When we begin this story, Ben Wallace is just a teenager. A poor kid from a huge family, he has saved the money he has earned from picking pecans and cutting hair in his small town of White Hall, Ala., and he has paid to attend a basketball camp hosted by Charles Oakley of the New York Knicks. There are lots of kids — rambunctious, big-dreaming kids — and they’re making noise and their attention span is short. And Oakley, who is trying to address them, is exasperated.
Finally he bellows, “OK, if y’all think you know it all, who’s gonna step up and play me one-on-one?”
Wallace, who was quiet the whole time, looks around. And then someone points at him and yells, “He’ll play you!”
Huh? Wallace swallows. Oakley glares. “Come on then,” he says. Wallace has no intention of playing this professional athlete who is nearly 11 years his senior in a game that Ben himself has just begun taking seriously, having been mostly a football kid to this point. But then one of Ben’s older brothers walks in, sizes up the situation, and nods. “Go on and play him,” he says, and the younger Wallace does as he is told. He takes the ball and starts in on Oakley, at the time one of the toughest and nastiest players in the NBA.
And Ben bloodies his lip.
And Oakley bloodies Ben’s lip, too.
They pound on each other. And when it is over, the two bleeding players exchange glances and Oakley says, “Now, if you play like that all the time, maybe you’ll have a chance.” And he gives him his phone number.
And that is the end of that story.
This was just one moment that Ben Wallace didn’t see coming. His life is full of them. Small turning points that, by themselves, are mere snapshots, nothing more, dots on the graph of a quiet giant. But strung together, they form a line that traces him from the backwoods of Alabama to his current position, center stage, hot lights, in the NBA playoffs.
How did Ben Wallace become this mountain man of the league, its best defensive player for two straight years, a towering force on the Pistons who, thanks largely to his contributions, expect to contend for the NBA title?
The Oakley showdown was one defining moment.
Here are six more.
Second moment. He is now a high school senior, a 6-foot-7 football star, with the speed and strength that make coaches salivate. But basketball is in his heart. He takes a recruiting trip to football powerhouse Auburn because the coaches there tell him he “can play both.”
During his trip, he enters a gym and, spying some athletes playing hoops, Ben says to his recruiting coach, “I think I can take those guys.”
“What are you talking about?” the coach says.
“When I play basketball here. I can take those guys if they’re on the team.”
“Whoa, whoa,” the coach says. “Basketball?”
Wallace looks up. “You said I could play both.”
“We said both ways. You can play both ways. Offense and defense. But not basketball.”
Wallace, feeling as if he has been kicked in the stomach, says nothing. He only nods, as if he knew this all along. He comes home.
And he never goes to Auburn, Alabama or any of the other big schools that are recruiting him.
Finally, he finds an old phone number and dials it.
“So, you ready to play basketball?” says Charles Oakley, the voice on the phone. “If you are, I know a guy who’s coaching junior college in Ohio. . . .
Thus did Ben Wallace, football player, disappear forever.
And Ben Wallace, basketball player, began.
Third moment. His sophomore year at college. Wallace, raised as the second youngest of 11 children by his single mother, Sadie, comes home with a sudden desire: He wants to contact his birth father. He has seen the man a few times, amidst the poverty of the neighborhood, a shadow cast but never acknowledged.
Ben gets his number and calls him. They arrange to meet at a cookout.
“Why did you do it?” he is asked now.
“I guess because I was becoming a man myself,” he answers. “I was thinking about what I’d be like as a father. And I wanted to know his side of the story.”
When the man shows up — his name is Samuel Doss — he knows why he is there. He begins to explain himself.
“And then he called me ‘Son,’ ” Ben says, his voice dropping. “I got a little ticked off. I told him, ‘My name is Ben. You don’t have the right to call me Son.’ “
The man apologizes; the conversation continues. It goes this way all afternoon. The man tells Ben he has fathered 20 children, that he has “gotten in over his head,” that he can’t do the things he wants to do. He drives a truck. His time is limited. His funds are limited.
“I wasn’t asking for anything financial, you know?” Wallace says. “It was just, ‘Why couldn’t you come around some time? . . . ‘ “
The meeting ends, as these meetings often do, with a small catharsis and little comfort. The hardest part is explaining to his loving mother that it wasn’t anything she had done wrong, that he just needed to see the man for himself.
“I guess if I had the chance to do it over again,” he says, “I would.”
He doesn’t get that chance. Samuel Doss, his father, dies three years later.
And that is the end of that story.
Fourth moment. The 1996 NBA draft. Wallace, who has transferred to Division II Virginia Union — the same place Oakley went to college — has blossomed into a solid player. In senior season he averages 12 points and 10 rebounds and is a powerful 6-feet-9. Several teams tell him they plan to draft him in the second (and final) round.
He sits by the TV. He watches the whole draft. The second round comes. The second round finishes. His name is never called. He swallows hard.
He leaves his apartment and goes to the gym.
“Hey, man, did you get drafted?” a player there asks.
“Naw,” Wallace says.
He works on his game the rest of the night.
Fifth moment. The Boston Celtics have invited him to a summer league. He plays well, but they keep using him as a small forward. They have him running around on the perimeter. It’s not his thing. He wants to play inside. But he doesn’t complain. He doesn’t talk much, period.
The summer ends. The Celtics say they’ll call him.
He comes home each day and looks at his answering machine.
