Cases can be made for other NBA drafts as the league’s best ever – the 1984 (Michael Jordan) and 2003 (LeBron James) editions spring immediately to mind. But a documentary that premiered on NBA TV in April and has been in regular rotation since makes an awfully persuasive argument for the talent that rushed through the doors on June 26, 1996.
Allen Iverson. Marcus Camby. Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Stephon Marbury. Ray Allen. Antoine Walker. Those were the first six picks, helping to seed young franchises in Toronto and Vancouver and revive some sputtering ones in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Minnesota and Boston.
But wait, there were more: Kobe Bryant sliding to No. 13 through some stubborn trepidation about high school prospects. Steve Nash, No. 15, a slight, Canadian kid who came in from Santa Clara University and went out as a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player.
“One of the biggest cultural changes, basketball changes, in NBA history,” Hall of Fame guard Isiah Thomas called it in the doc. Four of those whose dream came true that night – Iverson, Allen, Bryant, Nash – eventually joined Thomas in the shrine in Springfield, Mass. Other All-Stars and/or essential role players on championship teams – from Jermaine O’Neal and Peja Stojakovic to Derek Fisher and Malik Rose – were among the 58 names read on the stage by NBA commissioner David Stern (first round) and senior VP Rod Thorn (second) at the New Jersey Nets’ arena in East Rutherford, N.J.
Ben Camey Wallace, watching from home, turned off the TV when the telecast ended. Then he went back to work.
“Once you get over the initial shock and once you get over the fact that everybody have to pay for not taking a chance on you, it’s back to the grind,” said Wallace, at the time a senior from Division II Virginia Union, ready but left waiting. “So I went back to the gym that night.”
“I was on a mission to let everybody know, ‘Y’all missed one.’ And I did reps on the bench press to everybody’s name that was called in that draft until I gave up. So it was whoever – A.I., ‘Starbury,’ Shareef, Jermaine, Ray, Kobe. For me it just became motivation. It’s me against the world now, my back up against the wall.”
No more. There will be a big open space behind Wallace, a beloved coach off to his side and a glitzy lectern in front as he too, finally, gets enshrined this weekend. Wallace will become the first undrafted NBA player to be inducted into the Hall, joining peers in the Class of 2021 such as Paul Pierce, Chris Bosh, Chris Webber, Toni Kukoc, coach Rick Adelman and legend Bill Russell, going in a second time for his two-ring work as a coach.
Wallace’s inclusion is a tribute to his work in the trenches, his rebounding, shot-blocking and defense, the awards he picked up along the way and most of all the leadership and drive he brought to the great Detroit Pistons of the 2000s.
It’s also a testament to the ability of bright basketball people employed across all 29 teams at the time to whiff completely – twice, on average – not just on a starter or an All-Star but on a future Hall of Famer.
“Guys that got drafted, it wasn’t personal, but that’s the way I went about my business,” Wallace told NBA.com in a recent interview. “I seen where everybody went. I seen what type of teams the top guys were going to. And I kept my eye on them from the time I got to [the league] till I retired. I always kept my eye on them.”
Wallace, who turns 47 Friday, kept up nicely. His 10,482 rebounds over 16 seasons topped anyone drafted. He played more games than Iverson, blocked more shots than O’Neal and had more steals than Nash.
At 6-foot-9 and a chiseled 240 pounds, Wallace in 2002 joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players to lead the NBA in rebounding and blocks in the same season (since done by Dwight Howard too). He and Dikembe Mutombo are the only four-time winners of the Defensive Player of the Year award. And Wallace was a four-time All-Star – the only undrafted guy to start an All-Star Game, in fact – as well as a five-time All-NBA selection and six-time All-Defensive pick.
All by someone who averaged five shots and 5.7 points, while making only 41.4% of his free throws. Didn’t matter.
