Ben Wallace: Working Class Hero
Ben Wallace's humble roots have driven him to great heights. (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images)
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The City of Broad Shoulders has a new favorite son.
But, if you think the pressure that comes with being the Chicago Bulls’ highest-paid player will wear on Ben Wallace , well, you need to think again because he’s faced much tougher challenges throughout his life.
Wallace is one of only two players (D. Mutombo) in NBA history to win the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award four times.
(Tom Pidgeon/NBAE/Getty Images)
Relentless defensive determination makes Ben Wallace one of the most menacing figures in the NBA. The Detroit Pistons often hitched themselves to his broad shoulders, using his strength in the middle to surge to four of the last five Central Division titles, two NBA Finals appearances, and the 2004 NBA World Championship. These days, those same shoulders are expected to support the Chicago Bulls’ next title run.
The shine of the Windy City and the United Center spotlight, as bright as they burn, aren’t likely to ever make Ben Wallace wilt. No, it’s going to take much more than that.
You see, Ben Wallace’s life story reads much like a Hollywood movie script—growing up poor in the sleepy southern town of White Hall, Alabama; eventually building a stellar reputation as an outstanding all-around high school athlete; receiving a full scholarship offer to NCAA national power Auburn University, less than 90 minutes away from family and friends; having that scholarship yanked away at the last minute and being forced to head north almost a thousand miles from home to play junior college ball as a walk-on without a scholarship; then heading to tiny Division II Virginia Union University, only to be overlooked by the NBA come Draft time; and then, down but not out, knocking on doors, looking for a chance to play and fulfill a dream. Boston? No opportunity. Washington, D.C.? No minutes. Orlando? No long-term vision.
The story before you tells of Ben Wallace’s travails at each stop on his long road to stardom. However, in this account we’re going to skip past his time in Detroit, where Wallace ultimately established a home and attained the unique status of being both the most menacing and most endearing player in the NBA. By now you’ve already heard and read a lot about his exploits in Motown. This story looks back to Wallace’s pre-legend days.
In the Beginning
Ben Wallace was born the 10th of 11 children—and the youngest of eight boys—in White Hall, Alabama. His mother, “Mama Sadie,” was on her own with the kids and ran a tight ship that was naturally tight-knit. She raised food and cotton nearby and stitched all the clothing for her large family. It was Mama Sadie who first and most directly taught young Ben the virtues of hard work and resourcefulness.
All 11 kids had to pitch in to help make ends meet. In fact, the Wallaces never owned a car and were among the last families in the area to get electricity. What spending money there was—and there wasn’t much—usually came from baling hay or picking pecans for the local farmers.
For fun, Ben liked to fish and played sports with his older brothers. There was an old bicycle-wheel rim nailed to the side of the Wallace’s three-bedroom home, turning it into the neighborhood hotspot for half-court basketball games of three-on-three. Always the youngest and most often the smallest player in the game, Ben learned early on that, if he ever wanted the ball, he shouldn’t depend on the kindness of his brother-teammates—he’d have to grab a rebound or steal the ball on his own. Indeed, Wallace’s penchant for hustling and scrapping began on that very dusty backyard court during many steamy Alabama afternoons.
At the time (and even today), Ben was the shortest of all his brothers, so he wasn’t always willing to play down low in the post. At one time he considered himself the next line of big ball-handlers—not necessarily a tall point guard like Magic Johnson, but a unique mix of talent, nonetheless. One of young Ben’s early refrains that he was all too willing to repeat over and over to family and friends alike was that he could shoot like Isiah Thomas, dish like Magic Johnson and dunk like Michael Jordan. Teammates and coaches were by and large tolerant of his unique view of his skills, but at the same time would always gently nudged him to play a little closer to the rim.
“Fear the ‘Fro” chants are likely to become a Windy City staple at the United Center this season.
(Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images)
Still, even an unparalleled hybrid of Isiah, Magic and Michael would have had a hard time being unearthed in rural Alabama—especially in the early 1980s. In fact, it was a skill that had little to do with dribbling, shooting or dunking that would provide Wallace the means to further his basketball calling.
Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow
Young Ben may have learned the value of never backing down early on in his basketball life by being bruised, beaten and otherwise ignored by a full roster of older brothers, but it was his zeal to hustle off the court that enabled him to make the most valuable basketball connection of his life.
In an ironic twist of fate, he implausibly discovered a far less taxing way to earn extra spending money away from stifling heat and humidity of the sun-drenched farms of rural Alabama as a hair stylist. He learned the craft, like so many others, for practical purposes: Someone had to cut his siblings’ hair.
“I definitely learned about having a good work ethic from my family,” Wallace recalls. “They showed me what it meant to go out and work for something and then how good it felt when you accomplished your goals. To this day I try to carry that way of thinking with me wherever I go.”
The budding barber became such a talented and popular neighborhood stylist that he eventually started charging non-family customers $3 per cut, and in time built up a nice bundle of cash, so much so that it paid his way to former Bulls and New York Knicks forward Charles Oakley’s basketball camp, held in nearby York, Alabama.
Ben had just finished his sophomore year at Central High in Hayneville, where he would later attain All-State honors in football, basketball, and baseball, in addition to track and field. Those athletic achievements aside, he was still a kid at heart. In fact, he was goofing off during one of Oakley’s lectures at camp when the NBA strongman decided to make an example of him.
The challenge was to play a game of one-on-one with the then-New York Knicks star. Bulls fans fondly remember Oakley’s Chicago tenure as Michael Jordan’s on court bodyguard during the mid-to-late 1980s—the ultimate enforcer—a guy who once broke Milwaukee Bucks big man Paul Mokeski’s nose on a simple drive to the basket. The Mighty Oak, as he was often called by friends and foes alike further honed that reputation as a hardwood menace under the direction of Pat Riley in New York.
“Charles got mad and told us that we were soft, that he didn’t think we worked hard enough,” Wallace remembers with a chuckle. “He then challenged any one of us to play against him. I didn’t jump at the chance, but Oak volunteered me. Right away, he hit me with the ball, hit me hard, and said, ‘OK, let’s go.’”
This wasn’t going to be a check-ball, pop-a-trey game of one-on-one. The game quickly evolved into one of life or death.
To Oakley’s amusing surprise, the then-6’4”, 170-pound Wallace took everything he dished out, and then some. The two bloodied each other’s lips and noses.
“I was impressed,” Oakley says, nodding his head. “Here I thought this group [of campers] were soft, unmotivated, unwilling to work. Then Ben stood up—he didn’t even want to play me at first—and showed me a good game. I could see a real fire in him.”
“Oak really pushed me,” Wallace says smiling. “He made me work hard just to get my shot off.”
Two years into his Pistons tenure, Team USA came calling for Wallace’s services, and Ben obliged, teaming up with a number of NBA stars in wearing the red, white and blue at the 2002 World Basketball Championship Tournament.
(Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images)
And the winner?
“Me, I won,” Ben says with an ear-to-ear grin. “He couldn’t get a jumper over me. If he couldn’t later on in the NBA, he certainly couldn’t when I was 17.”
“Later on, he and I played a lot of basketball together,” Oakley says. “But that first contact always stuck with me. Ben was quick to the ball and tough once he got it. He was strong and athletic, and that convinced me that he had a future, which made it easy to get behind him.”
More than just passing advice, Oakley gave Ben his phone number and vowed to help him find better playing opportunities down the road.
“Charles always encouraged me to work hard and never rest,” Wallace says, with obvious appreciation. “He explained that there is always a way to improve some part of my game, and that I shouldn’t ever feel satisfied. I think having that kind of attitude has made the difference between me and a lot of other players out there around the world.
“Oak’s guidance was my ticket to something bigger.”
On the Road Again
Soon after Ben’s first encounters with the Mighty Oak, plenty of scouts started flocking to see young Mr. Wallace play ball at Central High—as a football player. Naturally, his reputation quickly spread as a highly touted defensive player, but the aspiring hoopster was insistent that any college football coach who wanted to sign him to a scholarship would have to allow him to play basketball as well.
“I thought I had a pretty good basketball career going, too,” Wallace says. “It’s just that I didn’t receive any [scholarship] offers to play basketball. In all honesty, I was hoping to use football as a path to play basketball in college.”
