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How Ben Wallace Went From D2 No-Name to The NBA’s First Undrafted Hall of Famer

“I was on a mission to let everybody know, ‘Y’all missed one.’”

Illustrations of Ben Wallace during his time in the NBA with the Detroit Pistons
Credit-NBA/Getty/Detroit Pistons/Joker Mag

“…And that concludes the 1996 NBA Dr–”

He turned the TV off before the announcer finished the sentence.

His gym bag was packed. Back to the grind.

Time to make them pay.

From the blown-out afro to the bulging biceps, Ben Wallace looked like he could very easily be at home in a WWE wrestling ring as much as he was comfortable on an NBA court.

Yet long before he became an NBA Hall of Famer, Ben Camey Wallace was a baseball and football star for the Central High Lions from the small town of Lowndes County, Alabama.

“Growing up in rural Alabama and not having a lot,” Wallace said. “But having a work ethic and a drive and a determination to not be afraid to go out in the world and work for anything that I wanted. That came from my mom and the way she raised me.”

As the youngest of eight boys and tenth of 11 children, Wallace didn’t officially start playing organized basketball until his college years.

But he grew up battling his older brothers on the family basketball hoop that the kids paid for by working at local pecan farms.

As a youngster, Wallace learned early that the only way he was going to get the ball was as the result of hard work and hustle.

“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,” he told Sports Illustrated.

While he struggled to see the ball while playing with his siblings, his older brothers showed love when they signed him up for a basketball camp run by then-New York Knicks power forward Charles Oakley.

To raise money for the $50 entry fee, he spent his Fourth of July weekend dishing out haircuts for $3 each.

After getting what he needed, Ben made the 100-mile trek to the week-long camp to chase his basketball dream.

Up to that point, Wallace had received little interest from Division I schools.

So he took Oakley’s advice at the camp and headed to Ohio where he suited up for the Cuyahoga County Challengers, a community college in Cleveland.

“I feel like [Cuyahoga Community College] is where I actually learned how to play basketball,” he said.

“I always played basketball – it was one thing to put on some shoes, go to the gym, and bounce the ball around. But it’s something different to become a student of the game. I feel like at Tri-C I became a student of the game and that’s when my career took off.”

Despite not being much of an offensive threat, the young man wearing #4 was a terror on the glass, averaging 17 rebounds while adding 6.9 blocks per game.

But defense doesn’t attract attention.

And it left Wallace without much interest from any NCAA Division I schools.

Thankfully Oakley had another connection with his alma mater, Virginia Union.

An HBCU Division II school, the Panthers reached the Division II Final Four in Wallace’s first season, one in which he averaged 13.4 points and 10 rebounds.

Wallace finished off his collegiate career by being named a Division II First Team All-American and a member of the CIAA First Team. 

Few players have found success going straight from the NCAA Division II ranks to the NBA. And despite being a big fish in a small pond, Wallace was not selected in the 1996 NBA Draft.

“Once you get over the initial shock and once you get over the fact that everybody have to pay for not taking a chance on you, it’s back to the grind,” Wallace told NBA.com.

“So I went back to the gym that night. I was on a mission to let everybody know, ‘Y’all missed one.’ And I did reps on the bench press to everybody’s name that was called in that draft until I gave up. So it was whoever – A.I., ‘Starbury,’ Shareef, Jermaine, Ray, Kobe. For me it just became motivation. It’s me against the world now, my back up against the wall.”

Ben Wallace on going undrafted in 1996: "I went back to the gym that night. I was on a mission to let everybody know, ‘Y’all missed one.’"

Many undrafted guys head overseas (or as of recently to the G-League) to carve out a pro career. And it was the path that Wallace – an undersized big man – decided to take in 1996.

After a cup of espresso with Italy’s Viola Reggio Calabria, he returned to North American soil, signing with the Washington Bullets as a free agent.

For three seasons, Wallace battled for playing time with the abysmal Bullets (turned Wizards), starting just 32 of 147 games and averaging 17.4 minutes, primarily due to his limited offensive abilities.

Sadly one of the most memorable moments during his time in the US capital came on the opposite end of a spectacular preseason dunk by a young prep-to-pro player by the name of Kobe Bryant.

An offseason trade in 1999 brought Wallace the opportunity to become a full-time starter for the Orlando Magic, a team in transition from the Shaq O’Neil and Penny Hardaway era.

