Ben Wallace: Picasso of the Paint

Ben Wallace
Picasso of the Paint

Chicago Adds a Masterpiece in Ben Wallace

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Posted August 15, 2006

Calling Ben Wallace the biggest free-agent catch in Bulls history invites accusations of waxing poetic, to be sure.

But before this story launches into another player biography, crunched numbers, testimonials, and team strategy, let’s make one thing clear: No player the Bulls have ever acquired will make more of an immediate impact than Big Ben Wallace.

The drafts of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, momentous though they were, hardly compare. MJ played a position where he would be unable to change the game and lead a team to a title—or so the experts said at the time. Besides, the pre-inflation Air joined a sloppy, ragtag club in dire need of housecleaning, years from title contention. Pippen, justly considered a shooting star, was nonetheless enough of a Draft camp sensation that pundits were right to wonder whether he’d revert to an Arkansan Clark Kent in the face of our demanding Metropolis.

Beyond the acquisition of the two greatest players in Bulls history, there’s not much left to consider. Jerry Sloan, snagged in the 1966 NBA Expansion Draft? Nate Thurmond, dealt for in a dire attempt to give the so-close Bulls of the mid 1970s a Hall-of-Famer anchor? Artis Gilmore, plucked from the rubble of the ABA?

All were great players who lent an identity to the Chicago Bulls and made the franchise stronger. But none impacted the team the way Wallace will—and already has.

Simply put, Ben Wallace raises the ante all the way to the rafters, where currently six World Championship banners fly, with room to rent.
Inking the best defender in the game is big—Big Ben big—on two levels, on and off the floor.

Sheer marketing aside, Wallace’s signing re-establishes the Chicago Bulls as a prime-time competitor in the eyes of the NBA. Yes, the past two playoff campaigns have washed away most of the painful memories that accompanied the rebuilding of the franchise after the Bulls’ six title runs of the 1990s. But there’s a difference between having Draft choices happy to be Bulls and getting a premiere talent to jump teams—within the Central Division, no less—and sign on to the program.

Back in the rebuilding era, the plan was to let the veteran titlists go their own way and use piles of leftover cash to secure a new batch of talent, talent that would fall over itself to don the red-white-and-black. But the Bulls were unable to woo the Tim Duncans and Tracy McGradys, while sorta-native Chicagoan Kevin Garnett, the league’s ultimate five-tool player, derisively dismissed any notion of ever returning to play for the Bulls, chiding team management for how “they” treat players.

Ben Wallace
Often considered too small to play down in the post, Wallace’s amazing ability to focus, along with an undying will to win has helped to establish him as one of the NBA’s all-time best.

(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)

“It’s hardly ever fair, how teams are criticized by former players after they leave town,” one Central Division executive says. “The [Championship] Bulls were one of the worst cases, and once critical things are said, they tend to take root. They can’t be erased, at least without bold accompanying moves that will push the team forward.”

Duncan and T-Mac’s rebukes left Chicago handcuffed and treading water in a sea of mediocre talent. The club learned the hard way how difficult it sometimes is to wave handfuls of cash in a league where everyone is already wealthy.

While he has only a tenuous connection to the prior regime, Bulls GM John Paxson managed to undo the damage of the late 1990s by relentlessly pushing the Bulls—now comprised completely of “his” guys—forward. Wallace’s signing cements the Bulls back into its past position of being one of the ultimate NBA destinations.

“I hope expectations are high,” Paxson says of the pressure placed on his club in the wake of his recent flurry of moves, one seemingly getting trumped by the next for sheer savvy. “We’re trying to raise the bar. We want to be on everyone’s wish list. We have big expectations for ourselves to meet our goals, to be honest with you.”

On the floor, could you have drawn up in your wildest dreams a better fit for these hungry and tenacious Bulls than Ben Wallace?

Sure, Paxson was quietly and confidently building the franchise into a contender, using an astute combination of sly trades and smart Draft picks. But if you want to give a boost to your championship sprint, free agency—and not the watered-down territory of the sign-and-trade phenomenon—is the fastest route. And, if you want to give that sprint a turbo-boost, sign the one player who perfectly epitomizes your team’s attitude, determination and playing style.

Ben Wallace is as amazing a defensive specimen as the NBA has ever known. The Bulls boast a long line of tenacious defenders—from the Sloan-Norm Van Lier-Bob Love lockdown crew of the 1970s, to the MJ-Pippen-Horace Grant “Dobermans” of the 1980s, boosted through the middle 1990s by the one-way play of superfreak Dennis Rodman, and even to today, where underrated defenders Kirk Hinrich, Andres Nocioni, and Luol Deng roam the hardwood. With a gracious nod to that honor roll, it’s not out of the question that Big Ben could end up besting them all.

