Monday, November 27, 2006
It's on your big shoulders, Big Ben
By Marc Stein
Freaky weekend, huh?
A scorer's table error in Atlanta costs Toronto two points in a four-point loss to the Hawks. The Mavericks get a laughable call from the league at halftime of their win in San Antonio because players on their bench are guilty of "prolonged standing." Then the circus finally leaves Chicago, allowing the Bulls to come back home after seven games away ... only to be replaced by the first Ben Wallace vs. Scott Skiles circus.
You knew they would clash eventually. But this seems way early, even for two stubborn souls like Big Ben and the gritty, gutty Skiles.
Big Ben certainly has a gripe if he indeed asked for a list of Skiles' no-nos -- wearing headbands, practicing with untaped ankles, listening to music before games without headphones -- before he signed the contract. If he asked and didn't get the list, you can understand the frustration.
Even then, though, you suspect Wallace would have accepted those restrictions -- no matter how rigid, excessive or petty they seem -- in return for the $12 million difference between Chicago's offer and Detroit's. So you can only understand his frustration to a point ... a point we've long since passed.
Wallace is miles over the line to openly defy team rules as he did Saturday night, when -- seemingly in response to the season-low 20 minutes he received on a zero-point, zero-rebound Friday night in Philadelphia -- he wore a red headband at the start of the first and third quarters. How he's playing these days is immaterial. We repeat: He's simply out of bounds, by an expensive-fine, borderline-suspendable margin.
He won't win this battle, either, because (a) Skiles, right or wrong, never loses this sort of fight and (b) management isn't about to undermine the coach by letting Wallace get away with this.
Which brings us to the real disappointment of Wallace's first month as a Bull. It's not the 32-year-old's on-court struggles. It's all attitude.
The focus has been on Wallace's meager statistics -- just 9.2 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game -- but it should be on his perpetual unhappiness so far. You can rationalize a slow adjustment on the floor, given how much has changed for Wallace and his new teammates. It'd be a far greater concern to me, if this were my team, to see how sullen Wallace has looked since getting his riches.
That's what struck me when I spent a night with the Bulls on Nov. 14. They were still only 3-3, as opposed to their current 4-9, but Wallace seemed more withdrawn in the locker room than I can ever remember. Which is saying something, since he's always been a brooder. He's playing with no joy, none of the fire that (along with his hair and the bell) made him famous in Detroit, and I struggle to believe it's all because Skiles won't let him wear a headband.
My theory? The Bulls gave Wallace the payday he always dreamed of, but Wallace gave up more than he ever realized. It's not just the teammates he left behind in Motown. Signing that big contract wiped away the unwanted/unloved/underdog image he's thrived on for years. He can't be that guy any more.
You've heard plenty about how the Pistons miss Wallace covering for their defensive mistakes, but Wallace clearly misses being around big-name vets who eat up a good deal of spotlight themselves and allow him to be a hard-hat man of the people.
As opposed to the guy under the microscope who's making Missing Piece money.
I asked Ben when I saw him, nearly two weeks ago, if he was aware that folks were already questioning the Bulls' investment.
"It doesn't bother me," he insisted. "No matter what, regardless of the situation, somebody is going to have something to say. Everyone's entitled to their own opinion. I think I put more pressure on myself than anybody or any situation can ever put on me."
We'll see. We'll see if he can rebound the way we expect Wallace to rebound, because his rocky final season with the Pistons and the circus-like start to his Bulls career open Big Ben up to a deeper question: Is he really not the team guy we've always heard he was?
I know Wallace has also thrived for years on being disrespected or doubted, and I concede that Skiles isn't the easiest coach to play for, so I don't believe this is all on Big Ben or that it's a situation beyond repair. As we've covered in this cyberspace dozens of times, Chicago still has plenty of pieces to keep improving its roster even after spending all that money on the offensively challenged Wallace ... and the Bulls did need more size, defense and rebounding on their front line no matter good they seemed defensively over the past two seasons.
It's time for Wallace to apologize profusely and, more than anything, start embracing his new life. That's the least he can do for $60 million.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.