Friday, November 20, 2009

The Redemption of Big Ben

The Redemption of Big Ben

In my first class at Cornerstone University, Foundations of Inquiry, we learned that the Christian worldview can be summarized in three easy steps: Creation. Fall. Redemption. All things were created; all things are fallen; all things will be (or are being) redeemed.

For proof, look no further than Ben Wallace.

When Ben was traded to the Detroit Pistons before the 2000 season for oft-injured star Grant Hill, he was a nobody. He was an undrafted vagabond who had played a few season with the Washington Bullets (remember them?) and one half-decent season in Orlando, averaging just 5 points and 8 rebounds per game. He was an offensive liability (some things never change), shooting less than 40% from the free-throw line. He was a John Doe in the NBA, an invisible man with no story, no legacy, no fame.

Joe Dumars took a chance on Ben Wallace in 2000; he saw something in the undersized center – limitless energy, hustle, raw emotion. He saw unparalleled work ethic and potential that could be molded into a defensive superstar. Or, maybe he was just dumping Grant Hill’s humungous contrast to whoever was stupid enough to take it. Either way.

In his first season in Detroit, Ben averaged 13 boards and 2 blocks a game. He started all 80 games he played. He grew corn-rolls. He and Jerry Stackhouse (insert Ben and Jerry’s joke here) led the Pistons out of the wretched ‘teal jersey’ days and into the playoff picture. The next season, Ben led the Pistons to the playoffs, led the NBA in both rebounds and blocks, and won his first of four defensive MVP awards.

Over the next five seasons in Detroit, Big Ben Wallace the mega-star was created. “Fear the Fro” was the Pistons new mantra. Ben cemented a legacy as one of the greatest defensive players in NBA history, and pound-for-pound, the best defensive force, ever. Ben could completely shut down opposing centers who outweighed him by 100 pounds.

Ben Wallace was a man possessed, a man who made four All-Star games despite having a career scoring average of 6 PPG and a historically horrific free-throw percentage of just about 41%. (In contrast, most NBA centers shoot anywhere from 70% to 80% from the line.)

The Pistons, under Rick Carlisle and Larry Brown, became one of the best defensive teams of the modern era. They held opponents under 70 points an unprecedented five games in a row in 2003. They made the Eastern Conference Finals six times, winning one NBA title in 2004 and being seconds away from winning another one in 2005, and they did it all by playing defense. Chauncey was the brain, Rip was the legs, Rasheed was the mouth, and Tayshaun was the long arms, but Ben Wallace … Ben was the heart and soul of those Pistons teams.

He was the heart and soul of Deeeeetroit Basketball, the icon of both a city and a team, and one of the most recognizable figures in the NBA back in 2004.

And then the Fall happened …

You know the story. A few months ago, I wrote all about it. Ben Wallace fled Detroit, left the town that created him, betrayed the ones who made him a legend, etc. He signed with the Bulls, and suddenly he was terrible, he was pathetic, yada yada yada … Then he went to Cleveland, and was even more horribly pathetic, and then he was traded to Phoenix who didn’t want him, and he reached the lowest of lows, and all the sins of men sat as blood stains on his hands. (That’s a Zach Vinson lyric btw). He was a disgrace, a loser, a Judas.

Just like every one of us. A fallen man. An imperfect citizen of the realm of humanity.

So like I said, Ben Wallace fell. He succumbed to greed and he believed his own hype. Individually he became a monster, and on the court he became a disaster. It was a two-way fall, to be sure. He was a lousy basketball player, a lousy human being, and an afterthought for Pistons fans who had moved on. We still had one other Wallace left to cheer for, and that one could actually catch a pass from ten feet away.

Well, now Rasheed is gone too, and so is the Pistons “dynasty.” Chauncey’s gone, Rip is faking an injury and ready to be traded, and Tayshaun is apparently going to miss most of the 2009 season with a ruptured disc in his back. Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva, and Rodney Stuckey is the core of our team looking toward the future, and the future is bleak. To be frank, the Pistons are lucky to be 3-4 right now and have a microscopic chance of even making the playoffs this year. A top five draft pick in the 2010 NBA draft is more likely than another trip to the ECFs.

But there’s one silver lining to the Pistons 2009 season that no one could have expected.

Ben Wallace.

Averaging 9.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks through the first seven games, Ben appears to have rejuvenated his career (somewhat) just by breathing Michigan air again. He’s playing almost 30 minutes a game, hustling on defense and keeping plays alive – which is what the Pistons so desperately need, and even shooting 50% from the stripe. Is he back to his 2004 self again? No way. Is he going to beat out Dwight Howard for his fifth Defensive MVP this year? Not a chance.

But has he experienced just a little bit of the redemption that permeates all things?


It’s like the end of a really good movie. Things started out great, then they started to slip away, and then they hit rock bottom. But then redemption creeps in, slowly and sometimes painfully, and the empowering music plays and the character starts to right the wrongs of their past. Redemption is one of the most powerful forces in all the world, and seeing that emancipation in the career of one of the Pistons’ all-time greats is a powerful, wonderful experience. It really is. I know, I wrote just a few months ago that I wanted to break Ben Wallace’s fingers or stab him with my car keys, but that was a rough time for all of us. This redemption came, as it usually does, quite unexpectedly.