Wallace’s move to the Bulls is mutually beneficial. Coach Scott Skiles has already built his squad into the most formidable defenders in the league, with the team leading the NBA in defensive field-goal percentage in both of Skiles’ two full seasons in Chicago. Logic says that adding the four-time Defensive Player of the Year will only embolden the Bulls’ skilled, young defenders on the perimeter.

While there is some expected rationalization coming out of Detroit that the time was right to let Wallace walk away, and though some even in Chicago have opined that the All-Star center is beginning to slow, neither charge jibes with Wallace’s late-blooming career. He’s excelled in a relatively narrow window—an NBA-record four Defensive Player of the Year awards in a mere five years. Heck, Wallace didn’t even play his first season of 2,000 minutes until age 26, a mere six years ago.

Underneath the meager wear and tear on Wallace’s chassis over the course of recent grinding regular seasons and extended doses of playoffs is a proud heart. While sheer heart may not be enough for Wallace to earn an unprecedented fifth Defensive Player of the Year award during his Bulls tenure, the cold hard fact is he’s proven his doubters wrong at nearly every turn of his basketball career.

Ben Wallace
Wallace is also the only undrafted player in NBA history to be voted a starter for the NBA All-Star team (2004). In total, Big Ben has been named an All-Star five times.

(Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images)

This move, as great as it looks on paper and on the public relations ledger, is not window dressing or a temporary plug. How could hiring one of the most revolutionary defenders of all time even be considered such a thing?

Since the NBA started recording blocked shots in 1973-74, seven-footers owned the statistic; until Wallace in 2001-02, of the 13 players who led the league in blocks, only five fell short of seven feet—and all were at least 6’10”. The 14th shot-blocking titlist, the 6’9” Wallace, broke that mold and shattered the notion of what a power forward (in center’s clothing) can accomplish on the defensive end.

There have always been physical anomalies at the power forward position—the rebounding prowess of Charles Barkley and stringbeany hyper-hopper Rodman come immediately to mind—but the inroads Wallace has made as a shot-blocker border on the mind-boggling.

Wallace’s 2.33 blocks per game average in his first season in Detroit, 2000-01, raised his career average to 1.59. He more than doubled that mark in 2001-02, swatting away 3.48 shots per game.

Wallace also won the league’s rebounding title, with an average of 13 boards. In the process, he did more than add two lines to his professional resume; by taking both titles, he became only the fourth player in NBA history to lead the league in both blocking and rebounding, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1975-76), Bill Walton (1976-77), and Hakeem Olajuwon (1989-90). And, in 2002-03, Wallace fell short an amazing blocks encore by a scant .08 bpg (3.15 bpg vs. Theo Ratliff’s 3.23).

“For a guy his size, the number of blocked shots he gets is phenomenal,” says Indiana Pacers Head Coach Rick Carlisle, who directed Wallace during his breakout Detroit seasons. “Pound for pound, he’s the best defensive player I’ve ever seen in my life.

“You know he’s going be there defensively and you know he’s going be there on the boards. Some nights he comes up with a monster effort, and some nights his numbers are merely average. But as his career has gone on, his ‘average’ has become more and more dazzling.”

If you stop thinking of Wallace as an anomaly and start considering him as one of the truly legendary defenders of all time, one comparison would come to mind: Hall of Famer Bill Russell. And don’t think that Russell—the prototype defend-first, score-second center—hasn’t noticed.

“Ben sort of reminds you of Dennis Rodman in terms of his impact,” Russell says today. “However, I see similarities to myself in terms of focus and determination. I enjoy watching skilled players, no matter what their skills are. Ben does a lot of good things.”

Like all great rebounders, Wallace thinks he can get every rebound, whether on the offensive or defensive end. Russell was a thorough study of rebounding angles, as was the seemingly raw and unschooled Rodman; like those two, arguably the greatest rebounders in league history, Wallace’s rebounding prowess comes more from mental acumen than physical skill.

Wallace blocks Shaq
Wallace is the only player in NBA history to record at least 1,000 rebounds, 100 blocks, and 100 steals in four consecutive seasons (2001-04).

(Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

“I calculate where the shot is coming from and which player is shooting,” Wallace says. “I know where that shooter’s miss is most likely to bounce, and having a sense of all of those things is most of the battle.”

For all his mental strength and physical gifts, Wallace claims that it’s something bigger than his brain or biceps that makes him a great defender: It’s his heart.

“On the offensive end you can work yourself into a rhythm, but on the defensive end you have to be aware of everything,” Wallace says. “That’s not measured by shots made or missed, it’s measured by heart and determination to get out and play somebody. That’s how you win on defense. There are no plays run for your sake as a defender—you just have to want it. I just go out there and play with all my heart.

“I can have an off-night on the offensive end, but I should never have an off-night on defense.”

