No Kidding Never mind his paltry 6.5 points per game. Detroit strongman BEN WALLACE earns the MVP honor for his mastery on defense

February 10, 2003

Rebound row, they call it. Whenever Pistons forward Ben Wallace
grabs a rebound at home games in Detroit, a club employee
presents a fan in a designated section with a T-shirt adorned
with an r. Suffice it to say the team orders these shirts in
bulk. A player drawn to errant shots like a divining rod to
water, Wallace, through Sunday, was responsible for outfitting
307 fans this season. "There are only 16 seats in a row, so with
Ben, Rebound Row can become Rebound Rows," says Dan Hauser, the
team's executive vice president. "Come to a game, and you see an
awful lot of r Tshirts."

Here are three more letters one might soon associate with
Wallace: M, V and P. A first-time All-Star, Wallace is, quite
simply, the league's most dominating player--at least at one end
of the floor. Last year the 6'9", 240-pound obelisk joined the
fast (and decidedly taller) company of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill
Walton and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players ever to lead the
league in rebounds and blocks in the same season. This season
Wallace is averaging a league-best 14.5 boards and is second in
rejections (2.9). For good measure he averages 1.43 steals,
proof that he excels on the xaxis as well as on the yaxis. Did
we mention that his hands are so disproportionately small that
he can barely palm the ball? "For Ben to be doing what he's
doing at his height is unheard of," says Detroit coach Rick
Carlisle. "I think, absolutely, he's an MVP candidate."

History, admittedly, isn't on Wallace's side. The award
traditionally goes to the players who rack up points like pinball
wizards. It has been 25 years since an MVP averaged fewer than 20
points a game. The least offensive-minded MVP, Washington Bullets
center Wes Unseld in 1969, scored just 13.8 points a game, but
even that is more than double Wallace's average of 6.5. It seems
much more likely that the league's highest honor will go to
Sacramento Kings forward Chris Webber (23.0 points per game), New
Jersey Nets guard Jason Kidd (20.0) or last season's winner, San
Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (23.2).

But it's hard to find a player more valuable to his team than
Wallace is to the 31--15 Pistons. Just you watch: Sacramento will
be fine without Webber, who went down with a sprained left ankle
on Jan. 28 and is expected to miss three weeks. Kidd is New
Jersey's fulcrum, but the team has a raft of other capable
players. Same for Duncan and the Spurs. Yet ask Carlisle where
his team--whose success is predicated on defense--would be
without Wallace, and he suddenly looks queasy. "He does so many
things you can't quantify that impact the game," says Carlisle.
"There are no statistics for changing shots, for setting screens,
for helping defense, for stepping out on the point guard and then
recovering to block his own man's shots."

Consider that in 92 of Detroit's last 100 games, Wallace led
Detroit in rebounding. This season he is responsible for 34.6% of
his team's boards and 47.6% of its blocks, the highest
percentage in the league in both categories. (Against the Nets
last Saturday he had seven blocks in the first half.) "What
impresses me most is the consistency," says New Orleans Hornets
coach Paul Silas. "Taking a game off? Even taking a possession
off? That doesn't happen with him."

If the voters want to honor a first-team all-good-guy and a
player who is more artisan than artiste, no candidate is more
deserving than Wallace. Invariably, those who know him well use
the same sentence to describe him: "Ben is a big kid." Wallace
has a thing for cartoons, and his hobby is retreating to his
basement to build remote-control cars, which he races during the
off-season. When he's not working on his RCs, as he calls them,
Wallace often can be found discussing pro wrestling or going for
motorbike rides with the neighborhood kids in his verdant Oakland
Township subdivision outside Detroit. Says Pistons forward
Michael Curry, whose sons Xavier and Michael Jr. have spent their
fair share of time at the Wallaces, "We've got a new rule in our
house. First you do your homework, then you can go over and play
at Ben's."