Ben eventually signed with Auburn University, with an understanding that the school would allow him to play both sports, but ultimately the football staff would only allow Ben to play their brand of ball. Thus, scoring on the basketball court wouldn’t happen on their watch. Thus, Wallace’s flirtation with a big-time Division I school quickly ended.
It was mentor Oakley who then swooped in to clean up the mess that was suddenly at Wallace’s feet. The NBA star contacted a good friend in Cleveland, who had an open roster spot on his Cuyahoga Community College squad.
It wasn’t starring on a major-college hardwood or gridiron, or even trimming hair, but Oakley’s assistance kept Wallace going at a crossroads moment of his life. Says Wallace: “He brought me along, and is one of those guys who never pulls any punches. If he has a problem with you, he lets you know. I’ve heard plenty [of critical remarks] from Charles. He’s real good at, well, what you might call constructive criticism.”
Complete Cuyahoga CC stats are unavailable, but what figures are available show that Wallace boasted sophomore averages of 24 points, 17 rebounds, and seven blocks per game. Such eye-popping statistics should have ensured Ben a safe transfer to any number of Division I programs, but Wallace, immature, bored and frustrated, dropped out of school before the end of his second year, ruining a shot to return to the collegiate big time.
Once again, Oakley jumped to his rescue, steering Wallace to Dave Robbins, the coach of his alma mater, Virginia Union.
Wallace’s tenacious style of play and relentless work ethic looks to be a perfect fit to Chicago’s brand of ball.
(Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images)
“There are a lot of good, competitive junior college players, and I thought I did pretty well at Cuyahoga,” Wallace says. “I stayed in contact with Oak, who told me about Virginia Union. I knew he had gone there, but they also had sent Terry Davis and A.J. English to the NBA. VUU had won some national championships and had a great coach in Dave Robbins.” Wallace melded well with the Panthers, extending his game dramatically and leading Virginia Union to Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association titles in 1995 and 1996 and the NCAA Division II Final Four in 1996.
VUU was the first program where Wallace was able to learn the value of team play. There were already several established scorers on the Panthers, so Wallace put his offensive game to the side and focused on fashioning himself into an Oakley-style bruiser down low in the paint. Every Panther did his job, wearing down opponents over the course of the game, and unsurprisingly Wallace excelled at rebounding, starting breaks with outlet passes, and shot-blocking.
His senior year was capped off by being named the Most Valuable Player of the NCAA Division II Tournament and earning All-America honors. Unfortunately, though, without Oakley sitting in some NBA club’s front office, Wallace didn’t stand a chance to be drafted, despite the Panthers’ impressive 28-3 record and Wallace’s solid stats of 12.5 points on .500 shooting, 10.5 rebounds and 3.68 blocks per game.
It’s a plight that’s faced many a player who hoped to steer from his small school into the NBA, none of whom has ever had an easy road into the limelight.
“I can really identify with Ben,” says veteran Dallas Mavericks guard Darrell Armstrong, who played for Fayetteville State in the CIAA. “We didn’t get a lot of publicity, either. But the CIAA has a history of producing good players, and Ben is definitely one of them.”
Wallace swallowed his bruised and battered pride and hooked on with the Boston Celtics’ summer league team as an undrafted free agent in 1996, where Boston’s Head Coach M.L. Carr believed he was undersized for the post and had him defending shooting guards and small forwards on the perimeter.
“I don’t blame [Carr], because in some ways I was just getting my legs under me as a player,” Wallace says. “But to not even give me a chance [in the post], I could have saved everyone a lot of time and told them how things would end up.”
Quickly released, Wallace signed on to play in Italy before getting a last minute call from Wes Unseld, GM of the Washington Bullets. The like-minded Unseld was impressed with what he’d seen before of the up-and-coming big man.
“I faced some of the same challenges as Ben,” recalls Unseld. “A lot of people wondered if I could play center in the NBA at 6’7”, and between you and me, Ben is no bigger than I am. But something clicked watching him, and I knew I wanted to see more.”
