By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 18, 2006
HOUSTON, Feb. 17 -- Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace and Chauncey Billups were about to walk out of a ballroom at the Hilton Americas Hotel when they suddenly stopped. The Wallaces turned around, standing side by side like two enforcers, and gave a straggler the same intimidating look often reserved for anyone foolish enough to drive into the lane.
"C'mon, Rip," Ben Wallace shouted at Richard Hamilton. "Let's go, man," Rasheed Wallace said.
Hamilton laughed them off and signed a few autographs, soaking in his first all-star appearance. When the Detroit Pistons became the first team in eight years to have four players selected to the all-star game, Hamilton was the one who reacted with the most emotion, slapping his teammates on the back and repeatedly saying, "I can't believe it."
The NBA All-Star Game is nothing new for Ben Wallace, who was making his fourth consecutive appearance, or Rasheed Wallace, a veteran of two previous contests who reluctantly accepted the invitation. "I would rather have that personal time with [my wife] or my kids, being somewhere else," he said.
Billups is a first-timer too, but he tempered his excitement with his laid-back swagger. (He is also the only one in the foursome who is not a former Wizard or Bullet.)
Hamilton? "I knew he was real excited when I saw him taking pictures of his all-star jersey with his camera phone," Rasheed Wallace said. "That's when it finally hit him that he made it. But I'm happy for Rip. I'm happy for Chauncey and the whole organization."
Hamilton and Billups felt slighted last season when Eastern Conference coaches didn't select either player for the All-Star Game. Coach Larry Brown, then the coach of the Pistons, tried to calm down his starting back court, telling them that the championship they won in 2004 was more valuable than an individual accolade.
But this season, with the Pistons (42-9) posting the best record in the NBA at the all-star break, Brown, now with the New York Knicks, and Boston Celtics Coach Doc Rivers led a campaign to get the entire Pistons starting five on the all-star team. A few coaches admitted to following suit, but Tayshaun Prince was the only member left off, leaving a fab four to represent Detroit in Houston. "We always knew a championship ring means way more than being an all-star, although we wanted to be all-stars. This is just secondary," said Billups, who is with his sixth team in nine years. "It's not going to make me feel the same way as I felt when I was on that big stage in the finals when I won a championship. At the same time, it's going to be up there, because it's going to validate what I always felt about myself."
Only seven other teams have been represented by four players -- Boston (1953, '62 and '75); the Los Angeles Lakers ('62, '98) and Philadelphia ('83) -- but this is the first time all four players were chosen by the coaches. In many ways, having the blue-collar Pistons on the East roster takes away from the spectacle of the All-Star Game, which is typically a celebration of individual accomplishments, fancy over fundamentals. ("Some people say all five of them should have gotten in," Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas said recently. "This is all-stars, not all-star teams.'')
But others don't have a problem with it. "That's where success is, in team play," said reigning league MVP Steve Nash. "Each of those four guys are terrific on their own bearings, but obviously, together they're even better. In some ways, they've all sacrificed, so it is terrific that they are recognized in abundance when you think of all the sharing they have to do."
Pistons Coach Flip Saunders said he intends to put his four players on the floor together at the same time ("It's only right," Billups said) on Sunday, with Boston's Paul Pierce -- "the fake Piston," Saunders said -- on the floor with them. "We'll run our plays. That will be the most relaxed time when I'm coaching the All-Star Game," Saunders said with a laugh. "We'll see how they do."
The Pistons are an anomaly. In a league that is filled with constant turnover and player movement via free agency and trades, the Pistons have managed to keep practically the same starting unit ever since Rasheed Wallace arrived in Feb. 2004. This season, they haven't suffered any injuries and are the only team in the league that has had the same starting lineup for every game this season. "Being able to keep a team together, two or three years is great for the game, for the team," Ben Wallace said. "You get to know guys, get to know guys tendencies. That's the biggest thing for us. It's no surprises. We just relaxed out there. We know what to do. Know how to get it done."
Aside from their chemistry on the floor, which has translated to back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals, the Pistons have also established a special bond off the court. "It's crazy because we are like brothers, to be honest with you," Billups said. "Off the court, outside of the game, we hang out. Everybody knows each other's families. It's an unbelievable bond, unlike any I've ever seen before on a team -- and I've been on a lot of teams."