On the court, as his sometimes-mountainous Afro suggests, Wallace
is pure old school, wise enough to know that all the dunks and
killer crossovers are meaningless if the other team puts up more
points. (Kids, ask your grandparents to tell you about Bill
Russell.) "One of the first things Ben told me about basketball
was to watch the defensive end," says Wallace's wife, Chanda.
"That's how you can tell who the real players are." As Ben puts
it, "Anybody can be taught to be an offensive player. You've got
to have the heart and desire to be a defensive player."

Wallace came by his honestly. The 10th of 11 siblings and
youngest of eight brothers, Ben was always the runt of the
Wallace litter. (Wallace's mother, Sadie, the family matriarch,
died suddenly last Saturday night.) Growing up dirt poor in tiny
White Hall, Ala., the Wallace boys picked pecans and bailed hay
to earn money to buy a basketball hoop that they set up outside
the family's three-bedroom ranch house. "As the little brother, I
knew they weren't going to pass to me," says Wallace. "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."

While other kids envisioned being like Mike, Wallace fashioned
his game after another Chicago Bull, Charles Oakley. In 1990,
following his sophomore year of high school, Wallace spent Fourth
of July weekend cutting his friends' and neighbors' hair for $3 a
pop. With his profits he was able to afford the $50 fee to attend
a one-week basketball camp Oakley held for kids in York, Ala., 60
miles west of White Hall. "He wasn't driving or dunking, but he
was a quick jumper who got all the rebounds," Oakley recalls.

Wallace spent two years at Cuyahoga Community College in
Cleveland before Oakley got a call from the coach at his alma
mater, Virginia Union, asking if he knew of an available big man.
Oakley recommended Wallace, saying, "He ain't that big, but he's
a man." After his senior year at Virginia Union, in 1996, Wallace
went undrafted but was invited to Washington's camp and survived
the last cut. He has upgraded his game every season since,
spending three years in Washington and one in Orlando before
moving to Detroit in August 2000. During that time he has gone
from 12th man to NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 2001--02 to
All-Star starter.

By basing his game on effort and professionalism, Wallace has
become something of a cult hero in Detroit, where a penchant for
dirty work is in accord with the city's gritty sensibilities.
Wallace invites the inevitable comparisons to another rebounding
savant formerly on Detroit's front line, Dennis Rodman. "Same
ability to take over a game, totally dominate without taking a
shot," says Pistons president of basketball operations Joe
Dumars, who played alongside Rodman. But the comparisons end
there. While Rodman got a lot of rebounds by leaving his man
unattended, Wallace, ritually, plays drape-cloth defense on
opposing big men.

In terms of baggage, if Rodman came with enough for a team of
skycaps, Wallace scarcely has a carry-on. He is a devout Baptist
who takes Chanda with him on most road trips and tries his
darnedest not to curse. His biggest extravagance since signing a
six-year, $30 million contract in 2000? A fleet of remote-control
cars.

Taciturn and terminally modest, Wallace usually wears a serious
countenance and speaks into his chest in a rolling basso
profundo. But when conversation turns to basketball, his eyes
widen. Not only is he the first Piston to arrive at practice, but
he also often returns for a second session, recruiting Chanda to
feed him in the low post. Last summer he was a member of the
train-wreck U.S. team that placed sixth in the world
championships in Indianapolis. The morning after the Americans'
final game, as teammates hopped planes for various beaches,
Wallace returned to his off-season home in the Richmond area and
worked off his disappointment at a fitness center. "In the NBA,
75 percent of the players don't want to work," says Oakley. "When
you get a guy like Ben who goes overtime, he's going to stand
out."

Ask Chanda and she'll tell you that her husband has stood out for
years. If you missed him, well, you were looking at the wrong end
of the floor. Come time to pick the league MVP, one hopes the
voters don't make the same mistake.

COLOR PHOTO: ALLEN EINSTEIN DRESS CODE It's not hard to spot Rebound Row at Pistons homegames. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER CHILD'S PLAY Described by all as a kid at heart, Wallace likes towatch cartoons and race remote-control cars. COLOR PHOTO: GARRETT ELLWOOD/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES DUAL THREAT Wallace could be the first player to lead the NBA inrebounds and blocks in consecutive seasons.

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