Ben Wallace to Return to Detroit Pistons


Aug 7

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You can go home again. Ben Wallace did Friday when he reportedly agreed to a minimum deal to return to the Detroit Pistons, and his story is a great object lesson of the evils of greed for professional athletes.

Will Wallace’s life be any different because of the $60 million contract he signed with the Bulls in 2006 compared with the $48 million deal offered by the Detroit Pistons? Can Wallace get back these last few miserable years of his career when he clearly was an unhappy, lost player with no constituency and more critics than fans?

Was it worth it?

I often wonder why players go for the last dollar instead of a better lifestyle. I know the answer. Because money is the measuring stick and the biggest pile wins. But I still go through the exercise of trying to figure out how your life can be any different with say $40 million versus $60 million. So why not go where it is most comfortable and where you want to be?

Wallace certainly didn’t do it to go with a winner, as the players like to say. The Pistons were a better team than the Bulls and Wallace had a much better chance of playing for another championship in Detroit than with Chicago.

It was that old disrespecting thing you hear from the players all the time. What, $12 million a year is a lack of respect? The Bulls upped it to $15 million, and we heard back channel that Wallace was more than gently nudged by family and representatives to take the bigger payday.

You could see from the first day he was with the Bulls he wished he were back in Detroit.

The Bulls have pretty much admitted the signing was a mistake, but that’s because it didn’t work out. I wrote at the time I wouldn’t have gone for Wallace, but I didn’t criticize the signing because it made sense.

Wallace was the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, even if the award that season was more on reputation for past accomplishments. Still, Wallace seemed to fit the Bulls need. Fans were down on Tyson Chandler, whom I am fairly sure is going to have a miserable time and be a lot less productive in Charlotte playing for Larry Brown and with Ray Felton instead of Chris Paul. Paul threw lobs to Chandler for about half his points. Chandler will have to wrestle Felton to the ground to get the ball away from him.

The Bulls were a developing defensive team at the time under Scott Skiles, and it made sense to add a veteran who would get the benefit of the calls on defense and who knew how to play without fouling since Chandler always was in foul trouble. Plus, the Bulls had free agent money to spend that summer which would not be available again for a few years because of extensions for other players, and Wallace was the consensus best free agent available.

So I thought it had a chance of working. After all, you were also taking away an All Star from one of your main rivals.

But you could see from the moment Wallace arrived his heart wasn’t in it. I remember five games into his playing for the Bulls I wrote an obituary-like story saying Wallace’s basketball career had died. I am into a bit of hyperbole, but just for the entertainment value.

There was much speculation that Wallace would have difficulties with Skiles, but that was just a minor issue, even with Wallace’s famous head band defiance. It turns out I later heard several other players who were feuding with Skiles put a reluctant Wallace up to the stunt.

The truth is Wallace came ready to play. He worked hard and was prepared. But what the Bulls and most of the rest of the NBA didn’t fully understand was how much the rest of the Pistons organization and team enabled Wallace so they could get the best out of him.

He was fairly shy and no leader, though he seemed that way in Detroit. The players, recognizing Wallace’s insecurities as an undrafted player always craving recognition, pushed him into the public leadership role he didn’t maintain internally. Those Pistons were known as a smart team, but we didn’t really realize how smart.

Ben, really, is about 6-7, and the key to his success, though Ben had super rebounding numbers before, was the addition of Rasheed Wallace. Rasheed, for all his dysfunctional behavior, is an unselfish teammate who doesn’t want the spotlight. He was able to defend the taller opponents who gave Ben trouble and provide an offensive option to keep the defense wary so Ben could roam free. Ben really wasn’t a center, and the Bulls didn’t have the offensive interior player to complement Ben with the likes of P.J. Brown from the Chandler trade, Michael Sweetney and Malik Allen.

But the Bulls were better with Ben. They won 49 games, swept the defending champion Heat and then lost to the Pistons as they choked away a big lead that could have gotten them a seventh game. It wasn’t Wallace’s fault the Bulls collapsed with players becoming unnerved over Kobe Bryant trade talk and pursuing their own richer contracts and then Skiles being fired.

So Wallace became a journeyman, traded to Cleveland, were he was a starter of little value, moved on to the Suns and bought out to save money, and now going back where he never should have left.

The fans and media loved Ben in Detroit and he loved being there. Yes, the Pistons are headed down, but perhaps more than anyone Ben was the symbol of those wonderful Pistons teams, a group of players pretty much given up on, a blue collar, hard working, lunch pail bunch more heart than talent. Of course, you have to have tremendous talent to get where they did and for so long. But their collective spirit also represented something more, and Ben was in the forefront of that, if not the actual leader.

He also should be something of an object lesson to other players. Money doesn’t buy happiness, as we’ve been told. The belief is if the Bulls had to do it over again, they probably wouldn’t. But it’s not what set them back. Do you think if Ben had to do it over again he would?

Ben will get the ovations again that he missed the last few years, at least the rare times he plays this season. I’m glad for him because his career is a role model because he demonstrated where you can go and what you can accomplish despite what others tell you if you believe and go to work. It’s too bad that money guided his thinking for a few years. It’s never what he was about and not what made him who he is.

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