Don’t try this at home. Ben Wallace takes his left wrist in his right hand and squeezes. The wrist shifts, making a soft cracking noise that sends a shiver down an observer’s spine.
And that’s his good hand.
“That’s what happens when I’m shooting free throws,” he says, flopping the right hand now – the one that has been injured for years. “I can shoot 10 straight good ones. On the 11th, it just slips out. I don’t know when it’s gonna happen.”
“And you have to fix it,” I ask, “right there on the free-throw line?”
“You just pop it back in?”
“I just pop it back in.”
He shrugs, the way a mechanic shrugs if he needs a new wrench. This is Ben Wallace communicating. Pistons fans’ favorite cartoon action hero says almost everything with a deep, laconic voice, but the things he says can jolt you.
Like the fact that he wants to sign back with Detroit after the playoffs, which start this weekend, but retiring here “would be kind of tough.”
Or the fact that he wishes he could apologize to family members he recently lost.
Or the incident a few weeks ago, when he refused to go back into a game in the fourth quarter. He ignored two requests by Flip Saunders, who had taken him out a few minutes earlier. This, after Wallace had screamed some unprintables at his coach. Coming from the ultimate lunch bucket player, the actions stunned fans.
“What I was saying was, Look, if we’re not gonna play to win the game there’s no need to put us out there,’ ” Ben says now. He claims he had gone to Saunders earlier in the game, complaining that the team was lapsing into one-on-one basketball. He felt his words were ignored. It bugged him.
“It’s the kind of stuff that happens … but this time, a couple of writers were sitting a little closer to our bench and they caught whiff of it and decided to make a story out of it. … It didn’t bother me. … It didn’t bother Flip. … I mean, two or three games before that, Rasheed (Wallace) was having a good night and Flip was … gonna put (Antonio) McDyess in for him and I go up and tell him, Man, (Rasheed’s) rolling … let him go. I’ll come out.’ But they didn’t catch that.”
He shakes his big shoulders and looks at the floor. It is all part of a maturation of Ben Wallace – as a man, a player, a Piston and an NBA star. As we enter playoff season, Wallace, the team captain and free agent-to-be, could be looking at his second championship, or his last weeks with this franchise.
Or something bigger.
Protecting his mighty body
Let’s get back to the wrist thing. In Orlando, more than a few years back, he says, he needed surgery for carpal tunnel issues. He says he would “come out and shoot five shots and then my hand would go dead.”
The surgery, however, cut into some ligaments near his right wrist, he says, thus leaving him with a hand that is sort of like a half-screwed-on bottle cap. The wrong angle, it can come loose.
“I spent one summer going to two or three specialists,” Wallace says, “but they all said the same thing: that I pretty much have to get the wrist reconstructed surgery, pins inserted. I’ll wait until my career is over. I’m not getting cut anymore. Not while I’m playing.”
So the wrist can pop loose when he dunks, or when he falls on his hands, or when he tries to make the perfect free throw. Thinking about it, he admits, only makes his free throws more unpredictable. He has an awful percentage at the line – 41.6 for the season – but who knew that with every shot he has to wonder if his hand is going to flop like a noodle?
“My teammates know about it,” he says. “If I shoot an air ball, the first thing they do is look at my hand and they’ll be like, There it goes.’ “
He shrugs again.
“Just one of those things.”
Right. And traction is just another way to lie down.
The big career decision
On to free agency. Wallace’s contract is up this year. He is 31.
“Do you want to stay here?” I ask.
“Oh, of course,” he says. “Of course.”
“But if a lesser team could offer you bigger money?”
“I mean, I wouldn’t want to go to a place where the team feels like they gotta unload guys in order to pay me and we’re gonna be in the lottery next season. I’ve been there before, and it’s not fun.”
“Do you look at this as your one big contract chance?”
“I know this is my one and only chance right here. But I don’t want to make a big deal of it. I haven’t said anything to Joe (Dumars) about it. Me and Joe got a great relationship. We come from similar backgrounds, so I pretty much know I don’t have to say anything. He already knows.”
If Wallace can be secured, the Pistons will have the best starting five in basketball back for at least another season. And the 6-foot-9, 240-pound center could well be on his way to finishing his career in Detroit. But even if he does, he says he doubts he’ll put down roots here once he’s finished playing.
