Recognized at last
Spearheading one of the stingiest defenses the NBA has ever seen, Ben Wallace helped guide the Pistons to an unexpected five-game victory over the L.A. Lakers in the NBA Finals. SI.com caught up with the two-time Defensive Player of the Year and found out how it feels to finally be recognized for doing the dirty work and what separates Detroit from the rest of the league.
SI.com: Seems like you had a tough summer after winning the NBA title, what with your appendicitis. When did you realize there was something wrong?
Ben Wallace: In the middle of August, I started to feel the effects of something. I just didn't know what it was.
SI.com: Exactly what were you feeling?
BW: My back hurt, so I thought maybe I had strained it. Maybe from working out or playing ball or maybe I had gotten hit with something. So I took a day or two off from playing, but it just seemed to get worse. The pain was throbbing in my back. And if I lay on my back, [the pain] moved around to my rib cage. It was one of those aching pains that no matter what you do, you just can't get any relief from it.
SI.com: So the appendix just burst?
BW: It didn't burst. It just kept growing. Actually it was about 10 inches long.
SI.com: Oh, my god!
BW: Yeah, and it had folded over and was poking my back. That's what I was feeling.
SI.com: Did you have any visitors at the hospital?
BW: I had a couple of my friends come by, and my college coach Dave Robbins came by with a couple of guys I went to school with.
SI.com: How was the hospital staff?
BW: Everybody was cool.
SI.com: On a scale of 1-10, how was the food?
BW: The food that I could actually eat? Zero! (laughing)
SI.com: How often did you ring the bell for the nurse to bring ice cream?
BW: I couldn't really eat a whole lot. Once they cut your stomach muscles, there isn't a whole lot of eatin'. I ate two cups of jello. That's about it.
SI.com: This summer, did you talk much with other professional athletes with two first names like Tommy John or Byron Scott?
BW: (pauses) Not at all.
SI.com: What did you think about veteran 60 Minutes newsman Mike Wallace getting roughed up by some taxi and limousine police in New York City this summer?
BW: That was crazy. I did hear about it. I'm sure he held his own, especially with a last name of Wallace, right?
SI.com: In Pulp Fiction, you may remember Ving Rhames played gangster Marcellus Wallace. What would you say that you and that film character have in common?
BW: Not a whole lot. (laughing)
SI.com: You sure?
BW: Yeah, I'm sure.
SI.com: Did you see any good movies this summer?
BW: I didn't get a chance to see a whole lot of movies this summer. I was just chillin' at the house with the family. I did watch a whole lot of Barney, though. I've got a 17-month-old little boy.
SI.com: With Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman and Ben Wallace the Detroit Pistons have produced NBA multiple-season rebounding leaders in each of the last three decades. Why is it so much easier to get rebounds in Detroit?
BW: It's not easy to get rebounds in Detroit. It's not easy to get rebounds anywhere. I guess we've just had a couple of hard-nosed guys who haven't minded mixing it up, doing the dirty work, doing whatever it takes to help the team win while knowing at the end of the day they weren't going to get any recognition for it.
SI.com: Did you get any extra attention this summer because you won the NBA championship?
BW: Yeah, that goes hand in hand. You win the title, you get the recognition.
SI.com: Like what? Disney World?
BW: ESPN 2K5. I got the cover of that video game.
SI.com: Of all the recognition you received, I bet nothing beat a parade in your hometown of Whitehall, Ala.
BW: No, you can't match that. It was unbelievable. It's one thing to have a parade in the big city, where you haven't really been able to meet everybody personally, but to go home, where you know everybody by their government names and their nicknames, it's just amazing to know everybody and know that everybody is rooting for you. It's just a great feeling to go home and be among family and friends.
SI.com: Did you feel for Coach Larry Brown when he was in Athens?
BW: Nah, Coach Brown is tough. He can handle anything.
SI.com: Did Commissioner David Stern look scared when he was handing you guys the trophy in Detroit?
BW: I didn't get a chance to see his face. He had his back turned toward us. So, I don't know. Did he?
SI.com: It looked that way to me. How many times had he ever been to Detroit before?
BW: I think he's been there a couple times. Yeah, I've seen him a few times.
SI.com: What's the one highlight from last season that you play over and over again in your head?
BW: That's easy: Indiana series. Tayshaun Prince. Foot race. Tayshaun came over with the big block. Saved the game.
SI.com: Indiana, which had the best regular-season record in the East last year, will likely remain tough this year, and Miami definitely improved themselves with Shaquille O'Neal. But does Detroit really need to do anything differently to get back to the Finals?
BW: We've just got to play the way we've been playing. What a lot of people fail to realize is that last year we only had Rasheed (Wallace) for maybe 30, 35 games. Now we've got him for a whole season, so, you know, we can be that team starting off and get better as the season goes on.
SI.com: You said something earlier about rebounding, working hard, hustling and doing things that might not get you recognition but wins championships. There was a guy named Dave DeBusschere who played for a while in Detroit and then won championships with the Knicks who did those things. Do you hope that after what the Pistons did last year -- playing as a team, playing defense, winning with fundamentals -- these things will start to get more recognition in the NBA?
BW: I don't think everybody will start trying to play that way. We've been doing it from the start. Some people are just stuck in their ways and know how they want to go about doing things. It's tough for anybody to pick up and start playing like the Pistons.
SI.com: When you say "like the Pistons" do you mean "like championship basketball?"
BW: You know, the way we play could be frustrating for somebody new just coming in, but it's all right for us because we've been there. We've been through the ups and downs. And we know the payoff is down the road. So it's easy for us to continue playing like we do than for other teams to start playing like we do.
SI.com: What is the difference between "the way we play" and the way "other teams" play?
BW: I think the difference is on the defensive end. We really want to shut things down. We don't want to get one or two stops and try to outscore you on the other end like a lot of other teams try to do. Everybody on this team realizes that if you allow a guy to come here and make two or three buckets on you, then for the rest of the night they're going to pick on you. Nobody on this team wants to be the weak link. I think that's our biggest motivation. I don't want a guy to score on me and then feel like he can score every time he touches the ball when I'm guarding him. That [motivation] has a trickle-down effect that gets everybody to put their best foot forward.
SI.com: If one guy lets up he feels like he lets everybody else down?
BW: If you're the weak link and somebody has to help you, that opens up the floor for a lot of other guys to score. It breaks down your team defense, and teams start to have their way with you. But if everybody is playing tough defense individually, odds are your team won't get beat. If you get beat once or twice, you know that help is coming, but if it's an every possession type of thing, it's tough to help out like that.
SI.com: Defense and pride -- that's the difference?
BW: That's it.