Former Pistons coach Flip Saunders sensed his superstar player Ben Wallace growing more frustrated by the day. Wallace’s “Going to Work” Pistons slowly morphed into the “If it ain’t rough, it ain’t right” mentality Pistons created by Chauncey Billups.
The offense became the order of the day under Saunders, not defense.
So to appease the game’s best defensive player, Saunders agreed to run a couple of offensive sets for Wallace early in games. The sets often finished in disaster. Wallace is not entering the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for his soft jumpers or baby hooks. He is entering because he was the best off-the-ball defender of his era, winning NBA Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2002, 2003, 2005, and 2006.
Saunders gave up short-term success for the betterment of the team. Wallace didn’t score much, but if he felt he was even a small part of the offense, he was more engaged later in the game and was a better defender when the team needed him most.
His job was to defend the giants of the game. That included 7-foot-1, 325 pound Shaquille O’Neal and 6-11, 255 pound forward Tim Duncan. At just 6-foot-9, Ben Wallace kept them off-balanced with sharp elbows to the back, superior footwork, and basketball smarts.
His tough, blue-collar defense in the paint is why Wallace became the NBA’s first undrafted player to enter the Hall of Fame. How many times did players drive the lane only to see Bat Man flying through the air to send their shot into orbit?
“My offense was taking points off the board for the other team,” Wallace told Bill Dow in a Detroit Free Press series on former athletes.
“I wasn’t going to score 20 or 30 points a night. You bet your ass I wasn’t going to let you score 20 or 30 on me.”
He is the Pistons all-time leader in regular-season blocks (1,485) and post-season blocks (215). And most importantly, he led the Pistons to a title in 2004, two NBA Finals and six consecutive Eastern Conference Finals. He is in the Hall of Fame because he began figuring out how to win with an inferior offensive skill set and superior defensive mindset.
He averaged just 5.7 career points and shot 41.4 percent from the free-throw line. One of the oddities in his game was Wallace was not a poor free-throw shooter. He was a poor free-throw shooter in games. During practice, the team charted him as a 70-75 percent free-throw shooter. But his smooth stroke in practice turned into a jagged heave during games. Coaches often worked on his mental approach and thought they had it figured out after practice, but the mental blocked resurfaced during games as he clanked free throws while teams sometimes fouled him deliberately to send Wallace to the line.
Big Ben was not the Pistons’ best on-ball defender of all time. That title belongs to energetic forward Dennis Rodman, who guarded everyone from point guards to centers. However, no one could touch Wallace when it came to help defense.
Wallace studied the entire floor from the backline. He called out picks to his guards. And when they got beat, he rolled off his man and turned clear skies at The Palace into The “No-Fly Zone.”
He soared like a giant eagle and swatted sure layups into the crowd or down a man’s throat.
He was the NBA’s version of a scud defense system.
When he did his thing at the Palace, the crowd roared the Big Ben gong rung. And the Pistons won.
As a Piston, he averaged 6.6 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, and 1.4 steals per game. Wallace alternated wearing braids or an Afro. He seemed to be a slightly better player when he wore the Afro. It caused Pistons fans to wear Afro wigs and hand paint signs that said: “Fear the Fro.”
Teammates feared him also. When things didn’t go to his liking, Wallace called out teammates and demanded better, especially on the defensive end. He believed defense was not only his calling but the lifeblood of the Pistons. That’s why conflict arose when defensive-minded Larry Brown left, and Saunders took over as coach.
If teammates did not abide by those rules, they met with a tongue lashing. And this was both in private and in public from Wallace.
Six teams released Ben Wallace. And along with that, the entire league ignored him. But a magical six-year run in Detroit earned him basketball’s highest honor.