How a 2004 NBA Finals win over Shaq, Kobe and the Lakers cemented Ben Wallace's Hall of Fame legacy

ByRoyce Young ESPN logo
Thursday, September 9, 2021

THEY STOOD SIDE to side in the center circle, waiting for referee Joey Crawford to loft the ball in the air to kick off the 2004 NBA Finals. On one side was Shaquille O'Neal, the gargantuan almost myth of a man, 7-foot-1 and some 330 pounds of pure power and force. And on the other side, there was Ben Wallace, nearly 100 pounds lighter and maybe not quite the 6-foot-9 he was listed at.

The ball went up and the 32-year-old O'Neal quick-jumped it, swiping the ball before it reached its apex. Over the next 90 seconds, three plays summarized the prevailing series narrative: the small-market, outmanned Detroit Pistons against the championship institution that is the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Lakers, aiming for a fourth title in five years with their megawatt superteam full of star power and ring-hunting veterans, faced a Pistons squad full of outcasts and underdogs. It was Shaq and Kobe, plus Karl Malone and Gary Payton, led by the legendary Phil Jackson versus a collective of Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace led by famously title-less Larry Brown.

The Pistons opened the scoring 12 seconds in with a 3-pointer from Rasheed Wallace, set up on a sweet, free-flowing set with weakside screens and sharp cuts. The Lakers then took their first possession, hammering through a set that ended with Malone attempting his patented free throw line fadeaway, which bounced woefully short off the front iron. Carving out his territory in the paint, O'Neal then snared the ball from behind a leaping Ben Wallace, tossing the league's best rebounder aside, and opened the Lakers' account in the series with a dunk.

Two possessions later, with 10:28 left in the first quarter and the score 3-2, Hamilton turned the corner on Kobe Bryant and found Ben Wallace on the left wing, O'Neal sagging off dramatically to leave Wallace wide open for the pick-and-pop. Wallace hoisted the 12-foot jumper ... about 10 feet.

Air ball.

"Rasheed is known for offense and defense," Al Michaels said on the broadcast. "Ben is known for defense only."

Michaels might've been right. Indeed, by June 2004, Wallace had won two NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards, led the league in rebounding twice, led it in blocks once and twice been on an All-Defensive team. He had become a household name, making the All-Star game in 2003 and 2004, establishing himself as a one-way superstar.

"Ben Wallace shooting an air ball doesn't bother the Pistons at all," Doc Rivers said to Michaels. "They're not looking for his offense."

They were, however, making a mammoth bet on Wallace on the other end -- one that would make or break the 2004 Finals. One that few teams had dared tried before.

Detroit had made the audacious decision to guard O'Neal, the three-time NBA champion, 11-time All-Star, straight up, one-on-one.

And it worked. The Pistons' game plan suffocated the Lakers and reset the narrative of NBA championship criteria. At the center of it all was Ben Wallace, an undrafted center from a tiny town 30 miles west of Montgomery, Alabama, who, in five games over nine days, cemented a legacy destined for Springfield, Massachusetts. A player now set to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday.

"He has to be the most unlikely Hall of Famer," says Billups, the now-Portland Trail Blazerscoach who played with Wallace for four seasons. "When you look at his life, his high school career, his college career and even his early years in the NBA, you never saw Hall of Fame. That never came across your thought process when you watched him."

But after Wallace neutralized the NBA's most unstoppable force in the stunning 2004 Finals, he wasn't just a novelty star anymore. He was destined for NBA immortality.

JUNE 11, 2000. A decade removed from the Bad Boys era, with years of meandering mediocrity, it was this late spring day when the Pistons' road to championship contention truly opened.

It did so, however, with a trade that pundits saw as a major loss for the Pistons. They'd dealt a 27-year-old, five-time NBA All-Star in Grant Hill to the Orlando Magic, seemingly for pennies on the dollar, in a deal that netted them, in part, a one-dimensional, unproven, zero-time All-Star big man with only 113 career starts to his name.

