ATLANTA - It was halftime on Feb. 1 in a game against the New Jersey Nets when Detroit Pistons forward Ben Wallace was told to go home to Alabama. Wallace's mother, 68-year-old Sadie, had collapsed in a grocery store. She was not conscious. She was in the hospital, in serious trouble.
So the NBA's reigning Defensive Player of the Year listened to Detroit executive Joe Dumars. Wallace rushed home, but it was too late. By the time his plane touched down in Selma, his mother was gone. The doctors think it was an aneurysm.
The funeral for Sadie Wallace took place in a Selma church Saturday.
"It's a big family. Eleven kids, 34 grandchildren, twenty-something great grandchildren. It was a packed house. About 1,500 people," said Perry Farrell, a Pistons beat reporter who attended the service and wrote about it for the Detroit Free Press.
"It was so sad. Ben was so upset, he was hyperventilating. I didn't think he was going to make it [to Atlanta]. The Pistons sent the team plane to go get him. They had to wait two hours on the runway. Ben wasn't ready to go. Finally, he got himself on that plane," Farrell said.
As the first undrafted player ever to play in an All-Star Game, Wallace had already secured an interesting footnote for last night's proceedings. Then this.
Wallace had to say goodbye to his mother all of about 36 hours before Michael Jordan's farewell All-Star Game. That means that not everything about last night's over-saturated NBA production was scripted to be fun, happy or memorable in a joyous sort of way.
Mariah Carey didn't sing Wallace a song, like she did for Jordan, whose career hardly needed All-Star Game goofiness. But despite the pain of losing his mother, Wallace suited up with a song in his own heart. It was a sad one, but a strong one. That's the way Sadie Wallace raised Ben and his 10 siblings.
"I have no bitterness. If my mom's not here, that gives her a chance to shine down on me. My mom lived a great life. I know she wanted me to be here," Wallace said.
"I'm blessed to have had her all that time. She had 11 kids and for her not to lose any one of them to any nonsense tells you something about her."
So much attention, rightfully so, was paid to Western Conference All-Star starting center Yao Ming this weekend.
In this All-Star Game, however, Wallace was so much the "other" center. In fact, even though Wallace received landslide votes at the center position, the Pistons start the 6-foot-9 Wallace at forward.
He's not a true center, and he's certainly no Jordan. Wallace does not score. He's taken 233 shots this season. Jordan's taken 1,734. Wallace averages 6.5 points per game. Jordan averages 18.8 this season, over 30 per game for his career.
But Wallace does for the Pistons what Dennis Rodman used to do for the Pistons - and later for the Bulls, when Jordan put up with Rodman for the boards he collected on the Bulls' way to more NBA titles.
Wallace (who averages 15.1 rebounds and 2.76 blocks per game) knows his favorite Jordan moment: Game 5 of the 1989 Eastern Conference playoffs, when Jordan defied the laws of physics, elevating into the stratosphere to launch the series-winning shot.
"When he jumped up to celebrate, he jumped so high and spread his legs so wide, I thought he kicked Craig Ehlo in the head," Wallace said.
Jordan doesn't really need to worry about into whose hands he's leaving the league. Not with Wallace as one of the new All-Stars. Farrell said Wallace is a terrific young man. He and his wife, Chanda, are expecting their first baby in April. He has "little white kids all over Detroit running around in big Afros, wearing his jersey."
"He's brought the Pistons back to respectability. He's brought them back beyond respectability. They were 30-52 two years ago. Last year, they won 50. This year, they're on pace to win 54," Farrell said.
And this was the player the Pistons got in Grant Hill's sign-and-trade deal with Orlando, the one for which everyone said the Magic came out way ahead. Now look. Hill's crippled ankle has all but ended his career, the Magic is out of playoff contention. Meanwhile, Wallace has elevated himself to superstar status.
"I want to do it for all the blue-collar players who don't get enough credit for the roles they play on their teams," said Wallace, an unheralded Virginia Union player who was told by robo-rebounder and fellow Virginia Union alum Charles Oakley to work hard, he had the stuff to make it.
"I still have a hard time realizing I've come this far," Wallace said.
He has. Wallace is in the middle of a six-year, $30 million deal. He's been making some big money for years, though he could never convince his mother to move to a new house, a "better" neighborhood.
"She said everyone called her 'Momma Sadie' and if she moved, no one would know where to find her," Farrell said.
But Ben and his brothers and sisters finally convinced her to do it - two days before she passed.
"She only agreed after telling the kids to tear down her old house in White Hall and build a new one right there."
For now, even though she's gone, Sadie Wallace's old house in Alabama still stands. Her son, the NBA's defensive star, stands taller.