"They told me I was too small to play power forward or center in this league, so I had to play the 2 or small forward," said Wallace, who's charitably listed at 6 feet 9 inches. "I thought they were crazy. But I was, like, 'No problem.' I was the starting 2-guard on their Summer League team. I wasn't a big shooter, but still nobody could stay in front of me."
"Crazy" was the same word M.L. Carr used to describe any scenario in which the Celtics would have played Wallace at shooting guard. At the time, Carr was both coach and director of basketball operations. Wallace said Carr tried him at shooting guard; Carr sounded flabbergasted by the claim, though he got a chuckle at being given credit for the idea.
"Shooting guard?" said Carr. "No way, not at 6-9. He didn't have a shot. He never played the 2. We put him with the big guys in the summer league, some threes and fours. He could guard anybody out on the floor, so we had him at small forward and power forward.
"Tell Ben I don't have amnesia. And if anybody tells you they saw [then] what he's become now, tell them to take a lie detector test."
And so the legend of Ben Wallace grows. His story has always strained credulity, though in the best possible sense. He stands as the humble, big-haired poster boy for proving doubters wrong. He is that rare feel-good story, showing that heart and hard work can lead to a long NBA career.
He went undrafted out of Virginia Union, as teams figured Wallace was too small to play his preferred position in the NBA. But only once did Wallace worry that he might not find a place in the league. All because of Boston.
"I was a little concerned because my first workout with Boston, I'm pretty sure everybody knows, I played the 2-3 [swingman spot]," said Wallace. "Coming to Washington, they said they were looking for a center. They brought me in as a center and the rest has been history."
That may be an understatement. This season, Wallace earned his third Defensive Player of the Year Award and made his third straight All-Star appearance. He averaged 12.2 rebounds, 2.4 blocks, and 1.4 steals, and had career highs with 9.7 points and 1.7 assists.
Now, the word "unique" usually replaces "undersized" when describing Wallace. Carr sees Wallace in the same light as Bill Russell for the way he can dominate the game on the defensive end. Detroit coach Larry Brown also referenced the lasting reputation of Russell when asked why defensive standouts rarely receive recognition these days.
"In the modern game, [defense] is something that is really overlooked," said Brown. "The impact [Wallace] has on the game has allowed us to win an NBA championship and be in the Finals.
"The funny thing is, I get calls all the time from college coaches and friends of mine and they are trying to drum into some of their kids, do what you do best and understand the Bruce Bowens and Ben Wallaces, that they are playing on championship-caliber teams and have an effect on the game and are making good money."
Following his lead
According to the Pistons, Wallace turned around this series against the Spurs with his play in the first quarter of Game 3. Detroit returned to the Palace of Auburn Hills trailing, 0-2, desperate for someone to set a more aggressive tone. Wallace swooped in to the rescue.
Just two seconds into Game 3, Wallace forced Manu Ginobili to commit the first of 18 San Antonio turnovers. Then came the blocks. Wallace finished the first quarter with five blocks, tying the franchise record for a quarter set by Bob Lanier.
In Game 4, Wallace again set the tone on defense with 13 rebounds, 3 steals, and 3 blocked shots. And he has dramatically slowed down Tim Duncan, in combination with Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess. The Pistons will need that defensive energy and effectiveness again tonight in Game 5.
Not coincidentally, when Wallace played poorly in Games 1 and 2 grabbing a total of 15 rebounds Detroit struggled. In fact, that has been the pattern all season. The Pistons' slow start coincided with challenges Wallace faced early in the season. An emergency appendectomy in August was followed by the death of his oldest brother and a six-game suspension for his role in the Nov. 19 brawl at the Palace. But once Wallace returned to the lineup for good Dec. 3, he made up for lost time.
"You could vote for a few guys on our team [for Finals MVP], but Ben, he just makes the difference for us," said Chauncey Billups, who earned that honor last year. "He sets the tone for us. There's not a guy like him in this league that can dominate an entire game without even having to score. He can dominate both ends with the way he rebounds offensively and defensively, the emotion and the energy that he brings. He's one of a kind."
Path to stardom
Wallace's uniqueness carries over from his contributions on the court to his personality to his career path. Usually, Wallace lets his hair (either braids or an Afro, depending on how his wife Chanda feels) and his play make his most vivid statements.
"He has the same personality today that he had [when he worked out for Boston]," said Carr. "He wanted a ride, but he didn't need to ride first-class. He'll do the dirty work."
After Boston passed, Washington signed Wallace as a free agent on Oct. 2, 1996. He played sparingly his rookie year, then gradually earned minutes. After three seasons in Washington and one in Orlando, Wallace arrived in Detroit as part of the sign-and-trade that delivered Grant Hill to the Magic.
"Coming to the Bullets, I was sort of on the rebound," said Wallace. "I had worked out with Boston. I had played in Italy for a little while. Coming to the Bullets was just another opportunity for me. Being able to make that team, it sort of boosted my confidence a little bit and the next year I was able to step on the floor and play some minutes.
"It was a great feeling to be able to play in this league, and get your name called every now and then. I just thought maybe I could pick it up from [there]."
By playing against type, Wallace did just that.
"Rather than trying to say Ben is a 2-guard, a small forward, a power forward or a center, it's probably best to say his position is on the floor," said Indiana coach Rick Carlisle, who worked with Wallace for two seasons in Detroit. "That just means if you try to categorize this guy, you can't do it. He just plays at a high level. He has an impact everywhere and he is a big-time winner."
That's what the Pistons are counting on as the Finals continue.