Contrary to his physical presence and menacing approach to defense and rebounding and his reputation as an intimidator, Wallace doesn’t invite a great amount of contact: “If I can avoid a battle [for position], I will. I position myself to outleap [opponents]. And if I do lose the rebound, I’m going to get my arms out right away and try to knock the ball loose and ‘steal’ the rebound back.”

When it comes to results—mainly in rebounds per game and hustle points—comparing Wallace to ex-Bull and ex–Piston Rodman is apt. The two players differ only in their defensive styles; whereas the lighter Rodman used quickness to nab his boards, often playing off his man to better his rebounding angles, Wallace relies more on power and leaping and is usually shadowing his man as the shot goes up.

“You have to be aware out there,” Wallace says. “Aware of who you’re guarding and who your teammates are guarding. That way, I always know who I might need to help.”

Offensively, anything Wallace brings to the table is a bonus. However, don’t discount the fact that he’s shot .500 or better in five seasons and has an uncanny knack for collapsing to the basket when teammates drive. And, if you thought Tyson Chandler threw down some whip-smart slams on putbacks, wait until you see Wallace flex his biceps and sway the basket support in a show of power second only to Shaquille O’Neal.

Adding Wallace doesn’t just spell intangibles off the floor and skills on it, of course. Plugging the lane with as prodigious a force as Big Ben has a trickle-down effect that will touch every player on the floor in every game the Bulls play.

Most directly, having such an intimidating presence on the floor will better allow Coach Skiles to release the new breed of Bulls “Dobermans” on the perimeter.

“Ben makes life easy for his teammates,” Skiles says. “If someone gets beaten on the wing or down the middle, he’s there to help. He’s what you might call a mistake eraser. Guys are going to feel more confident pushing the issue [as defenders] when they know there’s a monster backing them up.”

But Wallace isn’t sheer brute force and intimidation. Like all great students of defense, he’s learned how and how not to play defense.

“You have to come out and establish a certain style of play at the start of the game and carry that out to the end,” Wallace says. “If you wait and wait, then step up and play tough in the fourth quarter, the officials aren’t used to seeing that from you and you’ll get a couple of whistles. Officials will smell out that you’re trying to get away with something you have no business doing. So you have to come out strong and establish your style of play to get the calls made the way you want them.”

Ben Wallace
In two years in Detroit, Wallace went from relative obscurity to being a nightly highlight on SportsCenter. Big Ben’s penchant for tough defense, rebounding, and blocking shots made him a fan favorite in Motown and throughout the entire league.

(Tom Pidgeon/NBAE/Getty Images)

For a Bulls team that almost always played a desperate catch-up game in terms of visits to the foul line and were whistled for more fouls than opponents in well over two-thirds of games last season, Wallace’s tutelage will work wonders.

Continue with the ultimate intangible, the immeasurable quantity of hustle. To the naked eye, no one in the NBA outhustles Wallace, which is an observation that’s rung true for 10 seasons now. The leadership that Wallace’s new multimillion-dollar deal ensures won’t be the locker-room pat on the back type, but rather leadership by example: The league’s preeminent defender earned floor burns as a Washington Bullets 12th man, and he’ll likely lead the Bulls in bumps and bruises—received and dealt—this season despite being one of the top-paid players in the NBA.

Wallace’s mentor, consummate NBA toughman Charles Oakley, waxes downright poetic about the chip that sits on his young charge’s shoulder.

“A lot of people make a big deal about Ben—the sweatbands around his biceps, his wild hair, how cute he is,” the former Bulls enforcer says. “He gets his [rebound and blocked shot] numbers, yeah. But who he is, what makes him great, isn’t anything you can measure or calculate. It’s what’s inside him—his mind and his heart.

“A man like Ben, he doesn’t forget where he comes from, no matter where he is or what success he’s achieved. Success hasn’t come easy to him. I like to say he grew up eating soup with a fork, and when you’ve eaten that way, you never forget.”

Even at the height of his stardom, Wallace maintains a refreshing humility that could well serve as yet another lesson for his new teammates as success comes more quickly and significantly than before.

“I never thought I’d be where I’m at now,” Wallace says. “But I always try to tell everybody that the things I do, playing hard defense and working my butt off, are what my teammates, the organization and our fans appreciate, because those are the things it takes for a team to win.

“It’s never been about me; it’s about the team and doing anything I can to help the team win. I just do what I do. I work hard and keep my mouth shut. I don’t care if people don’t mention my name. I know what I’m doing, and I know what I’ve put in to get here. That’s enough.”

Call them intangibles if you wish—these qualities that numerologists try so hard to measure and ultimately underplay in order to balance the stat sheet. But the Bulls will soon, and more than ever, believe in what Big Ben has known all his life: A strong heart will take you as far as you need to go on the road to success.

By Brett Ballantini


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