All-Time Greats

Wallace, Duncan face off as two of the top defensive presences of their time

Two of the league's best defenders will match up for the final time tonight at The Palace.
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In a span of 24 hours, the three greatest defensive forces of the NBA’s most recent generation will share the same air space. Ben Wallace and the Pistons host Tim Duncan and San Antonio tonight, then travel to play Boston and Kevin Garnett on Wednesday.

Ben Wallace, four-time Defensive Player of the Year; Tim Duncan, eight times an All-Defense first-teamer; and Kevin Garnett, also an eight time first-teamer who won Defensive POY when Boston won the 2008 NBA title.

Is that the list of your defensive peers, Ben Wallace?

“Well, yeah,” he says, after first resisting the notion he be lumped with Duncan and Garnett, “that’s the list.”

They’re also a reminder of the different pathways that lead to the NBA. Garnett was a schoolboy legend, first in South Carolina and later in Chicago, who was hounded by all the college basketball powers before ultimately becoming the first player since the days of Moses Malone and Darryl Dawkins to bypass college altogether. He still went No. 5 in a loaded draft and changed the way NBA scouts felt about the readiness of preps.

Duncan was a bona fide college star at Wake Forest who went lightly recruited only because he was so far off the beaten path, a native of the U.S. Virgin Islands who until his late teens was more focused on swimming than basketball. He arrived in the NBA not only as the No. 1 pick in the 1997 draft – remember, the prospect of landing the No. 1 pick that year was enough to lure Rick Pitino from Kentucky to Boston – but as a player regarded head and shoulders above the field.

Wallace spent two years in junior college after a nondescript high school career, then played two years far removed from the spotlight at Virginia Union before going undrafted and earning a make-good invitation to Summer League with the Boston Celtics, whose M.L. Carr attempted to convert him into a shooting guard.

“That was a learning experience,” said Wallace, who by playing in tonight’s game moves a game ahead of Avery Johnson at 1,055, the most by any undrafted player since the NBA-ABE merger. “I was put in a position I didn’t feel comfortable with. I knew I wasn’t a two-guard, but they invited me to camp, gave me an opportunity to step on that floor and go against some of the best in the world. At the end of the day, basketball players are basketball players. Even though I played the two, I still ended up tops in rebounds and blocks and steals. Eventually, a basketball player is going to find his way.”

Wallace and Duncan – who meet for the final time tonight, given Wallace’s stated intention to retire at season’s end – met in the 2005 NBA Finals, one of the most fiercely competitive in recent years. The Pistons lost the first two games on the road after a quick turnaround from a grueling seven-game conference finals with Miami, nearly won the middle three games at The Palace – Robert Horry’s overtime bomb stole Game 5 – and forced a Game 7 by winning Game 6 in San Antonio. The final game went down to the final minutes, the Spurs winning by seven.

The Spurs have remained among the NBA elite largely because Duncan has remained a remarkable force, with plenty of help from All-Star teammates Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and the constancy offered by coach Gregg Popovich.

“He’s doing a great job,” Wallace said of Duncan, now 35 and in his 16th season. “He’s having great success with his team. When you gel together as a team, you don’t have to go out there and try to beat the world by yourself. He’s been fortunate enough to have that type of team around him where he can go out and be himself and not overexert himself or take chances he wouldn’t normally take. It comes along with having a great coach. Pop does a great job of allowing his veterans to take time to recover, make sure they’re fresh and ready for the game.”