AUBURN HILLS, Mich. The hair.
Not that it starts there, but at some point, we must acknowledge the Samson of it all.
In Games 1 and 2, Ben Wallace had his dome stitched. The braids were in effect. He played like comedian George Wallace instead of the man the streets been calling The Michael Graham Remix. DP lost both of those games.
Game 3, poof. He had the cotton candy out. Fifteen points, three steals, four dunks (including a reverse oop), five blocked shots, 11 rebounds. He came back. Pistons win.
So when he walked into the Palace for Game 4 with his hair blown-out and on freeze, you knew the game was over before 9:24 ET, which is when they tossed the ball in the air.
He's now two wins away from immortality.
According to Stuart Scott, it was Rip Hamilton who basically defined this team by simply saying, "We believe in him."
When Stu told Ben about this, Wallace got deep.
"In an independent society," Ben said, according to Stu, "It's a lot of pressure when everyone puts their faith in you it's deep."
Then in typical Ben Wallace M.O. he said, "You do what you gotta do."
Although no one will admit it, Ben Wallace is the image the NBA doesn't want.
Big, black, braids, tats, broken economic upbringing, HBCU education, non-GQ face, uncomical, un-buffoonish personality, nothing phony, no soft spots. He's that unspoken stereotype that white America has of the black athlete. He's what they fear. Fear of the 'fro? It's much deeper than that.
It's heard inside certain circles that Ben is one of the reasons the ratings for this Finals are on course to be the worst ever. No one will say it on the record, but the conventional un-wisdom goes like this: Everyone appreciates his game, but no one wants to watch it. He's a defense-first-thinking All-Star ("Defense is what we hang our hat on," he said during an ABC bumper) whose following is cult, not continental.
Ben Wallace being a star in the NBA is as absurd as rapper Bump J getting a McDonald's commercial. Then again, as they say in Detroit, "'Sheed happens."
He doesn't try to talk proper. He doesn't dress in suits to play the "corporate" game. And unlike a lot of [super]star black athletes and entertainers and CEOs and high-ranking politicians he's married to a sista. One who, after Game 2, apparently acted like a true "sista" and told him about his game.
One who was the first to greet him when he came off the court after Game 4.
But like Jordan, Woods, Clinton, etc., Ben Wallace has transcended race, at least in one sense: He's been able to make white America feel comfortable with him in a way that Iverson never could. As racist as it really is, the fact that white people can walk around the Palace in fake black Afro wigs without black folks taking offense is a testament to the power of racial "go beyond" that he has single-handedly generated. And he's done this without change or compromise of who he is and what he stands for.
He is he. Unashamed and unapologetic about who he is. But it's what he's come to stand for that has become more essential.
America is a country based on hard work. Its people take pride in making an honest living, getting their money's worth, and respecting those who do the dirty work.
America, also, is a country built by black folk. From the cotton woven into the shirts we wear down to the concrete laid on the roads we travel, this country in large part was built on the backs of people like the ancestors who gave birth to Ben Wallace.
That said, you are looking at the American Dream. As Oprah said, it's "where possibility can be fulfilled."
It's where hard work from those who overachieve against all odds does the unthinkable. A non-scoring, rebounding and defending machine whose hair is one color, doesn't want a reality show and hasn't slept with Madonna is not supposed to have a following, not supposed to be a starter in All-Star Games, not supposed to be the player a championship team is built around.
Make the symbolic connections between Ben Wallace's struggles to make it in the NBA and the history of us. Come from nothing, given nothing, told you would amount to nothing, make the most out of nothing, survive.
The difference in Ben Wallace and a lot of other African-American athletes in this country who've "made it" is that he has yet to sell out or sell himself out. There is a no-unblackness quality to him that makes him beautiful. And until it ends, until the Pistons retire his uniform in the rafters, he will represent the American Dream for us. And none of us black folk will thank him for it.
Which is a part of the way he approaches and plays the game not needing or wanting to hear our thanks. The game of basketball, you must understand, was never supposed to belong to him in the first place. Remember, Joe Dumars traded the preferred image of the NBA, Grant Hill, to Orlando for him.
The irony, right?
Which is why, when he came out with three steals and dropped that 20-foot jumper for his sixth point in the first quarter in Game 4 Thursday night, it was evident: He will dictate the fate of the Detroit Pistons. He, not 'Sheed, Chauncey, Rip nor Larry Brown, will determine whether the Pistons double up. He will save them or leave his team for dead. He is what the NBA is really all about. But everyone is afraid to admit it. Or accept it.
Inside the Palace Grille in the private Traverse Bay Entertainment suite area of the Palace, as the second half started, screams from diehard, money-havin' DP fans drown out the sound of Hubie Brown and Al Michaels. Smoke fills the air, beer fills plastic cups. No wine allowed. This is Pistons B-A-S-K-E-T-B-A-L-L. No time for mood-fakin.'
Ben Wallace defenders defend him. Especially if they look at your media badge and see you work for ESPN.
"Screw you and Marc Stein and everyone at ESPN for hating on the Pistons! Pickin' the Spurs!"
Now it's no longer the 'fro you fear, it's the muse. You're inside a sea of No. 3 jerseys and women with No. 3 painted on their faces. All eyes on you, until a Lindsey Hunter jumper redirects the attention.
They all look back at you.
"Yo, ESPN, y'all better recognize."
In Game 3, Ben Wallace had Bill Walton salivating that he "set the tone that no one else could match." Last night, it was if he pushed the repeat button. Which he will try to push again Sunday.
He went five games without grabbing at least 10 rebounds and without imposing his three-time Defensive POY status. People started to talk; his people began to wonder. In two games now, though, he's silenced conversation and ended speculation. His 15-footer with 2:46 left in the game, the one that put his DPs up by 24, clapped and sealed it. That shot gave him his 10th and 11th points to go with his 13 rebounds. That shot ended a week of worry in a city of loyals who have made basketball more important than automobile production.
Because as much as Ben Wallace has come to define, represent and be the face, heart, soul and DNA of the Detroit Pistons' franchise, as much as he dictated the outcome of Game 4, as much as he's responsible for squaring the series, as much as he'll mean to whatever happens in Game 5, two words sum up his last 48 minutes of basketball: Darko scored.
And it's afterwards, after he made his first appearance in these Finals at the official postgame podium, after he grabbed his daughter in the family room, picked her up in the air, over his head and brought her down to his face for the big kiss from Daddy, that he gets to officially be him. With a fresh white Detroit Tigers New Era pulled over that 'fro, he simply jumped in his ride and drove off with his family.
Hopefully, not to get his hair braided.
Scoop Jackson is an award-winning journalist who has covered sports and culture for more than 15 years. He is a former editor of Slam, XXL, Hoop and Inside Stuff magazines and the author of "Sole Provider: 30 Years of NIKE Basketball," "Battlegrounds: America's Street Poets Called Ballers" and "LeBron James: the Chambers of Fear." He resides in Chicago with his wife and two kids. You can e-mail Scoop here.