“I think it would be kind of tough on me,” he says. “Being here as a retired player having to watch the team every day and night and me not playing? I think that would bother me that competitive nature is something you never lose.”
So where would he go?
“Oh, maybe Virginia”- where his wife, Chanda, is from. “Or maybe back to Alabama”- where he grew up. “I might go back there.”
He smiles. “Buy me a nice ranch or something.”
The pain of family losses
While many people envy Wallace and his success, the Pistons’ captain has endured much that the public doesn’t know about. He lost his mother, father, grandmother, grandfather and a brother over the past few years, he says. As a result, “I’m just learning to appreciate life, man. When I’m out there playing and I think things are getting bad – just appreciate life. I’ve got a beautiful family. I’ve got healthy kids.”
After the incident with Saunders, Wallace blanched at questions about an apology, noting that he hadn’t apologized to loved ones he’d lost. When I ask what he meant by this, he hooks his hands together and looks at his thumbs.
“The last couple of years I’ve lost people that I probably owe apologies to. People that I probably should have apologized to. … But they never asked me to …
“What I’m really saying is it’s tough to apologize about something” at the moment. “It’s tough when you’re upset. … Maybe I can still come back to these people now, who are here, but the people that’s passed … I can never go back to them.”
I ask if he’d like to apologize to his mother or father – something children often experience after their parents’ deaths.
“My mother and I had a great relationship. We were open about everything. My father – I really didn’t get a chance to know him the way I wanted to. We weren’t close when I was growing up. He was a trucker. He wasn’t always around. But we were working on it. We were getting closer …”
He scrunches his lips.
“It was one of those things.”
Right. And heartache is just something you put ice on.
The sign of the good times
So here we are, the playoffs, the end of Ben Wallace’s first decade in the NBA – a league he leads this year in offensive rebounds, often the lifeblood of a championship team. He is still arguably the best defender in basketball, he’s great at steals, and he has no ego about points. He is frequently seen as “the face”- or “the body”- of the Pistons, and the image of him swinging a sledgehammer is as woven into the franchise now as the Big Boy is to Big Boy restaurants.
When he arrived here six years ago, Wallace admits, “I didn’t know a whole lot about Detroit.” Now he knows it only slightly less than it knows him.
Or thinks it does. Wallace, to my mind, is still a paradox, a quiet man with screaming emotions, a powerful giant with a kid-like sense of humor, an unselfish player who nonetheless wants to be appreciated and listened to. When I ask if that incident on the bench had to do with not getting enough offensive touches, this is what he said:
“That’s the furthest thing from the truth. Then again, it might be true.”
Try to make sense of that. Meanwhile, Ben Wallace tries to make other things: He tries to make his mark, make his fortune, make his history.
And make his free throws.
Now, if that dang wrist would just stay put.
BEN WALLACE FILE
Job: Pistons center in 10th NBA season, sixth in Detroit.
Weight: 240 pounds.
Born: Sept. 10, 1974, at White Hall, Ala.
Personal: Wife, Chanda; children, Ben Jr. and Bryce.
High school: Competed in football, baseball, basketball and track in Alabama; all-state in all but track.
College: Virginia Union after two years at Cuyahoga (Ohio) Community College. Never drafted by an NBA team.
Acquired: From Orlando Magic with Chucky Atkins as part of a sign-and-trade for Grant Hill in 2000.
Pro highlights: Defensive player of the year (2002-03, ’05), All-Defensive first team (2002-05), All-NBA second team (2003-04), All-NBA third team (2002, ’05).
Statistics: Has averaged more rebounds than points in each of his 10 seasons. This season averaged 7.3 points, 11.3 rebounds, played in all 82 games.
A playoff primer
The NHL playoffs start Friday, the NBA playoffs Saturday.
The top-seeded Red Wings (58-16-8) will open at 7 p.m. Friday at Joe Louis Arena against the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers (41-28-13) in a best-of-seven series.
The top-seeded Pistons (64-18) will open at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Palace against the eighth-seeded Milwaukee Bucks (40-42) in a best-of-seven series.
The NHL playoffs could last until June 19, the NBA playoffs until June 22.More at freep.com
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