EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Ben Wallace let that sly smile creep across his lips, suggesting his impulse was to do what he's always done: speak his mind. For a moment, he had to be fighting the feeling to let loose on this question: Did he ever feel Pistons coach Flip Saunders had an appreciation for him?
"You've got to ask Flip that," Wallace said Friday.
Only, Wallace didn't ask you to go back and ask the Detroit Pistons. His teammates did, Wallace would say. They always appreciated him. Never did he doubt those Pistons championship bonds, that resourceful team that raised a most improbable NBA title banner to Auburn Hills' Palace rafters.
And yet even still on the eve of meeting the Pistons for the first time since leaving as a free agent for the Chicago Bulls last summer, Wallace will tell you: "I never thought I was going to be able to walk away."
The Bulls sold him on anchoring their gifted young roster, bringing his rebounding and resolve and throwback sensibilities to a fragile, impressionable locker room. What had been a slow, sluggish process for Chicago still leaves the Bulls just 1½ games behind the Pistons in the Central Division, inspiring a showdown of sorts at the United Center on Saturday night.
Nevertheless, Wallace still goes to great lengths to leave you believing that Saunders mishandled their relationship and overlooked him on the floor. For his part, though, he will not make it uncomfortable for the Pistons coach when Detroit comes to Chicago. He is still resentful of Saunders, but promises he won't slight him.
"I'm going to jog down there and shake his hand," said Wallace, 32. "Whether I liked him as a coach or not, you've still got to respect him as a man."
If you want to believe it was the money that made him leave – Chicago's $60 million over the $52 million that the Pistons offered – you're underestimating the drive and the determination that transformed Wallace from an undrafted Division II player into a four-time All-Star and NBA defensive player of the year. Wallace's identity was wrapped up in that whole Piston persona, and piece by piece, he felt Saunders stripped it away.
"I wasn't comfortable with the situation," Wallace said. "Instead of going back and going through the motions, and bringing a dark cloud over everybody else, I thought it would be best to start over."
Last year, Saunders replaced Larry Brown and was determined to expand Detroit's offense, and he did it beautifully in the regular season. Only, there was a cost: Wallace's trust, his belief. He had lost his spirit to be the most unrelenting rebounder and defender of his time. What's more, Brown took the time to coddle him on offense, running a few plays a game to let Wallace get some of his typically wayward shots off. It was a nod, a respect that Saunders never extended.
"One of the things that Larry did was genius, which was take a guy like him who was working his butt off, doing all the dirty stuff, and he rewarded him once in a while," an Eastern Conference scout said. "You can't run a play for him all the time, but once a quarter has a lasting impact.
"Larry figured out a way to keep Ben happy, and Flip did not do a good job of catering to him. Wallace is a proud guy, and once you lost him, you were never getting him back. But once Flip had lost him, him leaving became addition by subtraction. It couldn't go on like it was in Detroit."
Nevertheless, Wallace has shown that he can be far too oversensitive, turning the most seemingly inconsequential of slights into monumental issues. Still, Detroit general manager Joe Dumars, on his cell phone Friday night, insisted that it still breaks his heart that Wallace didn't stay a Piston forever. As much as any successful G.M. in the league, Dumars has held the line on spending. He's never overpaid to sign a player, nor keep his own. He has three All-Stars, but still hasn't given a max-out contract.
In the aftermath, Wallace has picked up the phone often to talk to Dumars.
"Joe gave me an opportunity to unpack my bags (in the NBA)," he said.
Dumars' connection with Wallace ran deep, two sons of the deep south who connected as much as anything, "because we both knew the value of a hard day's work."
"I'm a big fan of Ben Wallace. He represents everything right about our game," Dumars said. "To lose him was very emotional, very difficult for us."
Even so, the Pistons have survived several pesky injuries to bring the Eastern Conference's best record (19-11) to Chicago.
"We knew the consequences of losing him," Dumars said. "But do we still have a (title) shot? If we weren't in the position we're in with a team that hasn't hit its stride yet and played its basketball yet, maybe I wouldn't be able to say so.
"But where we are now, yes, you have to say we're still right there."
Many league executives and officials say that they wouldn't want to be indebted to Wallace in the fourth and fifth years of his contract, when his advanced age and diminished returns could make him a salary-cap albatross. His sluggish start, born of a hand injury and an emerging Bulls roster, had everyone rushing to judgment.
"I struggled early in the season learning to play with these guys," Wallace said.
When he was asked how he thought Nazr Mohammed had handled his spot in Detroit, he was polite about the Pistons center's performance.
Yet he had to make one thing clear.
"My spot's in Chicago," he said. "I took my spot with me."