BIG BEN’S BOO-TIFUL DAY AT THE PALACE

Ears don’t lie. Before his name was even announced Sunday, Ben Wallace was booed. The first time he touched the ball? Booed. His first dribble? Booed. His first miss? Cheered. His first and second clanking free throws? Cheered and cheered again.

If Wallace was expecting an “all-is-forgiven” reception Sunday, he came to the wrong place. Detroit fans, living in a world of layoffs and foreclosures, have little love for a guy who walks away from nearly $50 million because he wants $60 million. Players might have empathy for that – because players want empathy in return – and Chauncey Billups even told this newspaper Palace fans should cheer Ben because he only left to “take care of his family.”

But to fans, this is your family. Your team. Your city. The crowds that go wild when you swing a sledgehammer on the big screen.

Wallace surrendered that last summer, when he put on a Bulls uniform. Never mind that on Sunday, Rasheed Wallace gave Ben the playful arm hook and Billups playfully swatted Ben’s hands during a free throw. The fans were not in a playing mood.

When Pistons announcer John Mason asked them to welcome back the “cornerstone” of the recent title team, he never got to “B-B-B-Ben” before the fans went “b-b-b-boooooo.”

And when Chris Webber, the man now standing in Ben’s old spot, put a rebound back with 2.2 seconds left to secure a Detroit win, those same fans roared their approval.

Ears don’t lie.

Unwelcome reception

“That was just what I expected,” Wallace said after the Bulls’ 95-93 loss, in which he had average stats, six points, eight rebounds, two blocks and six missed free throws. “Ain’t nothing like a good cheer or a good boo. Either way.”

Several times, Wallace waved at the crowd as if to incite it. “Yeah, I wanted them to get a little louder. … I played here for six years. I know how loud this place can be.”

He grinned. But if I know Ben, he was hiding disappointment. Wallace is sensitive, a brooding giant, and I’m sure part of him was hoping for a standing ovation when he stepped on the Palace court – the first time he has done so since Game 5 of last year’s Eastern Conference finals.

It wasn’t even close.

“I was surprised …” Billups said of the boos. “Even I clapped for him when I heard his name. … But we got fans man, loyal, loyal fans.”

And they are apparently more loyal to the jersey than the man inside it. I asked Billups if he leaves for free agency this summer, would he get a similar reception next year?

“Sheesh,” he laughed. “If they boo him, I KNOW they’ll boo me.”

Ears don’t lie.

Ben as the enemy

Now, it was interesting – if only for a game – seeing Ben’s shortcomings from the other side. His rebounding and passing were fine, but his offense was meager (he missed three of five shots), his slowing feet were apparent (even Webber went past him several times) and his free-throw shooting, well, it still stinks.

“Would you have hacked him in the final seconds?” I asked Billups.

“Yeah. That’s my man, I love him to death, but if he gets that ball and we got a chance to foul him, we’re gonna foul him.”

On the other hand, you can’t compare the current Pistons without Wallace to the Pistons with him. Webber changes all that. And Webber fell from the sky. The Pistons didn’t trade Wallace for Webber, or sign the latter over the former. They got lucky. Where Wallace wanted out, Webber wanted in. And where Wallace was too expensive, Webber was dirt cheap.

The Pistons before Webber (who outscored and outrebounded Ben on Sunday) missed Wallace because they didn’t replace him with much. But now, with Webber – and Nazr Mohammed, Antonio McDyess and Jason Maxiell as backups – this is a deeper team, one that, as Billups says, “is better equipped to go farther” than the one Big Ben was a part of.

As for the former “cornerstone” of the franchise? “When this basketball thing is over,” Ben said of the Pistons, “we’re still gonna be able to pick up the phone.”

That’s the future. All day Sunday, Wallace had his hair flowing back, like a man with the wind in his face. Maybe that’s because he plays in the Windy City. He sure doesn’t play here anymore. Your ears told you that.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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