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Ben Wallace: A Folk Hero Whose Roots Run Deep
By IRA BERKOW
Published: July 4, 2004
WHITE HALL, Ala., July 3 - The two high school bands, all tasseled and tooting, paraded on Saturday morning with some 300 cars, trucks and even horses and a carriage, as an estimated 3,000 people lined the route along Highway 80 and Freedom Road, the main artery in this tiny rural town. The procession on this sun-washed day was in honor of a local lad who had made good, who had returned a champion, truly.
A sign held up by someone in the crowd more or less told the tale: "Fear the 'Fro."
And in the back of a pickup truck, waving to the cheering multitude along the rolling, tree-lined thoroughfares was the lengthy honoree himself, Ben Wallace, the imposing, 6-foot-9, strong-as-a-wrecking-ball center for the Detroit Pistons, with his braided hair under a floppy blue hat.
Two and a half weeks earlier, Wallace, with his hair in an Afro as big as a bush and a wisp of a goatee, led his little-heralded, so-called blue-collar team to victory over the celebrated, highly favored Los Angeles Lakers in the N.B.A. finals by outdueling the mountainous Shaquille O'Neal.
"I like coming back home," Wallace said last week. "Do it every July Fourth. Everybody's cooking, and I'm just being Ben, just Ben, like the little kid I was running around the neighborhood."
Even though an existing sign at the edge of town reads "Welcome to White Hall, Alabama/Home of Ben Wallace," not every Fourth of July weekend here has a Ben Wallace Day like this one, which brought out a significant portion of the area populace, as well as federal, state and Lowndes County officials.
There hasn't been this kind of traffic on Highway 80 since perhaps March 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led some 25,000 supporters on the 54-mile Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery. That stretch is now a National Historic Trail.
Wallace, the 10th of 11 children reared by a single mother in a one-story, three-bedroom red-brick house on Maple Street, has grown up in numerous ways.
At 29, he has developed physically to become one of the N.B.A.'s leading shot-blockers and rebounders, a two-time defensive player of the year and the only undrafted player to be voted an All-Star Game starter.
He has gone from using a milk crate or a bicycle-tire rim for a basket to demonstrating his skills before packed arenas and international television audiences. He even starred in a charming N.B.A. television commercial, set in a barbershop, which caused many, particularly in the Detroit area, to invest in Ben Wallace wigs.
And Wallace, once a boy of slender means, signed a six-year, $30 million contract in 2000.
"He's grown into a real man," Mayor John Jackson of White Hall said in his office in Town Hall, the only building in the center of the town, which has 1,014 residents, two stop signs and no traffic lights. "He's never forgotten where he's come from. You never hear of Ben Wallace getting into any kind of trouble. He's hard-working, like the people here, like every member of his family. All good people. Even though he was born nine years after the march, he grew up, like everybody else around here knowing the history of segregation and the fight for integration.
"That 'Fro, it was the symbol of black pride when the civil rights movement began. I know; I marched with Dr. King. And all of that paved the way, in my opinion, for Ben Wallace to become a full-fledged prime example of the American dream."
Wallace has never made a point of the Afro as a symbol, and Shirley Wallace, the eldest of his four sisters, said he wore it only because "he just loves it." But the echoes of the hairstyle's history, conscious or otherwise on Wallace's part, are unequivocally there. "I don't just play for myself," he said. "I play for everybody who was behind me."
Wallace's emergence as a lionized sports figure, meanwhile, is relatively new, with fairy-tale elements.
He grew up in a crowded household, but Sadie Wallace ran it with the love of a mother and the strength of a venerated sea captain. When her sons played basketball in the backyard but wouldn't include Ben, the youngest boy, she put her foot down. "None of y'all play if Ben don't play," Shirley Wallace recalled her mother saying.
Dennis Wallace, 17 years older than Ben, said: "From about the age of 10, he began to shoot well and compete with us. And he was tough. He'd get knocked down and get right back up. Wasn't a whole lot of crying with Ben."
Stephanie Wallace, three years younger than Ben, remembers his competitive drive.
"He was terrible," she said. "He'd make up games and his own rules. If he hit a ball that rolled under the fence, he'd say it was a home run. If you hit a ball that rolled under the fence, he'd call it a double! Oh, he was just fierce to win."
Basketball Opens Doors
Wallace's brothers were the men of the family.
"I had no relationship with my father," Wallace said. "He was never around. I met him when I was a sophomore in college. I wanted to meet him that once. I asked why he wasn't there for us. He said, 'I had other obligations,' " having fathered 20 children.
"He said he was embarrassed that he didn't have steady work and couldn't support the family. Nobody asked him for money. We just wanted a father to be there. But my mother took up what was needed, and most of my brothers went to work when they were 16 and 17 years old."
Wallace had the good fortune to finish school. At Central High School in Hayneville, Wallace was an all-state defensive end in football. He was a reserve on the basketball team, but when he had his chance as a senior, he excelled and made all-state.
Before that season, he had made enough money picking pecans and cutting hair around town to pay for basketball camp in Sumter County, about 100 miles from White Hall. The camp was run by the Knicks' Charles Oakley. At one point, Wallace, then 6-6 and 205 pounds, played one-on-one with the rugged Oakley, who is 6-9 and 250 pounds.
