By Brian Spencer
“Aw, honey, look at that: the Pistons brought Ben Wallace back. Now isn’t that just too cute?”
When Wallace and the Pistons kissed and made up last summer in the form of a one-year contract for the veteran’s minimum, many thought the move essentially amounted to a flashy window display for a merchant struggling to successfully pitch their products. A feel-good story to energize the casual fan base, which after riding the team’s bandwagon for the past 6 or 7 years seem to be jumping back off it, one by one, as the inevitable mediocrity that accompanies the early stages of the rebuilding process sets in. He’ll sell a few extra tickets, they said, and it’ll be neat if he still has the ‘fro.
Judging by the cavernous gulf of empty seats at the Palace of Auburn Hills for the team’s first few home games, Wallace alone hasn’t been enough to pull legions of fans back to the arena. The trademark ‘fro he rocked during his dominant 6-year tenure with the team seems to be permanently retired. The man himself almost called it a day, too, after the Phoenix Suns bought him out of his contract before he even laced up his shoes in the Arizona desert.
He’s been to the All-Star Game four times, he’s been named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year four times (tied for the most in league history with Dikembe Mutombo), he’s won a NBA title; at 35 years old, nobody would have blamed Wallace for walking away from the game as a decorated player and a rich man.
But he didn’t. Instead, he came back to the house he helped build, and though he hasn’t yet put a significant number of butts in the seats, no longer fluffs his hair into a ‘fro, and will likely not lead this team back to the promised land, there are a few things that, surprisingly, he does apparently still have: hustle. Drive. Quick hands. An uncanny radar for rebounds. Defense. Cringeworthy free-throw shooting.
After 3 years split between the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers, Wallace’s Motown homecoming has been anything but lip service. He’s starting for the frontcourt-strapped Pistons, averaging 29 minutes per through the team’s first seven games. What’s more, he’s doing a lot of the things he used to do when the Pistons were regarded as one of the league’s top-three or four teams, and when he was recognized as one of the league’s best individual defenders. He is, to steal a line from the Pistons’ old marketing campaign, “going to work”, and so far he’s earning every cent of his paycheck.
More on Ben Wallace’s surprising resurgence after the break….
After pulling down 16 boards on Sunday against the Philadelphia 76ers in Detroit’s 88-81 win, Wallace became the 11th-leading rebounder in the Eastern Conference with 9.6 per, more than guys like Kevin Garnett, Brook Lopez, and Tyson Chandler, to name but a few. That average would be closer to 11 or 12 per, too, if not for an off night last Friday in Orlando when he grabbed just 1 board in about 17 foul-plagued minutes. He’s also in the East’s top 20 in steals with 1.3 per, and 16th in blocked shots at 1.3.
Beyond the raw stats, Wallace is doing a lot of the little things that can’t be measured. A week ago he harassed Dwight Howard–who officially has 2 inches and 25 pounds on him, but in reality an inch or two and a 5-10 pounds more–into his worst game of the young season, helping limit the big man to just 8 points and 5 boards before fouling out in the fourth quarter. That sent a bitter Howard to his blog looking for pity.
Wallace accomplished a similar feat against the Sixers’ Elton Brand, who never got comfortable and repeatedly looked like he was overthinking Wallace’s shot-blocking presence when he was in the game. I guess Brand’s concerns were understandable, though, since Wallace swatted at least two of his shots and forced him into a few silly turnovers in the post.
After sitting out a total of 22 regular-season games in six seasons with Detroit, Wallace missed 40 in the three he spent with Chicago and Cleveland due to various injuries. The Bulls never should have given him the lucrative four-year, $60 million deal they did in the summer of ’06, but you can’t fault Wallace for obliging the gratuitious offer. And there’s nothing he could do about the knee injuries, broken leg, etc. that limited his impact, which during his Detroit hiatus is measured, statistically at least, to pers of 4.6 points, 8.3 boards, 1.6 blocks, and 1.1 steals.
That was then. Now, Wallace is playing like he’s 29 going on 30, not 35 going on 36. Always a guy who prided himself on being in tip-top physical condition, somehow Wallace looks even more muscular and chiseled than he did when he left Detroit. He’s bouncey, he’s tipping loose balls to open teammates, he seems to be rubbing off on his Pistons teammates: Detroit is currently ranked 7th overall in points allowed at 91.7 per. (Of course, let’s wait and see on that one; the Milwaukee Bucks are currently 2nd overall at 85.2, so…)
We’re not the only ones who’ve taken note of Wallace’s resurgence. He’s been such a pleasant surprise, in fact, that he’s gotten Full-Court Press’ Patrick Hayes to ask if Wallace is a future Hall-of-Famer. I do think history will look kindly on Wallace, and that his HoF case will be further strengthened if he can keep this up–which is hardly a given–and
win this year’s Comeback Player of the Year Award. (Totally forgot this award was eliminated.)
And, right now, Wallace is proving that his return is much more than a cute marketing ploy. It’s looking like the last, proud stand of an all-time defensive great putting an exclamation mark on what has to be considered one of the most unlikely success stories in NBA history.