Finally, a phone call does come, but it is not the Celtics. It’s an Italian team. They want him to play overseas.
With no other prospects, he gets a passport.
Sixth moment. He is in Calabria, Italy, in the mountains between two seas and a short hop from the shores of Sicily. He is playing for Reggio Calabria and living in a dorm-like apartment, eating pasta “every meal,” he says, and trying to adjust. He has a small Italian phrase book with him, “but every time I try to say something, they get all excited and start talking back in Italian, real fast, so what’s the use?”
He plays a few weeks in Italy. Then another phone call comes. It’s his agent, telling him Washington wants to give him a tryout. Wallace thinks about it. He is still hurting from the Boston experience. He doesn’t want to play small forward. He doesn’t want to run around on the outside. He is a football player in a basketball player’s body, and he likes to bang and he wants the paint. In his mind, he’s a center, or at worst, a power forward. In Italy they use him that way.
He has his pride. It is quiet, but it is strong.
So he calls back and says a word you almost never hear from a young man beckoned by the NBA.
He says, “No.”
The next day, he is still in Italy, figuring, that’s that. Who knows? Maybe this will be where he makes his life, playing overseas. Maybe it won’t be too bad.
And the phone rings again. This time it’s Wes Unseld, the Washington general manager. And he says, “Son, I want to assure you we’re looking for a power forward and a center.”
Ben comes home.
Seventh moment. He is in the NBA now. He has improved every year. From his time as a 12th man at Washington, to his time as a budding force with Orlando, to his growth as a popular star in Detroit. He leads the league in rebounding and blocked shots one season — which puts him in the rare company of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and Hakeem Olajuwon. As the reigning NBA defensive player of the year, Big Ben is admired by teammates, coaches and fans alike, a strong, silent and somewhat reluctant celebrity, with wild hair swings and Adonis-like musculature. When he scores, the sound system plays the gong of a clock tower.
It is halftime of a game against New Jersey. In the first half, Wallace has tied a franchise record with seven blocks. This is what he does. He blocks. He rebounds. He changes the game. He is 28 years old, one week away from his first All-Star Game, where he’ll be the first undrafted player ever to be voted a starter. Finally, for Wallace, all the lights seem to be turning green.
And then team president Joe Dumars pulls him aside.
And the biggest light in his life goes red.
“It’s your mother,” Dumars says. “She’s in the hospital. . . . “
By the time Wallace lands in Alabama, she is gone.
The days that follow are a patched quilt of emotions: grief, love, obligation, strength, memory, pride, heartbreak.
And, finally, acceptance.
“I realized that my father was already gone, and now my mom had passed, and I was alone, and I had to come to terms with the fact that I had never lived on this earth without my mom,” he says. “She was the one person I always knew I could turn to, the one person who would ask no questions — it’d just be like,
‘It’s all right, it’s all right.’ If I felt, at times, that I couldn’t stick it out, she’d be like, ‘Come home, just come home, you can always come home.’
Now home had changed.
So he changed, too.
Life is easy when you know what’s next. It’s the unexpected stuff that molds your personality. Think about where Ben Wallace — now 29, married, a father of three, wealthy, popular and successful — might be if any of these moments had gone a different way. If Charles Oakley hadn’t come into his life with a bruising elbow? If Auburn had successfully turned him into a football player? If Boston had called him back? If Wes Unseld hadn’t? If his father had been there for him when he was younger? If his mother were still there for him now?
Wallace shakes his head.
“It’s like when people say, ‘Don’t you get nervous before a big game?’ I always say no, because basketball is something you can prepare for, you prepare for it your whole life. You can go out and practice. And if you practice enough, you can see it all coming.
“But I’ve been through so many things that I didn’t see coming. And that — well, that was the tough stuff. This? Basketball? This I love.”
There is one more moment. It happens two weeks ago, on the cusp of the Pistons’ entering the playoffs as a favorite to reach the NBA Finals.
Wallace, now perhaps the biggest star in Detroit besides Red Wing Steve Yzerman, is riding around the city with several of his brothers and nephews. He is going to shoot a TV commercial, and he has other obligations as well, and the traffic is bad, so he ducks down a side street, and he takes a shortcut, and he tells his family members, “We’re just gonna cut over here, and then we’ll do this thing, and then we’ll go do this thing. . . . “
And his brothers begin to laugh.
“What?” Wallace says.
“Man,” one of them says, grinning, “I remember when you couldn’t even drive a car, and you didn’t know anything except our little town in Alabama. And now look at you, you know your way around this big city, and you’re taking shortcuts, and you’re shooting a TV commercial and there’s all these people screaming your name and man, it’s crazy!”
And Wallace laughs. And he looks out the window at the life he has created.
And he says, “Yeah, ain’t it crazy?”
Crazy, yes, but undeniably real. You think about picking pecans, cutting hair, saving pennies, being one of 11 children, never knowing your father, then losing him after one conversation. You think about attending junior college, going undrafted, getting cut, bouncing around the world, saying no when they want you to say yes, getting married, starting your own family. You think about reaching a peak, winning awards, honors, money, and then, when you think it’s all coming together, losing the brightest light you’ve ever known.
You ask Ben Wallace about the NBA playoffs compared to all that.
“Compared to all that?” he says, grinning. “This is a cakewalk.”
He gets up, stretches and cakewalks in a circle, where he has been and where he’s going now truly inseparable.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.