Ben Wallace is scheduled to talk today. But I have heard him talk before. I’ve heard him talk by his locker. I’ve heard him talk in the Palace hallways. I’ve heard him talk sitting across from me, one on one, his head dipped, his big hands pressing together.
In all those times, he never once said, “For me, it’s about the money.”
But that is what his actions say.
So I’m not listening anymore.
Look, Wallace can do anything he wants. He can pull on anyone’s uniform. He can take a big-money deal with a division rival and hold a news conference to trumpet it – as he is set to do today in Chicago – and I can’t say one critical thing about it.
But I don’t have to listen. And I won’t. In fact, I probably won’t listen to any athlete the same way again.
Oh, sure, after all these years in the business, I should be steeled against players who sing the team fight song right up to their free agency – then suddenly start singing, “Money, Honey.” But I really thought Wallace was different. I really thought, given the kind of player he is, when he spoke about this city, how it shaped him, celebrated him, that he meant what he said.
Less than two months ago, I asked Ben point-blank if he wanted to sign back with Detroit.
“Of course, of course,” he told me.
But last week, he told ESPN, “Sometimes you just need to make a change, and I felt it was time.”
There’s words. And there’s actions.
Goin’ to work elsewhere
“Were you surprised Ben left?” I asked Joe Dumars, the Pistons’ president of basketball operations, on Wednesday.
“Surprised is probably not a word you use a lot in this business,” he said. “We’re disappointed we lost him but he took a bigger and better deal.”
And in so doing, he is no different than most pro athletes. It’s just that we thought he was. Ben Wallace made himself a player. But Detroit made him a star. The Pistons took him from a no-name Orlando Magic castoff and turned him into an icon, a hard hat hero. The Pistons celebrated his muscle, his hair, they put him on billboards and sold him as their “Goin’ to Work” centerpiece.
In the end, it wasn’t about going to work. It was about getting paid. And again, the only thing bothersome is that Wallace gave signals that it wasn’t. He told me that being the highest-paid guy wasn’t the only thing that mattered. Yet when the Pistons offered him around $12 million a year for four years – the fattest salary ever offered a Detroit basketball player – he asked for more. WAY more.
According to a person in the negotiations, Wallace sought $20 million a season. If so, Ben was right when he said he didn’t have to be the highest-paid Piston. He wanted to lead the league!
Pledging allegiance to the Windy City
Now, look. Players have the right to pick their course. A few days ago, Brendan Shanahan left the Red Wings for the Rangers, and he wasn’t lambasted for that. But Shanahan had also signed several previous deals to stay with the Wings. And he didn’t leave for more money; he likely left for less. Besides, his Detroit peer group was going or gone.
Wallace was supposed to be part of something unique: the best starting five in basketball. He had a chance to make memories with the same guys, year after year, maybe win another ring or two, and be remembered as part of an unselfish, all-time unit.
Instead, he jumps to a team that hasn’t won a playoff series in eight years. Yes, $60 million for four years is a lot of money. So is $48 million. You don’t starve either way.
But you do give up something by choosing the former. You give up the right to be believed when you talk about team, city or fans. You should only talk about money.
So Wallace talks today, and he’ll promise his devotion and work ethic to the Bulls and Chicago. Just words. All words. In the end, I shouldn’t be disappointed that Ben went for the green. I should be disappointed that I ever thought he wouldn’t.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.