Averaging 4.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks, Wallace’s time in the Magic Kingdom was limited to just one season as he got dealt to the Detroit Pistons for a package that included Grant Hill.

At 32-50, the 2000-01 Pistons were terrible, finishing fifth in the Central Division.

However thanks in large part to Wallace, they ended the season eighth in defense, something that would become their calling card once again. Although they were not the Bad Boys of the 90s, the Pistons were building a team on the motto “defense wins championships.” 

By his third season in the Motor City, Wallace would be recognized for his efforts, being named to the first of four straight All-Star Games and the Pistons were on top of the league in defensive ratings.

The focal point of the Pistons’ stifling defense? You guessed it – Big Ben, who captured back-to-back Defensive Player of The Year Awards from 2001 to 2003.

After letting Ron Artest borrow the award for the 2003-04 season while he concentrated on bumping up his scoring average, Wallace rightfully regained the crown for the following two seasons.

With several individual accolades to his credit, the only thing missing from Wallace’s resume was a championship – something that elevates every great player in the league just a notch higher on the totem of career success.

Upon Wallace’s arrival in Detroit, the Pistons began the slow climb to the top of the Eastern Conference standings.

After missing the playoffs in his first season, the Pistons reached the EC Semi-Finals in Wallace’s second season and the EC Finals the following year. In 2003-04, everything came together for the Pistons, who despite being an underdog, represented the East Coast in the NBA Finals.

Their opponent? The heavily favored LA Lakers, who had created a superteam, adding future Hall Of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton to a lineup that already included Shaq and Kobe.

In a chess match of two polar opposite teams, the blue-collar Pistons led by their defensive effort, and the glitz and glam Lakers who were a year removed from a three-peat title run, Detroit played the role of David against LA’s Goliath.

It took just five games for the Pistons to upset the Lakers in a series that was frankly nowhere close to being competitive.

While Chauncey Billups received the Finals MVP, it wouldn’t have been far-fetched for Wallace to get the honor, posting 10.8 points, 13.6 rebounds, 1.8 steals, and a block per game in the final series.

Unfortunately, the following season would be marred by the infamous “Malice in the Palace” featuring Wallace and Ron Artest as the main combatants.

Yet despite the stain on the league, the Pistons and Wallace returned to the NBA Finals to defend their crown against the San Antonio Spurs.

A quote from NBA veteran & Hall of Famer Ben Wallace: "A lot of people told me I couldn't do it because of my size. I was determined to prove those people wrong."

While Detroit was unable to repeat as champions, “Big Ben” continued to be a focal point and fan favorite. Although he had earned more money than he ever thought while with the Pistons, Wallace decided to test the free-agent waters two seasons later, signing with the Chicago Bulls for 4 years and $60 million.

Although Wallace was by far the Bulls’ best rebounder, shot blocker, and defender, the league’s best afro seemed out of place in the Windy City.

Sure, coach Scott Skiles caved in on his “no headband” rule to allow Ben to be Ben, but despite the allowances, something still didn’t feel right.

For the first time since his stint in Orlando, Wallace would average single digits in rebounding, something that fans, teammates and even probably Wallace himself weren’t used to.

At the age of 33, the 6’9”, 240-pound undersized big man – who played much bigger than he was – started to experience the decline of his career.

After a season and a half in Cleveland, Wallace made his way back to Detroit, finishing out the final three years of his career as a mentor to a Pistons team that had gone from a championship contender to a bottom-dweller in the Eastern Conference.

Four years after his final game, the Pistons honored Wallace by hanging his #3 jersey in the rafters among the other great players in Detroit history.

Five years later, the Hall of Fame inducted Wallace into their illustrious shrine, making him the first undrafted player in league history to achieve such an honor. 

Although some will shake their head in bewilderment that a player who averaged only 5.7 points for his career could make the Hall of Fame, there have been few who can match the numbers and effort that he produced on the defensive end of the court.

“A lot of people told me I couldn’t do it because of my size. I was determined to prove those people wrong.”

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Written By

Life-long sports fan and avid basketball junkie in every sense of the word. The same passion I have for the Lakers translates to my extreme dislike for the Duke Blue Devils. As much as I cheer for the favorite and the dynasty, I appreciate and applaud the underdog and the grind whether you are a weekend warrior or a professional, both on and off the field.

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