"He made a move to the hole, and he hit me," Wallace said. "Knocked me down. My oldest brother, James, was there and said, 'Get up, Ben.' It was a confidence booster, having my brother there like that. I turned around when it was my turn with the ball and laid a body on him pretty good."
Oakley was impressed.
He arranged for Wallace to attend Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio. After two good seasons, Wallace turned to Oakley again. This time, Oakley knew that Dave Robbins, the coach at his alma mater, Virginia Union in Richmond, was looking for a big man.
"I told him about Ben," Oakley said recently by telephone. "I said, 'I got a man for you. I don't know if he's as big as you're looking for, but he's a man, that's for sure.' I thought the sky was the limit with his talent."
Wallace went to Virginia Union, becoming a Division II all-American but not good enough to be drafted by the N.B.A.
"That there's lots of bad scouts out there," he said of the oversight. "They didn't see my potential. They look at you like, 'You can't do this, you can't do that.' They sometimes overlook what you can do. But when given a chance, some can rise up, like Devean George. He went to an even smaller school than I did, and he plays a major role on a championship team."
(The Lakers selected George out of Division III Augsburg College in Minneapolis in the first round of the 1999 draft.)
But Wallace did try out with the Boston Celtics.
"They wanted me to play a small forward or a power forward," he said. "I told them I was a center, but they thought I was too small for a center. I didn't get the opportunity to do what I could do. So M. L. Carr, the coach then, cut me. Everything I had worked so hard for was for nothing. Gone to waste.
"A lot of people might have just given up and gone home, and lot of people wouldn't have blamed me. That was the easy thing. But I still had a dream, the dream of making the N.B.A. I wasn't giving up, by far. I had to prove I could do it on my own."
He played part of the 1996 season with Calabria in the Italian League, then received a call from Wes Unseld, then the general manager of the Washington Bullets.
"They wanted me to play with them, and I told Wes Unseld that I wouldn't do it unless I could play power forward or center," Wallace said. "He assured me I would."
But Wallace did not play much and was traded in August 1999 to Orlando, where he emerged as a force in the league. A year later, the Magic sent him to Detroit in the Grant Hill transaction. Shortly after signing his Pistons contract, he offered to buy his mother a house. She refused, saying she didn't need luxuries and was happy where she was. Wallace felt deeply indebted to his mother, not only because she reared him in difficult circumstances, but also because of her encouragement over the years. Away at college, away in Italy, Wallace at times called to say he was quitting.
"She told me: 'Home will always be here. Work hard and give yourself a chance,' " he recalled.
A Wise Mother's Advice
Wallace took his mother's advice.
"I've come a long way because I was willing to go the extra mile, to take the extra step," he said. "I knew the situation at home was a dead end. Dead-end jobs. Some do small farming, work in the plant making lawn-mower equipment, some still ginning cotton. A couple of my brothers did join the Navy. But when they retired, most of them have nothing to show for it. I wanted to avoid that trend.
"But a lot of people were behind me, people from home, but especially my mother. My mom's attitude was: 'Never give up. Never be content with what you have; you can achieve more. Don't be afraid to go out and try.'
"A few years ago, the N.B.A. Players Association sent me a check for licensing fees for $20,000. They sent it for some reason to my home in Alabama. I live in Richmond, Va., now, but they sent the check to Alabama. My mother saw it and called and said there were too many zeroes and it must be a misprint. I said, 'No they didn't.' And I told her to cash the check and spend it any way she wanted to. But when I came home in the summer, she handed the check to me because she still thought it was a mistake.
"She died two years ago. She was only 67. It was only two days before she died that I finally convinced her to take my offer to buy her a new house."
Wallace turned down an offer to play for the United States in the Athens Olympics this summer.
"First, I've had a sore tailbone for a while and need to get it checked out," he said. "Second, I didn't think my family would be safe there, and I wanted to take my family."
Wallace and his wife, Chanda, have two boys, Ben II, 8, and Bryce, 14 months. "I'd feel uneasy with them there and all that's going on in the world," he said.
Wallace's peers often remark about his work ethic, his hours spent lifting weights in the gym and playing pickup games.
"Everything worth having is worth working for," he said. "And the harder you work, the more you appreciate what you achieve."
Defense Wins Fans
Wallace's 7.6-point scoring average with Detroit doesn't concern Joe Dumars, the Pistons' president for basketball operations.
"He was a physical presence with Orlando, and I thought he'd be a nice pickup for our team," Dumars said. "I had no idea he would become the 'Fro, and the two-time defensive player of the year and a sports icon in Detroit - not in my wildest dreams. He broke the mold on that. He's opened the eyes of the fans that there's a lot more to look for in a player than just scoring."
After the Pistons won Game 5 against the Lakers for the title, Wallace said O'Neal told him: "You worked for it, you deserved it. If anybody deserved it, it was you, Ben."'
The joyous hometown throng along the Freedom Road parade route - some wearing thicket-thick Ben Wallace wigs and some who remembered him as "that little kid running around the neighborhood" - gave every indication that they agreed.