Watching the first game of the season, my brother and I vowed not to cheer for Ben Wallace or even acknowledge his presence on the court until he strings together some 10-rebound games, or swats a few shots into the stands, or personally shows up at my house and apologizes for bolting to Chicago. Well, you can’t deny the hustle he’s brought to the court in the first two weeks of the season. You can’t hold a grudge forever. Maybe by forgiving and forgetting, myself and Pistons fans everywhere can experience the beautiful redemption that Ben is experiencing.

Yeah, I know Ben isn’t a long-term solution, and I know he’s not going to be enough to lead us past the Cavs in the Central Division. This isn’t an article about winning and losing games. It’s about a guy’s life, and a fan’s betrayal, and the reconnection of two kindred spirits. This is bigger than basketball.

The fourth step of the Christian story, sometimes excluded from the Creation-Fall-Redemption narrative, is called Consummation. (Also called heaven.) The full redemption of all things, the world that way it should be.

And one day, several years from now, when Big Ben’s #3 jersey is lifted ceremoniously into the rafters of the Palace of Auburn Hills, a heavenly light will shine down upon us, and the angels will smile and play their harps, and the Big Ben gong will sound once again.


Oh... and here are the week ten picks, a week late.

Chicago @ San Francisco

Singletary avenges his old team. San Fran wins on the road.


Atlanta @ Carolina

This would be a huge upset for Carolina, but I don’t see it. To beat Atlanta you have to be able to pass deep on them and Jake Delhomme is inept and inaccurate. Plus DeAngelo Williams is nicked up and the offense really revolves around him. Defensively the Panthers don’t have an answer to Michael Turner or the Falcons’ passing game – it’s pick your poison, and either way, Atlanta’s winning this game.

(Incorrect ... apparently Matt Ryan is no longer any good)

New Orleans @ St. Louis

Could it be any easier for the 8-0 Saints to roll to 9-0? Actually, maybe. This is a road game. St. Louis is coming off a bye and before that, a win. Steven Jackson could run amuck against a Saints run D that hasn’t really been tested this season, except when it was pummeled by Miami’s Wildcat. Rams’ coach Steve Spagnuolo, a defensive mastermind, has had two weeks to prepare for Drew Brees and the Saints potent offense. But you know what? Honestly, Spagnuolo could have two years to prepare for this game, and it wouldn’t matter. The Rams simply lack the talent on defense to stop New Orleans. Plain and simple. It’s all about Drew Brees – the Saints may actually need him to win this game, and he’ll be up to the task. Saints by a closer score than anyone expects, 21-17. If you’re betting the spread, I’d take the Rams.

(Correct ... I called Saints by 4, they won by 5. Ding ding ding.)

Tampa Bay @ Miami

No way the Buccaneers win two games in a row. Miami has been competing with the big boys – almost beating New England and New Orleans in recent weeks – and should have no trouble manhandling a semi-pro team like Tampa Bay. This could be a big confidence-building game for Chad Henne, because Miami won’t have to resort to the Wildcat to beat up the Bucs. Fins win.

(Correct ... barely)

Detroit @ Minnesota

Week two of the season, Detroit could have and should have beat the Vikings. The held Adrian Peterson to a meager game by his standards, they sacked Brett a few times and they led 10-0 early. Of course they tanked in that game and have progressively gotten worse every week since. Matt Stafford is a worse quarterback today than he was eight weeks ago. Favre, meanwhile, is playing like a Pro Bowler at the age of 39. His receivers are making big plays down the field, particularly Sidney Rice, who the Lions will have no answer for. Rushing four down lineman gives the Lions no chance to pressure Favre in this game, and you can’t give Favre time to create a play. He can do it better than anyone. Yet, if Gunther sends gaga blitz packages, Minnesota is good enough to pick up the extra blitzer and Favre will find the hole in the coverage. They’ll kill you with the screen passes too, and oh yeah, I almost forgot about Adrian Peterson. Funny how that keeps happening. When the Lions have the ball, there’s a chance that Calvin might finally get going or Kevin Smith can run on the Vikings like he has in the past, but it won’t be enough. Especially with the horrible play recently of Stafford, who will be pressured by Jared Allen all day long. Vikings cruise in a laugher, 32-16.

(Correct ... I picked Vikes by 16, they won by 17 ... I am really good at picking Lions games)

Jacksonville @ New York Jets

Both of these teams are 4-4 and quite mediocre. Ironically, these were my two pre-season picks for the AFC Wildcard berths. So I have been subconsciously rooting for them both to make the playoffs all season. The good news is one of them gets a win on Sunday; the bad news is one of them falls out of contention altogether. I think MJD could have a field day against the Jenkins-less front 7 of the Jets, but Revis should shut down MSW and force Garrard to look elsewhere. Thomas Jones should likewise have a big day, and Sanchez should be able to settle into a rhythm against a mostly non-threatening Jags pass rush. I believe the Jets come out on top in this one, but it could be close if Sanchez makes too many dumb mistakes. I’ll say Jets 20-16.

