AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Ben Wallace isn’t sure that his career is over, but the Palace crowd wasn’t taking any chances.
The chant started with 90 seconds to play in the season, and Wallace sitting on the bench for the end of the Pistons’ 108-86 over Philadelphia.
At first, a few fans in one section began to chant “We Want Ben,” but it quickly spread to one full side of the arena and then to the entire crowd of 15,372. With the teams returning to the floor at the end of a timeout, Wallace bowed to their wishes.
“That was a crazy moment,” he said, fighting back emotions. “Even in my heyday, it took me a minute or two to get ready to come in. But all the fans here have supported me for so long, and if they wanted me in the game, I was going into the game.”
Wallace passed on an open 3-pointer in the first seconds of his return to the floor, but gave in to the crowd’s screams of “Shoot!” when his teammates found got him the ball behind the arc.
If he had made it, it would have given him a fairy-tale double-double on his night, but the shot was short and left.
“It was a good look, but it was a terrible shot,” he said. “As soon as it left my hand, I knew it was going to be bad.”
It wasn’t the first ugly shot of Wallace’s career — he’s the worst free-throw shooter in NBA history — but that wasn’t his game. He was always about defense — he had a block and a steal — and rebounding. Against the 76ers, he finished with a season-high 12 boards, the 529th double-digit game of his career.
“It hasn’t just been an honor to coach him, it has been an honor to watch him every day,” Frank said. “This is a man who was undrafted, originally projected as a 2-guard and made himself into one of the great defensive post players of all time. If this is the end, I’m glad he went out the way he did. He’s a special player.”
In basketball terms, the star of the night was Ben Gordon. He hit a franchise-record seven 3-pointers in the second quarter — the team tied an NBA record with 11 in the period — and finished with 26 points.
“We wanted to go out there and honor Body, just in case this is his last game,” Gordon said. “We were extra inspired and we went out there and hit our shots. It’s going to be tough without him, because he is the epitome of the consummate professional.”
But there’s still a question. Wallace sounded sure that he was done earlier in the season, but he’s hedging his bets a little.
“Do I think it is time to retire? Yes, I do,” he said. “But it is harder to walk away when so many people in the game are asking you to come back. I’m going to take some time and think about it.”
If he decides to play a 17th season, he’ll be welcomed back. If he doesn’t, Thursday was the end of one of basketball’s most improbable careers. A player that no one wanted when he came out of Virginia Union, and who bounced around the league until he ended up in Detroit when Grant Hill bolted the city.
The Palace is where he became the greatest defensive player of his era, where he won four Defensive Player of the Year awards and where he helped the Pistons win a championship. The Palace was also where he was Public Enemy No. 1 after signing a huge free-agent deal with the Chicago Bulls.
When he returned a few years later, the fans forgave him as soon as they heard Big Ben chime, and he remained one of the team’s most popular players until the final buzzer Thursday night. He got a standing ovation when he started the game, another when the Pistons played a video tribute to him, and a final one when he reluctantly came back into the game.
The next one? That will probably come when his number is raised to the Palace rafters.
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