Thursday, July 16, 2009

Back to the Future? Thanks, But No Thanks...

It's one of the more depressing headlines to an NBA story that I've seen in some time.

"Ben Wallace interested in re-joining Pistons."

My feelings on this are best summed up by quoting the legendary Adam Sandler sketch 'Right Field,' where he pleads and begs to the heavens during each pitch for the ball not to be hit in his direction. "Oh God no, oh God no, oh God no, oh God no...NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!"

This just cannot happen. For so many reasons. First off, Ben Wallace is, as they say in the business, "washed up." The man's best days are behind him. Way behind. The last time Ben was really Ben, Shaq was still a Laker, Iverson was still a Sixer, and Darko was still considered to be "promising." Yeah, it was that long ago.

Since then, it's been a rocky road for Mr. Wallace. He signed a bank-breaking deal with the Bulls, but could never live up to the expectations or get that team over the hump. He moved on to Cleveland, where he essentially became persona non grata, playing spot minutes here and there behind Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varej√£o while never really putting his stamp on the squad.

One thing became abundantly clear during these seasons. Never had a player been so reliant on his youth and athleticism quite like Ben Wallace was during his peak years with the Pistons. When his mid-late 20's slowly became his early-middle 30's, Big Ben started disintegrating faster than Ashley Judd's marriage in Double Jeopardy.

His pogo stick leaping ability vanished. His boundless energy was now only seen in short spurts. The brute strength he used to shut down bigger opponents was quietly leaving his once-sculpted body. And his unparallelled tenacity of years past was just the past.

He was truly handcuffed when these physical gifts began escaping him because unlike most of the other players in the NBA, Ben did not possess anything in the form of actual basketball skill to fall back on. To put it simply, he could not dribble, pass, or shoot. These were never his calling cards.

His post-up game consisted of a few halted dribbles, a look at the shot clock to see if he had to hoist, and then a high-arcing fallaway jumper that would generally touch nothing at all. His free throw stroke was broken throughout his entire career, and in a tribute to HSL Hall-of-Famer Baron Davis, Ben somehow managed to play a full 13 years in the Association without ever once averaging 50% from the stripe. You almost have to give him some credit is not easy to be in the league for that long without sniffing even the slightest improvement from the 40-percent clip he'd grown accustomed to. That takes persistence.

But maybe there's a city out there willing to give Ol' Ben one more shot. Just not here. The breakup was too messy the first time.

When Ben came to the Pistons from Orlando, it was a jolt to the franchise. He was an undersized guy fighting for every single loose ball with guys six inches taller and 50 pounds heavier. He fully embodied the "Every Night" and "Goin' to Work" spirit Joe Dumars was trying to create.

He would snag 20 boards and score zero points, but walk off the court with the biggest smile in the arena. When the Pistons finally won a postseason series in 2002 for the first time in a long time by beating Toronto, the enduring image was that of a fro'd-out Ben strutting around after the game carrying his wife Chanda high over his head in sheer jubilation. It was just a first round victory, but it remains one of the franchise's significant turning points from the last decade. Wallace was an animal in that maiden playoff journey. In those 10 games against the Raptors and Celtics, he would average 16 rebounds a game, mixing in an unheard of back-to-back 21 rebound performances in round two.

The next few years brought more of the same. Defensive Player of the Year honors...rebounding titles...the perfect teammate. Fans flocked to games sporting their own velcro afros to honor #3. Blank white t-shirts were adorned with big capital 'R's representing Rebound Row. Detroit had fallen head over heels in love with Ben Wallace.

But then things began to change.

The once selfless battler concerned only with doing the little things and getting the W was now also being consumed by the number next to his name under the "shot attempts" column. Sometimes a few All-Star appearances can go straight to a guy's head, and this was a prime example. Ben's offensive game had not progressed one iota, but the personal accolades that started piling up caused him to develop a complex that told him, "Winning is not enough. You have to be the guy in the highlights, too."

Then came the defining moment of Ben's transition to the dark side.

In a late season contest at Orlando, Flip Saunders called on Wallace to re-enter the ballgame with about eight minutes to go. But Ben didn't move.

No response. No bouncing out of his chair, rushing over to the scorer's table to check in, no ripping off his warmups...just nothing.

For a guy like Ron Artest or Allen Iverson, a move like this would not be all that newsworthy. A bad apple making another bad decision. But this was Ben Wallace. The guy that had gone undrafted out of college. The guy that had to work twice as hard as everyone else just to get in the league. The guy that had literally scrapped and clawed for everything he had ever gotten.

And now, even though he was being instructed by his coach to get back in the game to try and secure a victory for his team, Ben would not move a muscle.

It was sad, to be honest. A player so pure in his intentions just a few seasons back had now become the ultimate prima donna. Statistics will tell you that nearly 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce. This one was no different.

One would assume that Joe Dumars, who once drew praise and adulation for his Ben Wallace acquisition nearly a decade ago, would know enough to let it pass this time around. Ben is barely a shell of his former self now.

He plays solid, but unspectacular defense. He's a marginal rebounder with little explosiveness. He remains an offensive liability. If you didn't know any better, you'd think I was just describing current Pistons big man Kwame Brown. Do we really need two of those guys??

I know the Pistons aren't exactly chock with salary cap space right now and that the free agent pickings are not exactly ripe. But there are still more attractive options for the slot than a former great who has seen the tank go dry.

Chris Wilcox is just a year removed from an extremely productive season in Seattle, and would be a solid addition to the frontcourt, especially at just 26 years of age. The Collins twins (Jarron and Jason) are out there and actually seem semi-desirable now that the NBA has ruled that due to the less than stellar repertoire of both brothers, any team can legally sign the pair for the price of one while only occupying a single roster spot. Not a bad deal. Even Drew Gooden, who has never claimed to have the prettiest face or jump shot, would be a better choice than our old pal Ben.

I understand where Ben Wallace is coming from. He knows his playing days are about to expire, and he wants to finish his career in the place that holds his most cherished basketball memories. Jerry Stackhouse, also a free agent, recently expressed those same sentiments. But unfortunately for Ben, it's just not to be.

He was an all-time Piston for nearly his entire tenure in Detroit, but the way it ended, so uncomfortably and with so much bitterness from both himself and the fans, there is really no coming back now. The team has moved on. They are looking to become a younger, athletic, more cohesive unit.

Sadly, Ben does not fit any of those criteria.

His game has deteriorated, his body is tired, and the glowing smile and youthful exuberance he once brought to the Palace floor every night are now just a series of memories fading into oblivion.

He should have left this city as a legend. As the ultimate competitor willing to put life and limb on the line for the sake of his team and his town.

But as time went on, Ben transformed into an individual in a team sport.

And he has come crawling back. Well, now it is our turn, as a city and as a franchise, to say, "Thanks, but no thanks."

Ben had his chance to go back in that night in Orlando, and he the Pistons must do the same.

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