Something to Cheer

Big Ben’s final lap of the NBA leaves Pistons in a better place

Ben Wallace will retire from the Pistons confident about their future.
Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty Images
Ben Wallace grasped the big picture when he negotiated a contract buyout with Phoenix three summers ago so he could return to the Pistons. He wasn’t coming back to the NBA title contender he left. But he was coming back to the place he made his mark on the sport. He was doing that, in part, to stage his exit from a comfort zone, the city where fans had adored him and he’d exceeded every expectation.

He was also doing it, make no mistake, to help bridge the transition from era to another, just as he had when he came to the Pistons nearly a decade earlier. The challenges were complicated by the transition of ownership, but after this season – definitively his last, as he’s said since training camp – he’ll be able to walk away feeling the franchise is in a good place headed to a better place.

“I like the direction this team is headed,” he said after Wednesday’s convincing win over Charlotte in which Greg Monroe put up 19 points and 20 rebounds, Brandon Knight pitched in 20 points with five assists and zero turnovers, and Rodney Stuckey added 29 points. “I think the future is very bright for the young guys – Greg, Brandon. I wouldn’t have a problem with how I left them. I would be leaving them in a better position than what I found them.”

Despite all the big numbers put up by the heart of their future in Wednesday’s win, Wallace’s contributions – as they always have – dwarfed the impact he made on the box score. In 13 minutes, he had five rebounds, two points and a blocked shot. But the game was tied 22-22 when he entered late in the first quarter and the Pistons led 43-35 when he exited with five minutes left before halftime.

And nobody thought that was mere coincidence. Knight, for instance, scored nine points in the first five minutes of the second quarter after going scoreless in the first 10 minutes of the first. Lawrence Frank pointed directly to Wallace’s screen-setting skills as the underlying cause for the open shots the Pistons got during their 19-12 run to open the second quarter when the Pistons seized control.

“He sets great screens and allows us to attack the opposing big men,” Knight said. “It creates opportunities for us. When he comes in the game, he does a great job setting screens and getting the guards open.”

After the 4-20 start complicated by the unusual circumstances of the NBA lockout, the Pistons have gone 8-5 over their last 13 games. Frank has settled on a frontcourt rotation that includes Jason Maxiell as the starter at power forward next to Monroe with Wallace and Jonas Jerebko coming off the bench. Wallace has played his best basketball of the season over the past month, too, anchoring the defense of Frank’s second unit but also contributing offensively in his typically subtle ways.

There are 29 games left in the season – 29 games left in a career that’s earned him four Defensive Player of the Year awards, an NBA championship ring and a resume worthy of serious Hall of Fame scrutiny. Yet Wallace says he isn’t keeping a mental scoreboard of all the “last times” he’ll play certain teams or in opposing arenas.

“I’m just trying to approach every game the same way with the attitude I’m going to go out there and have some fun,” he said. “Either give the fans something to cheer or something to boo about.”

The cheers have always been loudest and most heartfelt at The Palace. It’s why he came home – but not the only reason he returned to the Pistons.