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Ringing Endorsement for Big Ben

Hard-working Wallace has established himself as one of the league's most popular players.

February 15, 2004|From Associated Press

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — He is not one of the highest-scoring All-Stars, nor one of the flashiest. Ask a casual NBA fan to name the starting center for the Eastern Conference, and it's no sure thing they'll come up with the correct answer: Ben Wallace.

Yet Big Ben is still one of the league's most popular players, thanks to his blue-collar game, likable personality and ever-changing hairdo.

Wallace trailed only Vince Carter in voting for the All-Star game and received 200,000 more votes than better-known stars Kevin Garnett and Allen Iverson.

"It does surprise me the fans would be that intelligent about the voting," Dallas coach Don Nelson said. "They're not always, but they were in this case."

Last year, Wallace became the first undrafted player to start in an All-Star game. He also was the first to start in the game while averaging less than 10 points since Boston's Bill Russell in 1969.

While Wallace is averaging just 9.7 points, the reigning two-time defensive player of the year ranks second in the league in both blocks (2.98) and rebounds (13.2) and eighth in steals (1.81).

"He's pretty special," Pistons coach Larry Brown said of the 6-foot-9, 240-pound center who will line up against Yao Ming of Houston in Sunday's showcase event.

Wallace seemingly never tires and makes the non-shooting plays look spectacular -- grabbing rebounds above the rim, blocking shots or making improbable steals.

Pistons president of basketball operations Joe Dumars said Wallace reminds him a lot of one of his former "Bad Boys" teammates.

"He's Dennis Rodman -- before Dennis went to the Chicago Bulls and decided he needed to market himself the way he did," Dumars said. "Ben dominates a game without scoring, and there are not a lot of guys in this league that have ever been able to do that."

During a recent two-week span, Wallace blocked shots late in games by Carter, Garnett, Tim Duncan, and Lamar Odom, and the Pistons won three of those four games.

"When you're the defensive player of the year, people expect you to make plays like that," Wallace said with a shrug of his shoulders.

When Wallace is introduced at home and makes key plays, a "DONG" sound reverberates in the arena to mimic London's Big Ben tower -- an image of which is tattooed on Wallace's arm.

Wallace has established himself as the second-most popular athlete in Michigan -- behind only Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman.

"I never imagined I would ever be the second-leading vote-getter -- in this league," said Wallace, who was on almost 2 million All-Star ballots. "I think fans fall in love with the so-called underdog."

Few in sports have scrapped to get where they are as Wallace has. The 10th of 11 children growing up in White Hall, Ala., he was pushed by a family determined not to let his physical talents go to waste.

"My family has been through a lot -- just a lot of trials, tribulations and failures -- and we didn't have a lot of anything besides love," he said. "So, when it came my time to do something, my family refused to let me fail. They didn't want me to fall into the trail that they followed to stay in Alabama."

Wallace credits his large family and difficult upbringing for his boundless energy.

"If you take somebody that never had anything," he said, "and all they knew was hard work and determination and then you give them something, that's why I do what I do."

Wallace had scholarship offers to play football at Alabama and Auburn, but he started his peculiar path to NBA stardom at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland. He then played two seasons at Virginia Union, a Division II program.

As an undrafted free agent, he landed on Washington's roster and spent three years there before playing one season in Orlando.

With the Magic, Wallace was slowly turning heads with his hairdos -- either a 70s-style afro or braids. He became more than gimmick in Detroit after a franchise-altering, sign-and-trade deal that sent Grant Hill to Orlando for Wallace and Chucky Atkins.

"People were saying, `Why would you get two guys people have never heard of for Grant Hill,' but I don't hear anybody saying that anymore," Atkins said.

With Wallace leading the way, the Pistons have won two Central Division titles and three playoffs series the past two years. Detroit has the second-best record in the Eastern Conference this season.

Before injuring his knee late last season, Wallace was on pace to become the first player in NBA history to lead the league in rebounds and blocks twice. The previous year, he joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players to lead the league in both categories.

Despite his success, there's one thing he won't do -- ask for a new contract.

Wallace has two-plus seasons left on his $30 million, six-year deal. He intends to honor it -- without a peep -- even if it doesn't equal his value to the Pistons.

"I never imagined I'd make this kind of money, so I'm just thankful," he said.

Wallace is heading to Los Angeles with his wife, Chanda, and sons Ben Jr. and Bryce. Last year, he played in his first All-Star game one day after his mother's funeral.

"It was tough, but I knew my mom would've wanted me to play so that made it a little easier," Wallace said.

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