(Wrong ... Jags won, thanks in part to MJD taking a knee at the 1 ... the little rascal)

Cincinnati @ Pittsburgh

If Pittsburgh wins, that’s six straight for them and the AFC North is in their grasp. If Cincy wins, they will be partying like mad after sweeping both the Ravens and Steelers. The Bengals next three games after this are: Raiders, Browns, Lions. Wow. It will be tough for them not to get caught up thinking “We can lose to Pittsburgh and still cruise to 9-3.” The reality is both of these teams WILL be in the playoffs this year, and this probably won’t be the last time they play each other. As for this game, Pittsburgh wins at Heinz Field and takes back the division that is rightfully theirs. Steelers 20-14.

(Wrong ... Cincinnati wins my respect)

Buffalo @ Tennessee

After starting 0-6, the Titans are about to be 3-6. Good for them. This game is not going to be much fun to watch though. Titans win 21-14.

(Correct ... except it was pretty fun to watch, as Chris Johnson continues his sparkling Barry Sanders impression and the Titans owner did a nice impression of an 86-year old jackass)

Denver @ Washington

The Broncos care; the Redskins don’t. That’s the difference in this game, because the disparity in talent isn’t as great as people think. Denver might actually steamroll them by 30 just to prove a point. I can’t see how the Redskins offense gains more than 100 yards in this game, with Portis doubtful and with Campbell playing so horrifically, plus Cooley’s out too. I’ll say the Broncos win by at least two touchdowns.

(Way wrong ... I hate you Denver)

Kansas City @ Oakland

Something’s gotta give – KC’s brutal pass D against JaMarcus’s inaccurate arm. It just seems like KC should win this game so both teams are 2-7, rather than the Raiders having 3 wins. But it’s tough to pass on Oakland in Oakland when the matchup is this easy. Remember Oakland beat Philly in Oakland a month ago. So I don’t know. It could go either way. Both teams are so sloppy and ugly, I really have no idea. I’m gonna pick the Raiders I guess. By six.

(Wrong ... that's the last time I ever pick Oakland)

Seattle @ Arizona

For the Cards, if they win this game they control the division and can start thinking about the playoffs. If they lose, they have to keep looking over their shoulder. For Seattle, this is do-or-die. Both teams have a lot to play for; NFC West interdivision battles are usually pretty heated. I’m actually excited about this game. And against the Seahawks awful secondary, I think Warner and Fitzgerald have a second consecutive field day. Arizona wins 34-24.

(Very correct)

Dallas @ Green Bay

Can the Pack get back on track at Lambeau? Or will the Cowboys win their fifth in a row? Interesting fact for you: since Miles Austin entered the Cowboys starting line-up, Dallas is undefeated, and Austin is on a psychotic 16-game pace for over 2,000 yards and 20+ TDs. That’s pretty impressive. He faces a Packers secondary with some big names (Harris, Woodson) who have not really lived up to their reputations this season. This looks like one of those games where I feel like I should pick Green Bay, but then Dallas wins. I like Green Bay more, and I want them to win, but I have to say I think Dallas is the better team right now. Cowboys by five.

(Wrong ... should have gone with my gut)

Philadelphia @ San Diego

Last time Philly traveled to the west coast, they lost to Oakland. Now they face a much, much more difficult test, a Chargers team that is surging and catch up with Denver. Philly is very solid on both sides of the ball, but I just don’t want to pick against the Chargers right now. Especially at home. Bolts by a touchdown.


New England @ Indianapolis

This is the best regular season game of the whole year. I can’t wait. I’ll be watching this one live at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indiana, wearing my Barry Sanders jersey and rooting on the Patriots. I can’t wait. It’s going to be awesome. Two Hall of Fame quarterbacks in the late prime of their careers. Two brilliant offenses and mediocre defenses. Sunday Night football. The undefeated Colts against the red-hot Patriots. The two best teams of the decade. Man, it’s going to be great. Regardless of who wins and who loses, both teams are going to the playoffs, no question. But it does matter, for home-field advantage reasons and for pride. Brady and Manning hate losing to each other. If the Colts win, 16-0 is now in the picture. If the Pats win, no one can say that they’re not the best team in the NFL. As for my pick, well, it really doesn’t matter, because I’ve picked the Sunday Night game wrong five or six weeks in a row. I know that Manning is basically unbeatable on night games, but how many of those have been against Brady? I’ll pick the Colts solely for home-field reasons, but I wouldn’t bet any money on it.

(Amazing game to watch, amazing crowd to be in, amazing finish ... hey I even got the pick right, thanks to Bill Belichick and his super-stupid gamble)

Baltimore @ Cleveland

This might be the silliest Monday Night Football game of my life. The Browns? Seriously, THE BROWNS??? ESPN can only hype up the “Cleveland used to be Baltimore” angle for so long. This is going to be so ugly. Cleveland is pitiful, terrible, and disgraceful. Ravens by 20.

(Dead on)

The week 10 picks look pretty silly in retrospect. Oh well. Go Lions.

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