by Lang Whitaker

Yesterday afternoon during the Hawks/Bulls game, a Bulls player — I don’t remember which one, but he was probably undersized, and it definitely wasn’t Joakim Noah — took a jumper and missed. The ball hit the glass, the rim and came off long, and Marvin Williams and Bulls player fought for the rebound. They both jumped, twice, and the Bulls player managed to swat the ball off the glass twice, keeping it alive at all costs, before finally grabbing the rebound and putting in a lay-up.

I was watching the game in LD on LP (Low Definition, thanks to League Pass), and I initially couldn’t tell which Bulls player it was fighting for the ball. But I assumed — at the risk of making an…well, you know — that it was Ben Wallace. Because it was totally a Ben Wallace play, one of those plays he used to make routinely where guile, craft, hustle and heart would win out over size and position.

I looked closer, and it was actually Joe Smith who got the rebound. Ben Wallace wasn’t even on the floor.

Two summers ago, when the Bulls signed Ben Wallace away from Detroit by offering him a 4-year contract worth $60 million, most NBA watchers acknowledged that the Bulls had overpaid to get him.

But not his per game points, rebounds, blocks and steals per game are all down from previous seasons, and his PPG are the lowest they’ve been since the 1999-00 season.

Most damning of all, people just aren’t afraid of Ben Wallace anymore. We all knew he couldn’t shoot, all knew he was sort of undersized to be a center, but still, when Ben Wallace was with Detroit, you went into the paint at your own risk. Partly because Wallace always had good help defenders, but also because Ben was athletic enough to contest almost any shot.

Now, though, you go into the paint against Ben if you want to score. Big Ben was supposed to help the Bulls shore up their defense, make them as impenetrable as Britney Spears once was. Instead, this season the Bulls are 13th in the NBA in points allowed per game, and the Hawks racked up 42 points in the paint yesterday. Now the Bulls are as penetrable as Britney Spears allegedly is.

To me, though, the most obvious indictment of Big Ben’s deteriorating skills came late in the Bulls/Knicks game last week, when, with the game on the line, the Knicks decided their best chance to get a bucket came by running a play for Eddy Curry to go one-on-one against…Ben Wallace. Three years ago, the world would’ve laughed at a team for deigning to go at Big Ben with the game on the line. This season? Maybe it’s the smart thing to do.

• By the way, congrats to the New York football Giants on winning the Superbowl yesterday. At least, that’s what Sam’s behavior today suggests. Sam did the same thing the last two summers with the Mets, and that didn’t work out so well, so I think Sam’s actually unintentionally jinxing his favorite teams by counting his Eli’s before they hatch.

I am excited, however, to see the Giants take on Freedom and Liberty himself, Brett Favre, this weekend. I already told our resident Giants fans, Sam and Ben, that I’m coming in on Friday with a No. 4 Packers jersey with “America” on the back. Maybe I’ll rock some Wranglers, too.

• Barack Obama is gangsta.

• You guys might recall the bet that SLAM editor-in-chief Ben Osborne and I have this season. I say that Yi Jianlian will average at least 25 minutes a game this season. Ben says he will not. My argument is based on a spurious rumor, specifically that the Bucks had to promise Yi Jianlin at least 25 minutes a night in order to get him to come over from China. Ben’s argument is based on logic, that there’s no way an NBA team would promise fixed minutes to a rookie, regardless of how much promise the kid has.

Thus far this season, Yi is averaging 27:48 a game, right on the cusp. And the marketing side of things is falling into place, too. Yi ready? Indeed.

• I don’t know what it is about the movie, but I watched sizable chunks of “Independence Day” twice this weekend, even though I’ve probably seen it at least 40 times already. Can I vote for Bill Pullman in the upcoming primaries?