IT’S GRIN AND BEAR IT FOR BIG BEN WALLACE

Ben Wallace is the kind of man about whom people have a favorite part. Kind of like a super hero. Some people like Batman’s cape, some like his mask, some like that chiseled rubber torso.

With Wallace, it’s his hair, or his headband, or his telephone pole arms. Personally, I am impressed by his grin. You don’t see it often. You can’t see it from afar. But it creeps across his face, ever so slightly, when he realizes something that he has silently wanted may actually be coming his way.

“Are you happy people are starting to say the Pistons are not just a decent team, but maybe a championship one?” he is asked.

Whoop, there it is. See it? His lips start a small curl, his jaw set the whole time, like a kid trying not to smile when his buddy is tickling him.

“I’ve known it for the last couple years,” he says. “This is the kind of basketball we play. A lot of people think what we do is ugly. They’d rather see a lot of three-point baskets, a lot of big dunks and fast breaks and stuff. But this is the way we’ve been playing. You have to decide if you like it or not.

“We do.”

And there it is again. The small curl. The clamped jaw. A grin that could steal Christmas.

The quiet Piston

Much has been written about who epitomizes this Pistons team, who is at its beating core: Is it Richard Hamilton and his Energizer bunny game, is it the far-traveled Chauncey Billups, who finally found a home in Joe Dumars’ tent, is it Rasheed Wallace, who was supposed to be such a me-me guy out West, but is the biggest cheerleader on this team?

I say there is nothing without Ben Wallace. He is the joist that supports the floor and ceiling. He is also sometimes just as invisible. But pull him out, and stuff comes crashing down. The defense finds security in his presence. Rebounding, as integral as scoring or defending, is never a worry when he’s around. And they don’t keep stats on slaps that keep a ball alive, or Wallace would lead the team.

So this all must be very sweet for Big Ben now, this sudden national attention to the Pistons, this grudging acceptance that they may, indeed, be worthy opponents to the L.A. Lakers’ roster. Because when fate was handing out gifts, it gave Wallace a mighty body and a powerful will, but a slow voice and a tightly set jaw.

So he stays quiet when things are tumultuous. He stayed quiet when a college recruiter told him there had been a mistake, the school wasn’t going to let him play basketball in addition to football. He just went home.

He stayed quiet when he watched the NBA draft, both rounds, and never heard his name called. He just went to the gym and worked out.

And he stayed quiet when he was told by Pistons president Dumars that Ben’s beloved mother had died in Alabama. He just went to the plane and flew home.

A sign of the times

But as time goes on, and people keep asking questions, Wallace, 29, is emerging from his personal cone of silence. Now and then, he even lets loose with a joke. Sometimes you have to check, of course, to make sure it’s actually humor.

“Did you feel Rick Carlisle, with all his success here, got a raw deal when the Pistons let him go?” an out-of-town reporter asks.

Wallace shrugs. “Sometimes a player leads the league in scoring and gets traded. The player gotta live with it. So I guess (Rick) does, too.”

And there it is again. Half-cocked. Chin sliding out a few millimeters. There’s an old expression: “Grin, it makes people wonder.” Wallace employs it to the max.

The other day, I asked Dumars if he were worried that the Pistons, following their Game 1 victory, might be out partying late in Los Angeles. After all, they were a Midwest team staying in a Beverly Hills hotel.

Dumars laughed. “When I got back to the hotel, I saw Ben Wallace pushing a stroller down the street, and he and his wife were trying to find something to eat. I knew right then I didn’t have to worry.”

Maybe the Pistons don’t either. But they will, until such time that they win two more games. Wallace will keep things serious. He leads the Pistons in minutes, rebounds, blocks — all the joist stuff, none of the wallpaper — and to date, the only acknowledgment that he is riding a winner comes in that tiny change in the shape of his mouth.

A grin is but a smile waiting to earn its stripes. If the Pistons pull this championship off, we may finally see the Ben Wallace version of a Jim Carrey happy face. Take a photo if it happens. It’ll be the picture of “well-deserved.”

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

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