In Ben Wallace's first season in Detroit, while he led the team to a dramatic rise in defensive aptitude, from the 21st to eighth, the Pistons won 10 fewer games than they did the season prior and missed the playoffs for the first time in four years.

In year two, the team sustained its defensive prowess, but this time, the wins came along with it. The Pistons won 18 more games, with Wallace as their anchor, despite just 7.6 points per game and a meager 10.5 usage rate. They'd lose to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals, but Wallace's one-way dominance earned him the 2001 Defensive Player of the Year award, the first of four he would win in the next five seasons.

In his third season, help arrived -- in the form of three eventual starters on the 2004 title-winning team: Billups, Hamilton and a rookie named Tayshaun Prince.

"Ben didn't get the credit. Everybody gave me all the credit for being the leader of the team, and I was one of the leaders, but Ben, to me, set the culture before Rip and I got there," Billups says. "It was on us to come in and just follow his blueprint. He didn't get the credit he deserved for that, because he's so quiet. But if you know, you know."

During one of their first games together, early in the 2002-03 season, Billups remembers Wallace setting a screen for him and then rolling to the basket. Wallace was open for a pocket pass, Billups says now, so he flipped him a bounce pass. Wallace threw it immediately back to him.

Billups was confused. Timeout. He didn't get it. Why wasn't Wallace trying to score?

"Nah, nah, nah," Wallace told him. "You score. If I set a screen, and I set a good enough one, don't look at me. You go do what you gotta do. I'm gonna get my touches off the glass."

That was a new one for Billups.

"No, that's never happened. Hell no," Billups says. "I've never had a guy tell me, 'When I set a screen, I'm rolling, but don't pass me the ball.' ... That was crazy to me."

The Pistons won 50 games for a second straight season and became a top-five defense. They were the Bad Boys reborn, with toughness, grit and selflessness serving as hallmarks. Wallace, who'd averaged a league-high 15.4 rebounds per game along with 3.2 blocks, won his second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year trophy. But the Pistons fell in the playoffs once again, this time in a sweep in Eastern Conference finals to the top defensive team in the league, Jason Kidd's New JerseyNets.

Two hundred and seventy-one days later, the final member of the historic fivesome landed in Motown: Rasheed Wallace. The 2003-04 Pistons won 54 games and amassed the NBA's second-best defense, with no bona fide superstars. And their opportunity to validate the four-year journey came in the form of a Finals matchup against maybe the most star-studded team in NBA history.

Conventional wisdom at the time argued Ben Wallace was Dennis Rodman without the wild side or even a modern-day Bill Russell, a player focused solely on starring in his role. But his teammates point to his tactical prowess and uncanny instincts.

"You don't know how many players that I played with after playing with Ben, that I would put together edited tapes and examples of how to guard this, how to do this," Billups says. "The list goes on forever of people that I've tried to show how to be more like Ben."

AT ONE POINT during the 2004 Finals, Billups recalls Wallace needing new shoes. His size 13 AND1 sneakers had been ravaged, the insoles bursting out from within.

"Ben was fighting so hard that he blew through his shoe, trying to resist -- literally trying to resist Shaq backing down," Billups says. "It was the craziest thing. He actually blew through his shoe."

The Pistons' defensive approach, guarding the unguardable O'Neal with a single man, wasn't only bold; it was quite literally the opposite of what Brown had wanted. The coach had preferred to go the traditional route, mixing double-teams and using the depth of the roster to take fouls when necessary.

"LB wanted to double-team Shaq, and Ben said, 'No, I'll guard him head-up," Hamilton told the Detroit Free Press in 2016. "You don't hear that from anybody."

