The factory whistle blows before every home game. And the faces of the Detroit Pistons, superimposed on giant employee IDs (complete with badge number) pop up on the scoreboard screen overhead. "It's time," Cliff Robinson says to the crowd. "It's time," says Corliss Williamson. "It's time," says Rip Hamilton. "It's time, Detroit," says Ben Wallace, "to go to work." The Pistons are a collection of former stars and fledgling ones, a mix of the undervalued, underestimated and undrafted. But they're also the second-best team in the Eastern Conference behind the Pacers, as improbable a success as Wallace, their center. It's no mistake, then, that during pregame intros, his name is called out last, along with a "Big Ben" tolling of the bell. The 28-year-old with a chef's toque 'fro and the massive tattoo-festooned arms is the motor City's own John Henry. Fans show up for games in Afro wigs. On "Ben's Rebound Row," T-shirts bearing the letter R commemorate every one of his snatches. He is the only Piston who's had three bobblehead nights: one for Braided Ben, one for Big-Hair Ben, one for Talking Ben.
Of course, it's not just the 'do that rocks Rock City, but the way that Ben has come to dominate the game. Last season, Wallace averaged more rebounds and blocked more shots than anyone else in the NBA, becoming just the fourth player (after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and Hakeem Olajuwon) and the first sub-seven-footer to do so. This season, he became the first undrafted player to be elected to the All-Star Game. Wallace may be 6'9" (maybe) with the Afro, but he defends taller foes so well that he's likely to repeat as Defensive Player of the year. So what if Detroit rarely runs a play for him on O? That's not what matters to him-or the team.
Check out the third quarter of the Feb. 13 game in Detroit, against one of Wallace's old teams, the Orlando Magic. The Pistons hold a five-point lead when Wallace ends up in a switch, jumping out to take on 6'1" Jacque Vaughn, who tries to take Ben to the hole. Instead, Wallace slides with him, elevates and swats Vaughn's layup into the seats. Staring down at the fallen magic guard, Wallace shakes his powerful head of hair. There's still time on the 24, though, so the magic whip an inbounds pass to Pat Garrity in the corner for three. But once again, Wallace blocks the shot. A minute later, Wallace grabs a defensive rebound, then heads to the other end, where Cliff Robinson feeds him for a dunk. By the time Orlando scores again, the Pistons lead by 15 and they never look back. "Ben puts life into the building," says teammate Chauncey Billups. "And he puts life into us."
If you want to know where the work starts, take a trip down south to Virginia Union University in Richmond, where Ben spends his summers. They call Barco-Stevens Gymnasium "The Hot Box," because in the summer, with its tall, corrugated tin walls and without AC, it's just that. Inside Barco, beyond the court, is a small chain-link-fenced area known as The Cage. The paint on the concrete floor is peeling, the vinyl benches are torn and the rusted free weights lie here and there. Tacked to the wall is a sign that reads: "When you Play, Play Hard. When you Work, Don't Play At All." There's a new weight room in VUU's football facility, but there's something about Barco and the solitude of The Cage that attracts Wallace. So for two to three hours a day, six days a week, this is where you'll find him.
Wallace is a fitness nut. On a typical summer day, while Shaq may be dining out and awaiting toe surgery, Wallace is doing 200-pound curls and 150-pound triceps presses, and getting up to 460 on the bench. Some days, he'll do burnouts: He'll put 50 pounds on the curl bar, do one rep and put it down. Do two reps and put it down. And on and on, all the way to 20. He'll follow that up by getting out on the court for sprints and rebounding drills. Finally, with the inside temperature hovering around the century mark, Ben will play a little ball with friends like Charles Oakley, Johnny Newman, Terry Davis and current teammate Michael Curry. Make no mistake though: This is a man's game. "Young guys can't get no run," says Ben. "We play too hard for them. They like to stand out there and pat the ball and look pretty. We play basketball."
Amazing as that kind of daily test may seem, Wallace will tell you that hard work is all he's ever known. He was raised in Benton, Ala., a hamlet so tiny that in the late '60s it owned the distinction of being "the smallest town in the U.S.A." located 15 miles outside of Selma, Benton is just off Highway 80, the stretch of road on which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led civil rights protesters on a 54-mile march to Montgomery in 1965.
The youngest boy in a family of 11 kids (eight boys, three girls), Wallace grew up there, in a three bedroom house that sat on the red soil among the poplar and pine. Like many families in Lowndes County, the Wallaces were poor. They had no car and were the last family in the area to get electricity. Ben and his siblings took their cues from their mother, Sadie Wallace. She lived a sharecropper's life out of another era. Working in the field alongside her first husband, Sadie picked cotton by hand to support her brood. She made all of the family's clothes. "Everything our mom taught us was from her life experience," says Wallace. "The way she did things was the way I thought everybody did them. I didn't know people went out every other weekend and bought clothes. It was like I was blind to the real struggle. I just remember being happy."
Mama Sadie, as everyone in the neighborhood called her, set the tone. Resourcefulness was simply a way of life-something that has carried over into Ben's own idea of labor. Wallace spent time in the field himself, picking vegetables with his mom and bailing hay. Hard as it is to believe now, he was also adept at cutting hair: When the weather turned warm, he'd set up shop on the porch and flag down local cars, asking neighbors if they needed a trim for $3 a head. And when the family moved to White Hall, a mere freight train's whistle from their place in Benton, Ben and his brothers picked pecans so they could buy an iron ring for their makeshift basketball hoop. After cobbling together a backboard, they scoured the woods for the straightest tree they could find. Only after they finished nailing the backboard up did they realize one important thing: They had no ball.