“I’m so thrilled when you put a person like Ben in the Hall of Fame,” said Larry Brown, the Pistons coach who steered Wallace and his teammates to the 2004 NBA championship and his presenter at the enshrinement ceremony. “He’s a guy who just maximized his talent and showed people, if you work on your game, you defend every play, you try to rebound every ball, it’s not about getting 30, it’s the contributions you make to your team and the impact you have on the game.
“That’s a great example for some of these young kids who only see highlight reels of offensive plays.”
Given Wallace’s undrafted status, his roots and his path, it’s legit to say that while so many others played their way into the Hall, “Big Ben” worked his way there.
According to Arn Tellem, Wallace’s agent, none of his clients over 35 years expended more effort or was more professional. Now the vice chairman of the Pistons, Tellem said Wallace explained his work ethic thusly: “If you take somebody that never had anything and all they knew was hard work and determination, and then you give them something, that’s why I do what I do.”
The 10th of 11 siblings and the youngest of eight boys raised in White Hall, Ala., Wallace got pushed and toughened up by his brothers. He also didn’t get to touch the basketball much in their pickup games.
“Growing up in rural Alabama and not having a lot,” Wallace described it, “but having a work ethic and a drive and a determination to not be afraid to go out in the world and work for anything that I wanted. That came from my mom [Sadie] and the way she raised me.”
In high school, Wallace leaned more toward football, playing defense naturally where he didn’t much need the ball either.
But after his sophomore year, he spent the Fourth of July weekend giving haircuts to friends and neighbors for $3 each. His plan? Raise the $50 entry fee needed to attend a one-week hoops camp 100 miles to the west in York, Ala. The camp was headlined by New York Knicks rugged power forward Charles Oakley.
One day after lunch, Oakley called out the 15-year-old Wallace for not paying attention and challenged him to play 1-on-1. “He showed me what a real man can do and he was not holding back,” Wallace recalled recently. “He was having his way and split my lip. Now I’m a player too and I don’t back down to nobody, so I didn’t mind getting physical with him. After that, he took a liking to me.”
That liking led to Wallace’s enrollment at Cuyahoga Community College in Oakley’s native Cleveland in 1992. Two years later, he was on to the former Knicks’ alma mater of Virginia Union in Richmond. Oakley’s coach had told him he was looking for a big man, to which Oakley responded of Wallace: “He ain’t that big, but he’s a man.”
“Charles Oakley was the first professional athlete that I met, period. That meant a ton. It proved to me that if I worked hard enough, good things would happen,” said Wallace.
After the draft that passed him by, Wallace – who had averaged 13.4 points and 10.0 rebounds at VUU – wrangled a spot on the Boston Celtics’ Summer League roster. The Celtics had a half dozen centers on their parent club who, though aging or mediocre, all were taller than him.
“What Boston basically said was, I didn’t ‘pass the eye test,’” Wallace recalled. “They were looking for somebody bigger, bulkier. They put me where they put guys my size – on the perimeter.”
No wing, Wallace played briefly in Italy before hearing from Wes Unseld, the GM in Washington who got to the Hall of Fame as a 6-foot-7 wide-body center. The undrafted free agent snuck in at the final cut, then played three seasons off the bench before being packaged to Orlando in 1999. He started 81 games for the Magic and averaged 7.2 points, 12.2 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per 36 minutes, but got shipped to Detroit when Orlando got a chance to land Grant Hill, an All-Star five times in his first six seasons.
Wallace went to Detroit determined to make an impact as big defensively as Hill could make offensively. It was the right city for his grinding game, at the right time, with the right teammates and soon with the right coach. The Pistons won 32, 50 and 50 games from 2001 to 2003, respectively, and then Brown was hired to replace Rick Carlisle.
In Brown, Wallace found a coach who logged hours as long as his, who played to each man’s strengths and who stressed defense even to scoring stars such as Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups. Starting in 2001-02, for most of the decade, Detroit ranked as the league’s stingiest team in points allowed three times, second twice, and third, sixth and eighth once each. It went to Eastern Conference finals or beyond in seven of those postseasons.
