First among equals, Ben Wallace’s jersey about to join those of Bad Boys heroes in Palace rafters
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Some teams win and don’t get along. Some get along and don’t win. Camaraderie wouldn’t make the cut of the 10 things most essential to winning in a poll of NBA coaches.
But as with almost everything in sports, there are no absolutes. And camaraderie was absolutely essential to the 2004 Pistons, the Goin’ to Work NBA champions. Nobody was more central to that camaraderie than Ben Wallace.
He was the first building block lifted into place for the most unique NBA champion of the modern era, surely since free agency was instituted and quite likely ever.
It won’t go over well with Pistons fans if Ben Wallace – whose jersey gets run to The Palace rafters on Saturday – isn’t one day enshrined in the Hall of Fame. But – and this is what made them so unique – there’s no consensus that any one of the ’04 champs will get there.
The standard formula for title-building teams is to amass superstars, three the magic number because that’s all a roster can accommodate in the salary-cap era.
Those Pistons were a collection of second-chancers, each with his own compelling story of rejection overcome and redemption achieved. None was more compelling than that of Big Ben, undrafted out of Virginia Union in 1996, invited to Summer League by the Boston Celtics. The Celtics clearly didn’t know what they had, trying to convert him into a small forward.
He wound up sticking with Washington, emerging as a useful player in his second season. He was traded to Orlando in 1999 after three years with the Wizards. The Magic were positioning themselves for a major free-agent haul in July 2000 – grand designs to come away with Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady and Tim Duncan.
They wanted to keep Wallace, too – somebody had to do the dirty work, right? The Magic had enough cap room to sign Hill outright, but he wanted the extra year – a seventh season back then – on his deal that only the Pistons could offer him unless the teams could agree to a sign and trade. When Hill and his agent, Lon Babby, made noise about moving on to negotiate with Phoenix, the Magic blinked and engaged the Pistons in sign-and-trade talks. The Pistons asked for the guy the Magic didn’t want to give up: Ben Wallace. With Hill and Babby having one foot out the door, the Pistons got the piece they wanted.
And yet you could make a compelling case that the day Hill left for Orlando – July 4, 2000 – was the darkest day in Pistons franchise history. Hill arrived in 199 as the Bad Boys glory was fading. Pistons fans were drifting away, the team in position to draft Hill only because it went 20-62 to end up in the lottery. Hill came amid a groundswell of hype after four years on Duke’s elevated stage, brazenly compared to Michael Jordan, then at the peak of his popularity.
There were fits and starts and management missteps in Hill’s early years, but his talent was scintillating. It’s easy to forget now, his career sadly limited by persistent foot injuries that dogged him immediately upon leaving the Pistons, but Hill was on track to rival Isiah Thomas as the greatest player in franchise history – and that’s why it felt like the Pistons were in a very bad place as he bolted.
You’d have made yourself rich if you’d bet on that day that it would turn out to be one of the greatest deals in Pistons history – and the one that led to an NBA title less than four years later.
The Pistons won 32 games in Wallace’s first year, then 50 in years two and three. In the span of a few weeks over the summer of 2002, the Pistons added the next three building blocks: Tayshaun Prince in the draft, Chauncey Billups in free agency, Rip Hamilton in trade. Their first season together, they got to the Eastern Conference finals, as they would for the next five years, too.
Prince tumbled to 22nd in a very weak draft after four years at Kentucky. Billups, the third pick in the 1997 draft, had pinballed around five franchises in his first five seasons before the Pistons targeted him to be their point guard. Hamilton was Jordan’s whipping boy upon his return to the NBA with the Wizards, happy as Wallace and Billups and Prince before him were to find a home where they believed in him.
They bonded over that shared history, delighted in their friendship and reveled in their successes. When Rasheed Wallace arrived via trade at the deadline to complete them just five months before they would win the third NBA title in Pistons history, they found another soulmate looking for a place where he could merely go about his work and be appreciated for it.
Years later – as Big Ben’s second tour of duty with the Pistons, and, in fact, his NBA career, was winding down in the spring of 2012 – we sat in a Charlotte restaurant booth and talked about the bond of brothers they’d formed. He spoke wistfully about winning a big road game by breaking somebody else’s spirit, then getting on Roundball One and busting each other’s chops.
“I don’t think there are too many teams in any sport that ever won a championship with a team like we had,” he said. “Guys that truly cared about each other and didn’t care who scores as long as the points were going up on the board, don’t care who’s getting the stops as long as they’re not scoring.
“Then at the end of the game, if I had a bad game, we get on the plane and we talk about it. Like, ‘Man, Body, you didn’t play tonight. What were you thinking?’ ‘Rip, you were out there chasing the ball – you were thirsty!’ ‘What were you trying to do, Chauncey? You were jacking up shots you usually don’t take.’ ‘Sheed, you were floating at the 3-point line.’ We just went down the line. It didn’t matter. We could sit there and have a real conversation without having anybody upset. Everything was open. Everything was up for debate.”
Those were the best of times, a one-for-all, all-for-one vibe so rarely achieved in professional sports. They were five fingers of one glove, the fit so perfect, each bringing something unique and essential to a tightly clenched fist. With Big Ben it was pride and toughness and, of course, defense, four times the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year.
He was the first of them to pull a Pistons jersey over those incredibly thick shoulders. As it should be, his also will be first run to the Palace rafters, taking its place there alongside the heroes of the Bad Boys in Pistons lore.