The big man in Motown sat down, champagne soaking through his world championship T-shirt. He wore a backward baseball cap to conceal his towering 'Fro and his soft, almost bashful, voice did not exactly mesh with the player who took Game 5 the way the Detroit Pistons took this title: by sheer force.
Yes, big Ben Wallace said, he remembered the time Charles Oakley bloodied his lip at a basketball camp put on by the brutish New York Knicks forward one humid summer in his native Alabama, when big Ben was little Ben.
"Playing against Oak made me understand what it takes to play in this league, to win in this league," said Wallace. He had just put on a virtuoso performance, clutching and corraling 22 rebounds. He had 18 points in 22 minutes, and if Chauncey Billups was the most valuable player of the 2004 NBA Finals, then Ben Wallace was right behind.
All across Seattle and Utah and in every nook and cranny of Southern California, you keep hearing the same lament: too bad about Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Too bad they didn't get their championship rings. But what about Wallace, late of Orlando, the Wizards, a player with limited offensive skill who just wanted a chance to showcase his rebounding prowess before he became some jaded journeymen, looking for another contract instead of a title.
Doesn't he deserve a championship ring?
Elden Campbell waited 14 years. Larry Brown waited 21, longer than any other NBA coach has gone before winning his first title. No one ever thought of Billups as a champion the way he moved around the NBA like a vagabond, shipped from team to team.
Rings are fickle things in sports, especially the NBA. Darko Milicic, the teenage rookie with two minutes of playing time, got one tonight -- which gives him one more than Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Malone and Payton. There is nothing wrong with that statistic, because winning the league's ultimate prize is more about timing than talent, and Wallace just happened to have a reservoir of both the last five games.
He played on a team that Billups said succinctly "just didn't play like individuals. We all played for each other and with each other."
It was not a potshot at the Lakers of Kobe and Shaq and all those big names on a team of Hollywood's hoop drama kings. It was just a statement of fact.
After Billups was announced as the MVP, a writer who did not have a vote said, "I might've voted for Ben."
Another added, "Rip Hamilton was not far behind."
That's the kind of team the Pistons were, a team embodied by the single-minded purpose of Ben Wallace, every time he moved toward the rim and took flight, throwing back an offensive rebound through the rim and to the floor. He had 10 offensive rebounds Tuesday night, two more rebounds than Shaquille O'Neal grabbed the whole evening.
Wallace was a throwback to another era, a virtual stand-in for a retro 1970s sneaker commercial featuring George Clinton: Glory be, the journeyman dunked on Shaq and Kobe.
Before the Palace of Auburn Hills was agog with noise and belief Tuesday night, Wallace and the Pistons were already on their way to becoming something more, something permanent and lasting.
This nondescript team of role players from a Midwestern market -- supposed ratings killers, every bland one of them -- became the perfect antidote for the conspiratorial NBA mind. The Pistons have made everyone who ever hinted that David Stern's league was fixed, the chorus that believed the NBA was a place where large media markets and iconic superstars are always catered to, stand down.
It also makes for a more balanced league.
In Wallace, the East is not only back, it has a beast to contend with all those incredibly skilled marquee players in the Western Conference. A Pistons title ensures that Stern's league is not top-heavy, that the 82-game drivel prior to the postseason is not worthless. Scores in the sixties and seventies are not viewed as eyesore basketball anymore, but instead grueling, physical, defensive confrontations that eventually yield champions.
In their victory, they became the champion with the least star power since Dennis Johnson, Gus Williams, Jack Sikma and Paul Silas pushed the Seattle SuperSonics past the Washington Bullets in 1979. Since then, a Bird, Magic, Erving, Isiah, Jordan, Olajuwon, Duncan or Kobe and Shaq were prerequisites for championships.
Detroit's title has to go down as the greatest finals upset since Rick Barry's 48-win Golden State Warriors swept the Bullets of Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld in the 1975 finals.
Yes, Malone and Payton will have to wait another year for that elusive championship, maybe the rest of their lives.
Dick Bavetta, the veteran referee, once felt so bad about calls he made -- and didn't make -- in Game 6 of the 1998 finals that he apologized to Malone and current Laker Bryon Russell.
Remember Michael Jordan's pulsating shot to win his sixth title? How about the debated non-call when he used his right arm to move Russell aside to give himself room?
"He came up to us the first preseason game we saw him the next fall," Russell recalled recently. "Bavetta pulled me and Karl aside and said, 'I'm sorry about what happened.' We were like, 'You don't have to apologize.' I was kind of ticked off.
"But at the same time, you can respect it because he was man enough to come up and say it after he made the mistake. But I wish he would've corrected that mistake during the game."
Imagine: You are Malone or Jerry Sloan or John Stockton, chasing a title your entire career, and a referee admits he made mistakes in the most crucial game of your career. Heading into a possible Game 7 in Utah, Jordan had no legs, Scottie Pippen's back was out and the Bulls were effectively done.
"He mentioned that he messed up, that he felt sorry about it the whole summer," Russell said.
So Malone, who could not play because of a knee injury, and Payton have to wait again. But Ben Wallace and his deserving teammates of castaways and second-chancers do not. There is nothing wrong about that, no matter how bad Malone and Payton feel.