Published Feb. 17, 2019
Joe Dumars, the young, rookie basketball executive, was smacked right in the face with a dilemma as soon as he took over the Pistons in spring, 2000.
The team’s signature star, Grant Hill, wanted out of Auburn Hills.
Hill, drafted third overall by the franchise in 1994 out of Duke, was the Teal Piston. He had the misfortune of joining the team after the heyday of the Bad Boys but before the next championship era. Hill’s tenure as a Piston was odd, just like those uniforms he was forced to wear in the mid-1990s.
But by 2000, Hill was ready to move on. The Pistons made a few playoff cameos in his era but they weren’t, truly, a championship contender.
Hill was 27 and heading into the prime of his career. And Dumars was tasked to move his star and not look like he was getting rooked.
Dumars got rooked anyway. Or so we thought.
On August 3, 2000, it was announced. Dumars had moved Hill to the Orlando Magic for a pugnacious little guard named Chucky Atkins, and a supposedly extraordinary defender of the paint, Ben Wallace.
What a steal! For the Magic.
Highway robbery, but for who?
Grant Hill, whose availability in the ’94 draft had reduced Pistons GM Billy McKinney to tears of joy, and he of the 20-plus points per game–plus a handful of assists and a decent amount of rebounds, was being moved to the young and exciting Magic, to be paired with another superstar: Tracy McGrady.
All for Atkins and Wallace–two players that the typically casual NBA fan in Detroit had likely never heard of.
Poor, rookie Dumars—taken to the cleaners by the more astute, more veteran Magic GM, John Gabriel, who was the reigning NBA Executive of the Year.
Hill was a bust in Orlando. His wonky ankle, which he injured late in the 2000 season with the Pistons, betrayed him again and limited him to just four games played in 2000-01. And Hill was beset by injuries for several years after that.
Atkins was his usual pugnacious self but the key to the deal ended up being the big man who was offensively challenged but defensively brilliant: Wallace, who went to school at Virginia Union.
It would take Ben Wallace a week to score 20 points, but a heartbeat to grab five rebounds and block three shots. It would also take him 10 free throws to make four, but that was part of his offensive “game.”
Dumars was either crazy like a fox or he got lucky. Regardless, while Hill watched game after game in street clothes in Orlando, Wallace was carving out a love affair with Pistons fans.
The HOF beckons, as it should
Fear the Fro!
The love affair hit its apex in 2004, when Wallace and his Goin’ to Work teammates captured the NBA title. The team pushed the San Antonio Spurs to Game 7 of the 2005 Finals as well.
Ben Wallace became as popular in the Motor City as coneys, automobiles and Vernors. A mayoral run could have been in the offing, had he wanted it.
Last week it was announced that Wallace was among the finalists for the Naismith Hall of Fame’s class of 2019.
The decision to enshrine him should be, ahem, a slam dunk.
Wallace enjoyed a homecoming in 2009 when he returned to the Pistons as a prodigal son after bolting to the Bulls in free agency in 2006. So much did I respect Wallace as a basketball man that I stumped for his becoming Pistons coach after his playing days were done.
“I’m still trying to soak it all in, take it all in,” Wallace said after the announcement. “It’s definitely nerve-wracking, exciting, not really knowing. There are a lot of players still on that waiting list who haven’t had that opportunity to get this far. So, I’m just thankful and grateful and just enjoying this moment right now.”
An inspiring NBA story
That the Hall of Fame voters are even considering a player of Wallace’s ilk is inspiring.
Not just because he entered the NBA in 1996 as an undrafted free agent, with the Washington Wizards. Not just because he couldn’t throw a basketball into an ocean with any accuracy. Not just because he appeared to be a one-dimensional player.
It’s inspiring because the story of Ben Wallace in the NBA was one of perseverance and quiet leadership. He was the ultimate example of a man who spoke softly yet carried a big stick. He wasn’t your prototypical NBA superstar.
It’s hard to argue the merits of that 2004 championship Pistons team, in terms of which player was more valuable than the other. Whether you were discussing Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince or Wallace, you could make a case for any of them.
But while Billups, Mr. Big Shot, won the Finals MVP award in 2004, it’s hard to imagine the fate of the Pistons without Wallace disrupting the paint, dominating the glass and just plain old intimidating.
Wallace joins Paul Westphal, Jack Sikma and Marques Johnson as first-time finalists for the Hall.
Wallace should be enshrined. First ballot. No questions asked. He was the most defensively dominant big man of his time. A five-time All-Star and four-time Defensive Player of the Year. His Pistons number 3 hangs from the rafters at Little Caesars Arena.
When teams played the Pistons in those championship years of the mid-2000s, they not only had to game plan for the offensive tools of Billups, Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace, they had to deal with the intimidating presence of Ben Wallace, who patrolled the paint like a beat cop.
Wallace went undrafted in 1996. He shouldn’t go unenshrined in 2019.