Look at a photo of Rudy Gobert in any game. Typically, he’ll be wearing the same knee sleeves with padding that most other players do, maybe an arm-sleeve or two, and that’s probably it. Let’s not make this about Gobert, though — let’s take another center: Nikola Jokić. Usually, it’s just leg sleeves with nothing on his arms, and we know this because his arms are pink after every game.
Back in the 2000s, and even before that in some cases, some NBA players were identified by what they wore during games beyond just sneakers. Michael Jordan had his left black and red calf sleeve. Tracy McGrady had the single leg sleeve. A shit ton of players wore rubber bands. Allen Iverson, Paul Pierce, Carmelo Anthony, and LeBron James were among those who’d always wear headbands. Iverson also popularized the shooting sleeve, which he typically wore on his right arm with a left elbow band and a bracelet/rubber band on his left. Today, the shooting sleeve is widely used by many players, including ones in football.
Now, look at a photo of Ben Wallace. In many ways, what he wore, how he played and who he is, represented a long lost generation of our favorite basketball stars. Headbands, bicep bands, double or single wristbands, rubberbands, forearm bands, the corn rows, the afro, the all-time great defense, the relentless rebounding at 6-foot-7, the historic shot-blocking despite the constant size disadvantage. He was, in many ways, a perfect representative for his time, and had a Hall of Fame worthy resume built from the ground up in one of the most noteworthy ways ever.
The 1996 NBA Draft class is one of the best in NBA history — highlighted by Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, and Ray Allen, all of whom are already in the Hall of Fame — not to mention absurdly talented All-Stars like Jermaine O’Neal, Stephon Marbury, and Peja Stojaković. Wallace went undrafted that year, but he’ll be the fifth Hall of Famer from that class, and one of the only enshrinees not to have started at a Division I college: He played at Division II Virginia Union, which made it to the NCAA DII Final Four in 1996 with Wallace at center. Wallace was a First-Team Division II All-American as a senior, where he was only two years removed from starring at Cuyahoga Community College.
Even in the NBA, Wallace wasn’t an instant revelation. He didn’t average 20 minutes per game in either of his first two seasons, nor was he a full-time starter until his lone campaign with the Orlando Magic in 1999-2000, where he posted 4.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game before being traded with Chucky Atkins to the Detroit Pistons for Grant Hill that summer. And then he became a star.
Wallace joined the Pistons in 2000-01, but the team went 32-50. His peak ran from 2001 through 2006, his final year with Detroit, over the course of which he landed four Defensive Player of the Year Awards, five All-Defensive First-Team trophies, five All-NBA honors, four All-Star game appearances, a 2004 NBA Championship, and a 2005 NBA finals appearance. During that five-year stretch, Wallace posted 8.2 points, 12.8 rebounds, 2.8 blocks, and 1.6 steals per game. In the 93 playoff games he participated in during that stretch, he went for 8.5 points, 13.3 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, and 1.8 steals per game. Despite his height, Wallace recorded 10,482 career rebounds and 2,137 career blocks, where he is 14th in NBA history after having just been passed by Dwight Howard last year.
In career defensive rating, Wallace is fifth in NBA history at 95.76, only behind Tim Duncan and David Robinson in the modern era. Think about that.
He also has the fifth best defensive box plus/minus in league history at 2.60, only behind Robinson, Nate McMillan, Mark Eaton, and Draymond Green. He has half the career points per-36 minutes than Tacko Fall, but would make him go 0-for-14 if the two even went head-to-head for 33.5 minutes.
Wallace perfectly captures the essence of what basketball was in the 2000s era. It’s one that many still long for: with a bruising style that was more unique from team-to-team and region-by-region than today’s widely open-ended form of basketball where seemingly every up-and-coming star has the same moves in their bag as the next. He was offensively limited as hell, but his role with the Pistons, in particular, is signature to how the city of Detroit sees themselves, as was that 2003-04 championship team. They had no superstars, and would grind you out to death until they were able to muster 79 points to your 73 in 48 minutes of brickhouse basketball. If you prefer today’s game and disagree with those who say it’s easier in America than even their European counterparts, it pains you to watch and disinterests you to relive. But some romanticize that time that was, and Wallace, in many ways, was at the center of it.
Now he takes his place among the best of not only that era, but all-time.