The ball would arrive a day later courtesy of one of the seven brothers, all of whom are larger than Ben. Being the runt of the litter helped him excel once he enrolled at Central High in nearby Hayneville. An all-state performer in football, baseball and basketball, Wallace was set to play football at Auburn. But he decided not to go when he learned he couldn't also play hoops.
If Ben saw basketball as his calling, blame it on Charles Oakley. It was at Oakley's camp in Livingston, Ala., in the summer of '91 that basketball people started to find out what Wallace was made of. On one stifling day, the campers were just going through the motions, joking around and not paying attention to the counselors until an aggravated voice stopped play. "If y'all don't think you have to listen to us," said Oakley, then a New York Knick, "why don't one of y'all come down here and play me one-on-one."
There was silence. Then a girl's voice. "He'll play you," she said, pointing at the 16-year-old Wallace. Ben shook his head, the word "no" rising from deep within his 6'6" frame. Oakley fired a ball at him, nailing him in the chest. Ben was stunned, but he quickly grabbed the pill and stepped onto the floor. "It was on then," he says.
On the game's initial play, Oakley drove right at Wallace, throwing a shoulder into his nose and drawing blood. Ben reached for his busted-up beak. Taking possession of the basketball, he glanced up at one of his older brothers, James, sitting in the bleachers. "Go ahead," his brother's expression said, "I've got your back." Wallace started for the hoop. Oakley tried to cut him off. But Ben kept coming until his forearm connected with the Oak's lip. Blood again appeared. Says Wallace, "I thought, 'Well, now we're even.' "
But Oakley still felt he owed the kid one. Impressed by Ben's audacity, Oakley asked him about his college plans, passing along his number in the process. A year later, after Auburn hadn't worked out, Wallace rang up the NBA star, who, in turn, phoned his college coach, Virginia Union's Dave Robbins. "I've got a player for you," said Oakley. "He's not that tall, but he's a stud." Unfortunately, because of SAT problems, Wallace couldn't get into VUU. Oakley pointed him to Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland. Ben spent two years there, working part-time at an Oakley car wash. Then, as one of the top juco players in the country, Ben again called on Oakley, who led him back to VUU.
In his senior year, Wallace earned Division II All-America honors by averaging 12.5 points and 10.5 rebounds. But he went undrafted in '96 because teams felt he didn't have a solid jumper or a strong post game. The Celtics, however, liked his athleticism, so they invited Wallace to rookie camp. He stuck with the Celts through summer league; they thought he could develop into a top-notch perimeter defender as a shooting guard. "I told 'em, 'man, I'm a center, a power forward,' " says Wallace. "They said, 'Not in this league.'"
Ask the Pistons to describe Wallace's locker room persona, and you get a lot of similar answers. "He's the quiet guy," says Williamson. "He's pretty softspoken," adds Robinson. "To say Ben Wallace is a man of few words," says Pistons coach Rick Carlisle, searching the air for an adequate analogy, "is like well, the guy just shows up and works."
By now, Wallace's ability to board and block speaks volumes. But there was a point when Ben's shyness shrouded his talent. In the fall of '96, after playing in Italy for a month, Ben received a call from Washington GM Wes Unseld, an undersized big man in his day. He agreed to give Ben a shot at center. Wallace made the team, and spent three years in DC. But for the most part, he saw limited time. VUU alum Davis, who played with Ben for two years there, says Wallace could've started but his timidity showed up in his play. "He was a little shy, even on the floor," says Davis, now a VUU volunteer assistant. "Today, he's a lot hungrier. He's got that dog attitude now."
It took a fellow Southerner to unleash the dog. Traded to Orlando with three others for Ike Austin in 1999, Wallace averaged 8 boards and 1.6 blocks in just 24 minutes in his one season as the magic center. In 2000, Pistons president Joe Dumars recruited Wallace as a free agent and then worked a sign-and-trade with Orlando. (The magic got Grant Hill.) A native of Shreveport, LA., Dumars liked Wallace's pedigree. "We have a saying down South that Shreveport is Selma and Selma is Tuscaloosa and Tuscaloosa is Jackson," says Dumars. "I never saw his hometown, but I know where he comes from." That's one reason the Piston great signed Wallace to a six year, $30 million pact-even though Ben averaged 4.8 points a game in Orlando.
The most impressive part of Wallace's game is his ability to affect the outcome without scoring. Other than an occasional pick-and-roll or backdoor alleyoop, the Pistons rarely run plays for him. It's other things-like rebounding (eight 20-plus games this season)-altering shots and defending to the arc, that make him so valuable. Says Carlisle, "We've never seen this kind of dominance from a player this size at the defensive end."
Wallace and his wife, Chanda (the couple are expecting their first child in April), make their home in a redbrick mansion not far from The Palace, on the same street as fellow Southerners Curry and Williamson. But the first week of February, Wallace returned to White Hall. On Feb. 1, while her son was blocking seven shots in the first half against New Jersey, Sadie Wallace, 68, fell unconscious in a grocery store near Selma. Ben left the game at the half, but his mother died before he reached home.
The loss of his guiding influence devastated Wallace. Having been elected by the fans, Ben was about to become the first undrafted player to participate in an All-Star Game. But all week, he wavered as to whether he should go to Atlanta. He had just convinced his mom to move into a new house. But Sadie had conditions. The current house was to be torn down, and the new one built in its place. Now Ben sat in the same spot, trying to make sense of it. "My biggest challenger was my mom," he says. "Every time I didn't do the right thing, I'd have to see her face."
On Saturday, Feb. 8, Ben said goodbye to Mama Sadie. Nearly 1,500 people attended the service, presided over by his reverend brother, James-the one who had had his back at the Oakley camp.
Later that afternoon, Ben sat down with his family and asked them what he should do. They all agreed he should go play in the All-Star Game. They said Sadie would have wanted it that way. It was time, they told Ben, to go to work.