It’s Ben Great


The story of the game in Pistons red, white and blue

– If Uncle Ben, Ben Stiller and the guy from Ben & Jerry’s had been available, Lawrence Frank probably would have fielded an All-Ben lineup and set a few more NBA records Thursday night. Ben Wallace – perhaps playing the last game of a decorated 16-year NBA career – started and looked 27, not 37, and Ben Gordon came off the bench to make a franchise-record seven 3-point shots in a quarter as the Pistons routed Philadelphia 108-86 in the 2011-12 finale. The Pistons tied the NBA mark of 11 3-pointers in a quarter, the second, when they racked up 39 points. Wallace played 20 minutes before leaving to a standing ovation late in the third quarter and Gordon finished with 26 points and five assists as the Pistons, who started the season 4-20, played exactly .500 basketball – 21-21 – over the season’s final 42 games.

BLUE COLLAR – Who else but Ben Wallace? We should retire the category in his name. The Pistons made a point to get him the ball on the offensive end early and he responded with moves he’s broken out only rarely on a night he finished with seven points, making two jump shots and swishing his first free throw. But it was, as it should have been, his work on defense and off the glass that defined his night. Wallace led everyone with 12 rebounds and showed the paint is still his domain when he swatted away a Craig Brackins shot late in the third quarter, when he was still stepping lively.

RED FLAG – The only downer of the night is the Pistons wrapped up a season in which they made remarkable progress and don’t have a postseason to accelerate their growth. With a full off-season at their disposal this time instead of the lockout conditions under which Lawrence Frank was hired – and a number of players who’ve already made plans to spend big chunks of their summer at the team’s practice facility – they plan to hit the ground running in 2012-13.

Late in Thursday’s third quarter, at a time when Lawrence Frank normally would be removing starters to catch their breath, he had Jason Maxiell poised to enter the lineup at power forward. But the next dead ball leaked into the slot when an automatic TV timeout was due. So Frank waved Maxiell back to the bench.

That allowed Ben Wallace to grab one more rebound and set one more rib-rattling screen before Maxiell replaced him with 26 seconds left in the quarter, giving The Palace crowd the opportunity to give him one last rousing round of appreciative applause for a career played with indomitable spirit and boundless passion.

It was Frank first off the bench to lead a standing ovation and fist bumps all down the line among Pistons coaches and teammates, all of them wearing blue headbands in his honor.

But The Palace crowd wanted still more. So when they began the chant “We Want Ben!” with 1:30 left in the game, Maxiell yanked Wallace off the bench and flung him to the scorer’s table to check in one more time. He got off a 3-point shot, missed wide left, and when the buzzer sounded, the ball – and the collective heart of Pistons fans – was in his hands.

“It was crazy,” he said of the encore performance. “Even in my heyday, it took me a little minute to get warmed up. You want to give the fans what they want. I owed it to them to go back in the game.”

If he truly gives them what they want, he’ll be back again next season. As for that …

“It’s just one of those things I have to think about a little bit,” he said after the Pistons beat Philadelphia 108-86 to finish the season 25-41, but 21-21 since their agonizing 4-20 start. “It’s tough to walk away from the game when you’ve got so many people in the game keep asking you to come back. Do I think it’s time to retire? Yeah, but people asking me to come back, they see something in me that I really don’t see in myself right now. We all feel good to be wanted.

“Do I think I can still go out there and play a little bit? Yeah, no question. But do I think I’m the best player or the best defender or best rebounder? No, not any more. That’s a tough thing to admit to yourself when I pride myself on going out and being the best every night.”

Wallace drew the start, over his objections, and the Pistons funneled their offense to him in the early going. Big Ben scored on a baseline spin and knocked down a 15-foot jump shot in the early going. By the time the game’s first timeout rolled around with 4:33 left in the first quarter, he’d already scored five points and grabbed six rebounds. He finished with seven points and a game-high 12 boards in 20 workmanlike minutes.

“It was a little crazy, man, a very emotional game,” he said. “The crowd came out and supported me, like they’ve been doing my whole career. I appreciate them for doing that. I tried to relax and have fun, but sometimes my nerves got the best of me.”

“We just wanted to come out and honor Body,” said the other Ben, Gordon. He set a franchise record for 3-pointers in a quarter, knocking down all seven of his second-quarter attempts, on his way to a 26-point night. “We were all extra inspired tonight. He’s the epitome of the consummate professional.”

“He’s going to be a Hall of Famer,” said the player who inherited his No. 3, Rodney Stuckey. “Crazy thing is, he still could play a couple of more years if he wanted to.”

Frank, who sat down with Wallace before training camp and tried to prepare him for the lesser role he envisioned for him this season, said “it’s been a privilege, and I speak for all the coaches, to see him work every single day. I’ve been fortunate over my time to be around some really special players and Ben’s right there. He’s a Hall of Fame-credentialed player. It was nice for him to go out the way he did.”

With Wallace at the center of the story, the Pistons put on a good show for owner Tom Gores, who before the game said he was “proud of the effort” the team displayed this season in the face of a 4-20 start, and he lauded the work ethic and toughness he saw in them.

They were the very qualities that defined the player on whose shoulders the franchise climbed on its way back to NBA elite status. Whether he pulled his Pistons jersey over those shoulders for the final time or not Thursday, that’s a pretty nice legacy to leave for those who follow.