BIG BEN, YOUR TIME IS NOW!

I am the voice inside your head today, Ben Wallace. Sorry for keeping you up all night. But let’s be honest, you weren’t getting much sleep, anyhow. It’s time for Game 7, the end of this Detroit-Miami series, maybe the end of your season. And waking you up is what this is all about.

Ben, it is time for you to be as proud as you should be – and to play that way. It is time for you to stop shaking your head, stop staring off in wounded pride. It is time for you to dish out some of what you’ve been taking from Shaquille O’Neal.

It is time for you to be the fuel that lights the fire of your team – because the Pistons win when you do that, and if you don’t do it tonight, they very well may not. Listen to me. I know you. Remember, this is you talking.

And what you’re saying is, “Enough.”

Yes, you’ve drawn the worst assignment since Davy Crockett drew the Alamo. Yes, having to guard Shaq one-on-one is as unfair as William Hung having to face Luciano Pavarotti. You surrender height and width to O’Neal, 5 inches and roughly 90 pounds’ worth. Heck, 5 inches and 90 pounds is a farm animal.

And, yes, you’re out there all alone. You shove a forearm into his back, Shaq turns and fires over you. You bump your chest into his body, he spins and slams a dunk. He starts every game like a race car out of a pit stop, and you only can wait for him to run out of gas. He’s one of those monsters in “Lord of the Rings,” which can be subdued only through repeated jabs, swats and a sword through the head.

And, oh, yeah, you get no help from the referees. Heck, they don’t know what to do with Shaq, either. There’s so much commotion when that behemoth makes contact, it’s like trying to pick a side in an earthquake.

But, Ben, listen to me – you, us.

You’re not chopped liver.

A few flashes of brilliance

You are the Defensive Player of the Year. You are a force to be reckoned with. Look at your arms, for pete’s sake! Go ahead, flex. No one’s looking. I’m in your head, remember?

You showed some of that muscle Saturday night in Game 6 at the Palace, in that fourth quarter. You blocked Shaq and started a fast break. Then you blocked Shaq again, from behind. Then you stole one of his passes and sent it to Rip Hamilton, who whipped it back to you for a slam. You had a sudden flash of energy, animation, more lift than drag.

And Ben, that’s more you than the guy that you – me, us – have been showing in this series. And you – me, us – know it.

Remember who you are, Ben. You’re the soul of the Pistons. Let your ‘fro flag fly. This sudden tippy-toeing person isn’t you. This sudden “I’m not sure I can shoot this ball” person isn’t you. You were an offensive force before you were a defensive force. You love to tell amazed reporters, on nights when you go for 20 points, “I’ve always been able to score.” You have. You know how to shoot. You certainly know how to dunk.

When you smell the basket, nothing should get in your way. Not Shaq, not anyone. Don’t be tentative. Don’t be thinking, “What if I mess this up?” Don’t listen to the voice in your head. Heck, I AM the voice in your head, and I’m telling you that!

Remember back to your teenaged days, when you faced Charles Oakley in a summer camp and had to take him one-on-one – Oakley, an NBA star, and you just a kid – and you took everything he had and you bloodied his lip. You weren’t intimidated then. And you can’t be now.

And while we’re at it, enough with the missed free throws. You’re better than those clankers you’ve been throwing up there. It’s just concentration. You can’t let your mind wander – and this is your wandering mind talking!

Because, Ben, let’s be honest. The Pistons need you to win Game 7 tonight. Sure, they need Rasheed, but even you don’t know which Rasheed will show up, and you share the same last name.

And, yes, they need Rip, but Rip is a scorer, not a rebounder. And tonight, with nerves jangling and throats tightening and jump shots no doubt clanging on the rim, rebounds will be crucial.

And rebounds are what you do, Ben.

Attack that glass

Heck, you do rebounds like Borden’s does dairy. You are to rebounds what Ray Charles was to piano keys. You own them. You command them. Yet this hasn’t been you this series, not with seven rebounds in the Game 3 loss, or seven rebounds in the Game 5 loss, or even seven rebounds in the Game 6 victory.

Yes, I know it saps your energy when, time after time, Shaq opens with a quick 10 points over your head. But you can’t let Shaq depress you. Keep reminding yourself: you’re younger, thinner and have better hair.

Who cares about the start anyhow? This is about the finish. The finish of the game. The finish of these Eastern Conference finals. Maybe the finish of this Pistons era under Larry Brown.

We don’t want it ending with a long, depressing flight back from Miami, do we? Tomato juice and peanuts? That’s a good-bye party?

Heck no. So tonight, Ben, you are the X factor. The Pistons have won three games this series with heroics from Rip one night, Tayshaun Prince another, Chauncey Billups another. But they haven’t had that one magnificent performance out of you. So hear me (you) when I say this, and say it over and over, all night long. Now’s the time. Now’s the time. Now’s the time.

Because, Ben, think about it. If you, we, us, get through this last Miami game, and we finally send Shaq and the Heat packing, we can take a long, deep, well-deserved breath.

And face Tim Duncan.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. He will sign Father’s Day copies of “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” on Sunday – 12:30 p.m. at Borders in Southland Mall in Taylor – and on June 18 – 11:30 a.m. at Borders in Birmingham, 2 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in Northville and 4:30 p.m. at Borders Express at Great Lakes Crossing in Auburn Hills. 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.

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