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Wallace's Dirty Work Has Been Paying Off

Pro basketball: Piston forward only player in NBA who ranked in top 20 in rebounds, blocks and steals.

April 28, 2002|JASON LA CANFORA | WASHINGTON POST

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — A rotund middle-aged man wobbles onto a basketball court with a red R painted on his drooping stomach. One section behind him a row of fans sport white T-shirts with that same R displayed prominently.

Children wearing Afro wigs are scattered throughout the arena. Chants of "M-V-P, M-V-P" rise whenever the Detroit Pistons emerge from their locker room at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

This scene is an homage to one powerful individual, a man who has captured a city with his placid personality, rugged determination and occasionally flamboyant hair.

Ben Wallace, an undrafted free agent from tiny Virginia Union University in Richmond who begged and scrapped his way to his first NBA tryout with Washington nearly six years ago, has become one of the most feared and respected players in the game.

Last week, Wallace was voted the NBA's defensive player of the year by the widest margin in league history, taking 116 of 120 votes.

He was the fourth player in NBA history, and the first forward, to lead the league in rebounds (13.0 per game) and blocks (3.5 per game) in the same season, joining Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1975-76) and Bill Walton (1976-77), and future Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon (1989-90).

Wallace's all-out pursuit of rebounds is the cause for the proliferation of the red R around Detroit and his overall defensive dominance has fans calling for him to be named the league's most valuable player.

Wallace, 27, is so popular that the Pistons created two bobble-head dolls in his likeness -- one with his hair pointed to the heavens in a vintage 1970s Afro, as he wears it most often, and another with his hair in braids--perhaps the most tangible testament to his burgeoning fame.

"This isn't going to change me one way or the other," Wallace said, oozing a laid-back, down-home charm. "I'm still going to go out there and work hard and try to improve my game. I'm going to stay the same as a person. I'm always going to stay grounded. If you stay grounded and stay humble then all of the media and all of the hype doesn't really get to you. It hasn't changed me at all."

Wallace's will and determination are unmistakable whenever he takes the court. He tracks down loose balls everywhere, out-muscles taller players above the rim, snatches rebounds out of the air with one hand while fending off an opponent with the other, heads to the bench after twisting his ankle, then returns a few minutes later to repeat the process all over again. He can be unstoppable, as he was in an 85-63 win over Toronto on Sunday night in the opening game of their best-of-five playoff series, when Wallace scored 19 points and tore down 20 rebounds in 37 minutes.

"I respect him because he's a man's man," said Piston Coach Rick Carlisle, who called writers in every NBA city to lobby Wallace for defensive player of the year. "He's all about doing his job, he's all about going to work and he's all about playing hard and playing the right way."

Doing the dirty work is what got Wallace to the NBA, and he is not about to stop now. Wallace, who has 10 siblings, was given no chance of an NBA future when he left Virginia Union, a Division II school. After being passed up in the draft, Wallace drove up from Virginia, paid his own expenses and talked his way into joining summer workouts and scrimmages with the Bullets (later to be renamed the Wizards).

His physique--a chiseled 6-foot-9, 240 pounds--demanded immediate attention and it quickly became apparent that Wallace had serious potential.

Washington signed him in October 1996. Wallace appeared in just 34 games his rookie season (1996-97), but by 1998-99 he led the team in rebounds per game (8.3). Despite his promise, Washington included Wallace in one of their infamous lopsided trades, sending him to Orlando along with Jeff McInnis (now the starting point guard for the Los Angeles Clippers), Tim Legler and Terry Davis. Washington landed Ike Austin, a total bust.

Wallace's stint in Orlando was short as well. The Magic felt it already had a strong power forward in Bo Outlaw and could not afford to sign both players, so they sent Wallace and point guard Chucky Atkins to Detroit for superstar Grant Hill after the 1999-2000 season.

At the time most NBA insiders thought the Pistons had been fleeced. But Hill has played just 18 games over the last two seasons because of chronic ankle injuries, while Atkins and Wallace led a Detroit revival, helping the team go from 32-50 last season to 50-32 this season, clinching their first Central Division title since 1990.

Wallace, the only player in the NBA's top 20 in blocks, rebounds and steals, is indeed in perpetual motion on the court.

Last week he sealed the rebounding and blocked shot crown with a typically ferocious performance against the Milwaukee Bucks, keeping Detroit's hated rival out of the playoffs.

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