Wallace’s defensive intensity proved contagious. The rebounds he grabbed got celebrated by the team with big red “R” T-shirts handed out at The Palace of Auburn Hills, like K’s denoting a baseball pitcher’s strikeouts. His blocked shots were accompanied by loud gong sounds over the Palace’s sound system, igniting rallies and pumping adrenaline through teammates and fans. His mobility to show and switch constantly blew up opponents’ pick-and-rolls.
Wallace reveled in the winning while taking a quieter pride in the respect his game earned. “We tried to play with blinders on and just go out and do our jobs,” he said. “But I could hear a buzz going around the league when people would say they were looking for a ‘Ben Wallace-type player.’ That was pretty satisfying to me.”
And unlike so many offensive-oriented players in the Hall, who could lock into a scoring duel on any given night and post breathtaking stats, Wallace knew that if he was having a great game, the other teams’ stars likely were having lousy nights.
“That’s what my game was based on,” he said. “When I took ownership on the defensive end, I made a commitment to myself to basically cancel out what was happening on the offensive end.”
Said Brown, now an assistant to Penny Hardaway at Memphis and recently reunited with Pistons forward Rasheed Wallace on that staff: “’Sheed and I talk about it all the time. Everybody says, ‘That team won it all without a superstar.’ Well, most people judge superstars by the impact they have on the offensive end. You can also impact the game on the defensive end.
“Bill Russell, we can look at his numbers. And Wilt’s numbers. And Nate Thurmond’s numbers. But they impacted the game in so many ways. Ben was like that.”
The pinnacle came in the 2004 Finals, when Detroit toppled the three-peat Lakers of Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in five games. Los Angeles was held to 41.6% shooting and 81.8 points (compared to 45.4% and 98.2 during the season). And in the Game 5 clincher, O’Neal had 20 points and eight rebounds to Wallace’s 18 points and 22 boards.
“We never double-teamed Shaq much or hack-a-Shaq’d,” Brown said. “Ben’s actually about 6-foot-8. Shaq was over 7 feet and at that time over 300 pounds. But Ben ran him on every play. Tried to defend him on every play. And as great as Shaq was, he was not as good in the third or fourth quarter like he was in the first half. Because of Ben’s energy and how hard he played on every play.
“We knew he was going to score but he had to earn every basket. Ben’s ability to at least challenge Shaq on every possession maybe allowed us to guard the other people better.”
The Pistons reached the 2005 Finals but lost in seven games to San Antonio. Brown left for New York after that and was replaced by Flip Saunders, an offensive-oriented coach who got 176 victories out of the team over the next three seasons but got put out of the East finals in six games each year by Miami, Cleveland and Boston.
Feeling underappreciated on the court, Wallace left in 2006, more than doubling his salary when he signed a four-year, $60 million contract with Chicago. He appeared in 37 more playoff games for the Bulls in 2007 and for the Cavaliers in 2008 and 2009 without any ring payoff. Then Wallace wrapped up his career with three seasons back in Detroit, going a combined 66 games under .500 but for crowds with long memories and a taste for his tough brand of D.
Now the owner of Wallace Motorsports, a U.S. distributorship of remote control model race cars, Wallace believes his aggressive defense would translate just as well now at a time of “stretch” fives and fours as it did 15-20 years ago.
“Yes. Absolutely,” he said. “For the simple fact that I was never going to be, on anybody’s team, a traditional center. I played center but if I didn’t have to guard guys damn near twice my size every night, I was free to roam around and do a lot more. I could guard the perimeter.”
Then again, what else would you expect from someone told he wasn’t wanted 25 years ago, only to prove them wrong beyond all reason.
“I think that’s what made that draft class that much better,” Wallace said, and if he was winking, it was lost over the phone connection. “There were so many guys in there, eventually you had to miss somebody.”
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