But that's not to say it was easy. Guarding O'Neal one-on-one is like solo tackling Marshawn Lynch. There were plenty of instances in the series when Wallace just couldn't hold up physically. Like in the third quarter of Game 1, when O'Neal used his ample backside to shield Wallace's feeble attempts at a steal, eventually tossing Wallace aside to throw down a two-handed dunk. Or in the first quarter of Game 2, when O'Neal backed Wallace onto the block, elbows sharpened and flying, spinning off his left shoulder to drop in an easy layup. Or in the second quarter of Game 3, when, despite good positioning and defense from Wallace, O'Neal bullied his way onto the block, missing his first shot but casting aside Wallace for a putback. Or in the third quarter of the decisive Game 5, when O'Neal bulldozed Wallace, sending him flying into the first row of seats, drawing an offensive foul in the process. Because, come on, this was still Shaq after all.

"We did a lot of things; we tried to play behind him, tried to force him off the block," Wallace said after Game 4, an eight-point Pistons win in which O'Neal still scored 36. "That didn't work. We tried to front him; they threw it over the top. All you can do is just fight."

And if you just look at O'Neal's raw numbers for the series -- 26.6 points on 63% shooting and 10.8 rebounds -- you might think he was his usual, dominant self.

But the impact of Wallace's series is told, simply, within the scoreboard. And it expands far beyond his single coverage of O'Neal. In Game 1, the Lakers scored 75 points. In Game 3, 68. In Game 4, 80. In Game 5, 87.For the series, the Lakers shot 41.6% from the floor, down from 45.4% during the regular season. Their offensive rating sank to 96.1, down from a sixth-ranked 105.5 for the season. Their 3-point percentage plummeted to 24.7%. They shot six fewer free throws per game. Almost across the board, the Pistons put the locks on.

Without a Bryant buzzer-beater that forced overtime in Game 2, the Pistons would've swept the Lakers.

"He was having to deal with that dude by himself. Two people can't guard Shaq, and we're asking one guy to do it, and a guy that's probably six inches shorter and a hundred pounds lighter," Billups says of Wallace. "There were so many signature moments in that series for him. He was in an unbelievable rhythm. I think that for the world, that was his moment. For us, we already knew."

IN THE FIVE games of the 2004 Finals, Wallace outrebounded O'Neal 68-54. Wallace's offense took a jump too, as the big man averaged 10.8 points for the series to pair with his standard 13.6 rebounds per game. He produced flurries of momentum-swinging plays, like an open-court steal early in Game 5, devouring the floor to soar for a one-handed dunk; or a putback right over the top of Bryon Russell as an idle O'Neal stood nearby in the third quarter of Game 5 that gave Detroit a 14-point lead; or ripping down a one-handed defensive rebound in traffic over three Lakers in the first half of Game 3 that had sportscasters Michaels and Rivers roaring in admiration.

For every O'Neal dunk, there was Wallace standing him up, forcing a contested miss or a turnover. In Game 2, O'Neal didn't reach double-digit rebounds for the first time in his Finals' career. In Game 3, he didn't take a free throw until the fourth quarter. Wallace might not have won the box score battle, but he won the war.

"If there was one word for him, it's relentless," Billups says. "He was not only relentless on the floor, which we all got the luxury of seeing and experiencing; but he was relentless in his pursuit to be great. Even deeper than that, he was relentless in his pursuit to change the trajectory of his family and where he's from."

As the Pistons assembled at midcourt at the Palace of Auburn Hills, with confetti falling from the rafters after Game 5, NBA commissioner David Stern picked up the Larry O'Brien Trophy to present to the franchise. He congratulated the city of Detroit and handed the hardware to then-team owner Bill Davidson. Davidson held the trophy for about all of two seconds, immediately looking to his right, handing it to Ben Wallace. Wallace took it and with both hands lifted it above his head.

"Throw your hands up!" Wallace yelled to the adoring crowd. "Throw your hands up!"

Says Billups, "He just felt validated. Like we all did. He just felt like, 'What can they say about me now? I wasn't supposed to be here. I wasn't supposed to be a champion. I wasn't supposed to be an All-Star. I wasn't supposed to be any of these things. Now that we won it, what can they really say about me now?'"

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