Ben Wallace Biography
Professional basketball player
The linchpin of the consistently successful Detroit Pistons teams of the early and middle 2000s, center Ben Wallace was an unusual star in the annals of the National Basketball Association. His forte was defense, not the flashy point-scoring that usually grabbed sports-section headlines. His personality was reserved, and his behavior on the court, with one notable exception, was exemplary. Moreover, at six-feet nine-inches tall he was short for an NBA center, with hands barely large enough to palm the ball. Wallace attracted fan interest partly through his distinctive personal style—his spectacularly large Afro was a trademark, as was his arm tattoo of London's Big Ben tower clock—but it was really his consistent dedication that made him one of the most popular players in the game.
Born in tiny White Hall, Alabama, on September 10, 1974, Wallace grew up in poverty. He was the 10th of 11 children and the youngest of eight brothers. The Wallace children worked on local pecan farms to earn money, and they put some of their profits toward a basketball hoop for their three-bedroom house. Wallace first developed his on-court speed as a result of his status as kid brother. He knew his brothers weren't going to pass him the ball, he told Jon L. Wertheim of Sports Illustrated. "If I wanted to see the ball, I'd have to get a steal, a rebound, or save the ball from going out of bounds."
At Central High School in Hayneville, Wallace achieved all-state honors in basketball, football, and baseball. He also got the germ of an idea for his famous tattoo when his tenth-grade history teacher assigned him to write a report about Big Ben. That same year, Wallace heard about a basketball camp being held by his idol, Charles Oakley of the Chicago Bulls, in York, Alabama, 60 miles from home. To earn the $50 he needed to enroll, Wallace offered three-dollar haircuts to any and all takers. Oakley was impressed by the young player's hustle and kept in touch as Wallace's career developed.
Wallace's college career began at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio, a two-year school. The first hint of his defensive dominance came in his second year there, as he averaged 17 rebounds and seven blocked shots per game. Oakley recommended Wallace to his own alma mater, Virginia Union University, where Wallace became a Division II All-American and played in a Division II semifinal championship game. Little known among pro scouts and still considered too small for the NBA, Wallace was not drafted after graduating from Virginia Union with a criminal justice major in 1996.
What the scouts had yet to realize, though, was that on Wallace's six-foot-nine-inch frame hung 250 pounds of rocklike muscle. The Detroit Free Press reported in 2003 that body fat accounted for just 3 percent of his weight, an astonishing statistic. Wallace was accepted at the training camp of the Washington Bullets (soon to be renamed the Wizards) and survived the cut. He got into 34 games with Washington during his rookie year of 1996-97.
The following season, Wallace's career turned upward. During a hot stretch in February he averaged just shy of eight rebounds per game (rpg) and notched a career-high 10 points in a game against Orlando. He impressed Sports Illustrated writer Wertheim with his "Rasputin-like persistence." Starting 16 games for the Wizards, Wallace surprised even himself with the results of his hard work, telling Wertheim that "I knew I could play at this level, but I didn't know it would happen so soon." The only experience that blemished the year was the theft of Wallace's scarlet Chevrolet Tahoe truck, complete with two television sets, a seat massager, and a Sony PlayStation console, among other amenities. After that loss, Wallace stuck to a less expensive hobby: he enjoys building and operating remote-controlled trains.
Traded to the Orlando Magic in 1999 after three seasons with Washington, Wallace was a starter for the full 81-game season. His average of 8.2 rpg was good for 20th in the NBA, but he was sent to Detroit the following year in a complex trade that saw Pistons star Grant Hill come to Orlando. The Pistons rejoiced in their good fortune as Wallace led the league with 13.2 rpg during the 2000-01 season.
Wallace's popularity grew with his Afro-styled hair, which as of 2005 he had not cut in six years. "Fear the 'Fro" T-shirts (and even Wallace-style wigs) were often seen in crowds at the Pistons' Palace of Auburn Hills arena outside Detroit, and Ben Wallace jerseys were strong sellers at NBA gear retailers even beyond Detroit. Wallace sometimes wore his hair in braids, depending, he told reporters, on whether his wife, Chanda, had time to style it. Chanda Wallace, who often traveled with her husband (they lived in Virginia during the off-season), was her husband's severest critic when it came to his play on the court, dispensing advice when he had an off night. The couple has a son, Bryce.
Consistently averaging well over 10 rpg, Wallace was one of the NBA's top players in the early 2000s. The 2001-02 season was a banner year, with Wallace becoming just the fourth player in NBA history, and certainly the first under six-feet ten-inches, to lead the league in both rebounds and blocked shots (the other three were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, and Hakeem Olajuwon). He was named the NBA's defensive player of the year and repeated the feat the following season, narrowly missing the unprecedented feat of winning three years in a row but adding the 2004-05 award to his list of accomplishments. A two-time NBA All-Star, Wallace played for the United States at the World Basketball Championships in Indiana in the summer of 2002.
Perhaps his greatest honor was his participation in the 2003-04 Pistons NBA championship squad, widely hailed for team play that vanquished opponent after opponent with more spectacular individual stars. The Pistons made it to the NBA championship finals in 2004-05 as well, losing to the San Antonio Spurs in a hard-fought seven-game series. Wallace's season was marred, however, by a six-game suspension arising from the notorious brawl involving players and fans at the Palace of Auburn Hills on November 19, 2004. The fracas began when Wallace shoved mercurial Indiana Pacers star Ron Artest after a hard foul and escalated into mayhem after Artest leapt into the stands in pursuit of a drink-throwing fan. The episode was out of character for Wallace, a devout Baptist renowned for his focus and all-around awareness on the court. With a salary that had grown from $326,700 in his first year to a reported $6 million, he was a top NBA star with many more good years of play ahead of him.
Basketball Digest, March-April 2004, p. 20.
Chicago Tribune, June 19, 2005.
Detroit Free Press, April 29, 2003; November 21, 2004; June 15, 2005.
Sports Illustrated, March 9, 1998, p. 103; February 10, 2003, p. 42; May 30, 2005, p. 44; June 6, 2005, p. 32.
"Ben Wallace," NBA, www.nba.com (August 7, 2005).
"Ben Wallace," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (August 7, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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