Pistons legend Ben Wallace is one of the most underappreciated players in recent NBA history.
Not known for his offensive output, only averaging 5.7 points for his career; Ben made his money as a shot-blocking, rebounding powerhouse. He has won the Defensive Player of the Year Award 4x, and in the 2004 Finals, he solidified his status as one of the best defenders of all-time.
Before he was an NBA player, Wallace grew up with seven brothers and three sisters in the small town of White Hall, Alabama. They couldn’t afford much, so Wallace began barbering to bring in some extra money. As he grew older, Wallace took a job on a farm working sunup to sundown. When he returned home after a laborious day, he played basketball well into the nighttime.
In high school, he became the recipient for all-state awards in basketball, football, and baseball. Above all, basketball remained his true love. During his junior and senior years, Ben started to surface on the radar of collegiate scouts, -mostly for football. The only way for him to continue playing basketball was to play for Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio. His defensive impact allowed him to transfer to Virginia Union University after a recommendation from his friend and basketball mentor, Charles Oakley. Big Ben helped lead the team to the Division II Final Four. They finished with a 28-3 record.
Wallace played a tough, bruising style of basketball despite being considered undersized for his role as a power forward/center. The NBA listed him as 240-pounds, standing 6-foot-9, but he has admitted to being closer to 6-foot-7.
The 1996 NBA Draft came and went without a single team giving him a shot. The undrafted Wallace went to play basketball overseas. After being cut from an Italian team, Wallace made his way back to the U.S. to join the NBA Summer League with the Boston Celtics. The Celtics coaching staff attempted to move Wallace to the shooting guard position, due to his lack of size. The experiment was a failure. Wallace eventually signed with the Washington Bullets as a PF/C. His determination finally brought his talents to the NBA.
Ben played only a few minutes a game during his time with the Bullets. In 1999, Wallace was traded to the Orlando Magic where he continued to grow and became a starter because of his defensive prowess. His big break was soon to come as he was traded to the Detroit Pistons, the first team to truly trust in his abilities.
In his first season with Detroit, Wallace finished with the second highest rebounding average in the league with 13.2 per game. Wallace led the league in rebounding and blocks the next year in the 2001-2002 season with 13.0 boards and 3.5 blocks per night. With this, he became the shortest player ever to lead both categories in a single-season. In the same year, Wallace also won his first NBA Defensive Player of the Year award. Over the next four years, Ben went on to win three more Defensive Player of the Year awards tying him Dikembe Mutumbo for the most ever.
The crowning achievement came in 2004. The Pistons finished the season with a 54-28 record. Under coach Larry Brown, the Pistons began the playoffs with a matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks in which they won the series in a gentleman’s sweep, 4-1. Next up, were the New Jersey Nets led by star point guard Jason Kidd. New Jersey took the Pistons to seven games before Detroit emerged victorious. The Indiana Pacers and Rick Carlisle were just as tough of a matchup for the Pistons, but this time only going six games.
The Los Angeles Lakers were waiting for the Pistons in the NBA Finals and were heavily favored due to their star-studded lineup. The Lakers boasted two all-stars in Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, along with all-time veterans in Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Wallace was one of the few people in the league who had the strength to even guard Shaq. The Pistons took game one in LA with a score of 87-75. The Lakers barely got away with game two in overtime. Detroit won the next three games to end the series in five games to pull off one of the biggest upsets in NBA history. The Pistons defeated the Lakers’ hall of fame lineup despite not having a true superstar on their roster. Chauncey Billups won Finals MVP, but it could’ve easily gone to Ben Wallace for outperforming Shaquille O’neal in the series.
Ben finalized his career as a one-time NBA Champion, 4x NBA Defensive Player of the Year, 4x All-Star, 5x All-Defensive First Team, 2x NBA rebounding leader, and 1x NBA blocks leader. He ranks 13th on the all-time list of total blocks. In 2016, The Pistons retired his jersey number, and to this day, Big Ben remains a fan-favorite in Detroit. Ben embodies the true expression of “defense wins championships.” Hopefully he will be eventually be elected into the Basketball Hall of Fame. He did not make the cut for the 2019 finalists, but he remains on the 2020 hall of fame candidates ballot.