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Ben Wallace was a 16-year-old high school junior clowning at a summer basketball camp when hoops destiny barreled into him with the force of a shoulder to the chest. Wallace was cracking wise with his buddies at the York, Ala., camp run by then Knicks forward Charles Oakley, when Oak summoned him onto the floor for a little one-on-one comeuppance. "I wasn't really taking the camp seriously, and he wanted to show me how serious basketball really was," says Wallace. "So he beat on me a little bit, and I beat on him a little bit, but I think he was most surprised that I didn't back down. When he hit me underneath the boards, I just kept coming."
That persistence made the 6'9", 240-pound Wallace the NBA's second-leading rebounder last season. The 27-year-old power forward is Dennis Rodman with monochromatic hair; his 1,052 rebounds constituted the first thousand-board year by a Piston since Rodman in 1992-93. So, alongside the prolific Jerry Stackhouse, one might think the gritty, throwback power forward could bring Detroit back to Bad Boy-era greatness, or at least, playoff contention. Not so fast. "I can't say how many games we're going to win," says first-year coach Rick Carlisle, "but it's going to take a certain kind of player to turn this program around. You need guys with discipline, guys who are competitive and unselfish every night. We're looking to build a tough-minded, physical, defensive team, and Ben is one of the foundations of that."
Obtained in August 2000 along with point guard Chucky Atkins in the sign-and-trade deal that sent Grant Hill to Orlando, Wallace is the rock of the Pistons' frontcourt, a role not unlike that of his mentor, Oakley. After the two went chest-to-chest at his summer camp a decade ago, Oakley was so impressed with Wallace (the 10th of 11 children born to working-class parents in rural White Hall, Ala.) that he took him under his wing, encouraging the youngster to enroll at Cleveland's Cuyahoga Community College and giving him a part-time job at one of the car washes he owns. Later, Oakley helped Wallace transfer to his alma mater, Virginia Union, where Wallace was a Division II All-America in 1996. "People say our games are similar, but I don't know," says Wallace with a grin. "I get all my rebounds above the rim, and he gets all his just by scrapping underneath."
Carlisle so values Wallace that he's retooled the frontcourt to allow him to play his preferred position, power forward, thus sparing him the nightly burden of guarding centers who invariably have at least three inches and 20 pounds on him. Clifford Robinson, acquired in a trade for Jud Buechler and John Wallace, will move to center from small forward, where he spent the last four seasons in Phoenix. "Ben's natural position is power forward, and that's where we're going to keep him," Carlisle says. "Right now his comfort zone is rebounding at both ends of the court."
Rookie Rodney White has the inside track on holdover Corliss Williamson for the starting small forward spot. Having greatly coveted the 6'9", 238-pound White, who led NCAA freshmen in scoring last season at UNC Charlotte, Detroit was thrilled to grab him with the ninth pick in June's draft. "Rodney is a quicker, vertical, explosive-type player," says Carlisle. "Corliss is a unique, powerful guy in that he can do some acrobatic things and make plays off the dribble. It's helping both guys to know that the job is up for grabs."
One job that isn't up for grabs is shooting guard. Stackhouse, who had career highs in points, assists and three-pointers last season, was the team's only go-to scorer. The seventh-year veteran hoisted an NBA-high 1,927 shots and accounted for 30.4% of Detroit's points, the highest percentage in the league. During the off-season Stack displayed his more refined side, making an impromptu appearance at a Troy, Mich., shopping mall, where he sang with two members of the Backstreet Boys. There's no question Stackhouse's one-man hardwood band will provide Pistons fans with some more memorable solo performances this season. If Wallace elevates his game and White lives up to expectations, Detroit, in a year or two, could be singing a playoff tune.
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