissuade him, to put it mildly. Often the rival’s shot was swatted into the $500 seats at courtside. If the shot managed to elude Ben’s muscular arms, likely it was bothered enough to be off target. And Wallace would gobble up the ensuing rebound.
Ben Wallace still couldn’t score. But neither could the men he was assigned to guard every night.
Wallace, as the Pistons’ starting center, scored a grand total of 511 points for the entire season. LeBron James and Kobe Bryant have that by Thanksgiving, easily.
But Wallace averaged over 13 rebounds a game, and well over two blocked shots per game. What wasn’t recorded was the number of shots that Wallace “adjusted” because of his mere presence in the lane.
The fans in Detroit came to worship and adore Ben Wallace, just as they embraced the unwanted Dave Bing 34 years prior.
Before long, Wallace’s choice of hairstyle was even a big deal. Corn rows, or Afro?
The vendors at The Palace, never to be confused with dumb-dumbs, began selling Afro wigs for the denizens.
Fear the ‘Fro!!
That was the rallying cry as Wallace and, eventually, reinforcements that Dumars assembled in the names of Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, and Rasheed Wallace joined the fray.
The unwanted Wallace and his new cast of characters went all the way to the NBA Finals in 2004 and upset the vaunted Los Angeles Lakers. The next year, the Pistons almost repeated, losing in seven angry games to the San Antonio Spurs.
Earlier in the ’04 championship season, Dumars traded away a guard to the Boston Celtics to complete a complicated transaction in which another guard that Dumars traded days earlier could be re-acquired.
The traded away guard was Chucky Atkins. The guard being re-acquired was Lindsey Hunter.
Friday, the Pistons announced that Wallace was coming back to them, after three years away as a free agent bust—first with Chicago then with Cleveland. He’ll be 35 when training camp begins.
And he still doesn’t score. But Pistons fans still love him.
They no longer say, “Ben WHO?”