“I owe a lot to Wes,” Wallace says of Unseld. “Who knows how long it would have taken me to get back from overseas, if ever, without him taking a chance on me.”
Convinced of Wallace’s untapped potential, Unseld signed the rookie for the end of the Bullets’ bench. While Wallace didn’t see much floor time, his blue-chip power forward cohorts on the club, Chris Webber and Juwan Howard, made no bones about how hard Wallace would attack them at practice. The “big fella” was turning some heads on the floor and, by the start of the 1997-98 season, off it as well. That year, Wallace not only began to flash enormous defensive potential, he unveiled a trademark Jimi Hendrix ’do that would soon turn him into a league-wide fan favorite.
“The hair,” as Wallace now good-naturedly begins his answers to the seemingly interminable ’fro vs. ’rows questions that greet him these days, began as a lark. Wallace and Washington teammates Webber and Darvin Ham forged a bet over who could grow his hair the longest. Based on Webber’s rarely-seen baby ’fro and Ham’s almost constant chrome dome in the seasons since, you can imagine who ended up winning the wager.
Upon his Orlando arrival, first-year coach Doc Rivers tabbed Wallace the team’s starting center, and Big Ben flourished leading the Magic in rebounding (8.1) and was second in blocked shots (1.60).
It’s not to say that hair clippers were Wallace’s Kryptonite, but you could also make that case with no qualms from Big Ben. Once the hair started to rise, so did Wallace’s game: In less than 17 minutes per game during 1997-98, Wallace averaged 4.8 rebounds and 1.07 blocks. Clearly, with an increase in playing time, big numbers were on the horizon.
That’s just what Washington was able to enjoy in 1999, with Webber gone to the Sacramento Kings and Howard hobbled by injury. Wallace saw his salary ($1.6 million over two years) and role (26.8 mpg) jump, as did his production, to 8.3 rebounds and 1.96 blocks. The young center only got better as the lockout-shortened season wore on, climbing to a double-double average over the last month of the season.
Heading into 1999-2000, however, Washington gambled that center Isaac Austin would return to his Most Improved Player (1996-97) form, and Wallace was shipped along with three teammates to the Orlando Magic. And, not unlike the old Boston Red Sox’s famed Curse of the Bambino, Washington hasn’t had as solid a center since.
To his credit, Wallace looked at the trade to Orlando as a new opportunity and quickly befriended two rookies, Head Coach Doc Rivers and point guard Chucky Atkins. He was particularly close to Atkins, hanging out with him and racing remote-controlled cars in the street outside of Ben’s house.
“Chucky and Doc were great,” Wallace says. “The whole situation in Orlando was refreshing. Of course, I wanted to make a home somewhere, but the trade had placed me with a young, up-and-coming team, and that’s sort of how I viewed my own career, on the rise.”
Rivers gave Wallace his first real opportunity to play major minutes in the NBA, starting in 81 games and averaging 24 minutes of action a night. His numbers, 8.2 rebounds and 1.60 blocks, look unremarkable only if you ignore the fact that Wallace suffered from bone spurs most of that season, which forced him to wear a walking cast between games.
Indeed, Wallace was hovering just under the surface of stardom.
“Me and [then-Magic assistant] Johnny Davis talked a lot about that,” Wallace says. “At the time he encouraged me to set goals for myself. One goal we set was to try to grab at least four rebounds per quarter.
“During one stretch I started meeting that goal, so then Johnny and I sat and talked about what would happen if I played more minutes: Possibly this or that [statistic] would go up, too. It was just one of those things where I started looking ahead to the time where I would get a chance to play those extra minutes.”
Unfortunately, Wallace wouldn’t end up seeing increased minutes in Orlando. Once again, his team decided he should be used as a pawn to obtain a more valuable player. In this instance, Wallace and Atkins were packaged and sent to Detroit in a sign-and-trade deal for All-Star superstar Grant Hill.
It would be a long time before anyone would ever underestimate Ben Wallace again. The trade, considered a steal for Orlando at the time, eventually delivered Orlando years of frustration while Detroit scored a World Championship that ended a 14-year drought for Pistons fans—and made Ben Wallace one of the most popular, and dangerous, players in the NBA.
— By Brett Ballantini