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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 T-shirts."
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 x-axis as well as on the y-axis. 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.