Pedal to the Metal
Four-time All-Star Ben Wallace hustled hard enough to make it out of a small town in Alabama and become a dominant force in the NBA.

Michael Bruce was working a busy morning shift for a Florida-based remote control car shop named Super Hobbies when the big man with the puffy hair walked in. It was a hot August day 16 years ago and Ben Wallace was looking for ways to make his cars go faster and look nicer. Maybe some engines, or new tires, or a different shade of paint.

Ever since he was a kid growing up in White Hall, AL, a tiny town with a population of about 1,000, Wallace had been interested in gadgets. He loved taking things apart, putting them back together and then seeing if they still worked. Once, when he was just 6 years old, he broke one of his older brother’s remote control cars. Wallace grew up in a poor household with 10 siblings; he was the second youngest child and the family’s baby boy. There weren’t many toys to go around and Wallace was afraid of what might happen if his brothers found out he ruined one of the few the family owned.

So, he took a look at the damage, diagnosed the problem and fixed the car. Just like that, Wallace was hooked. Basketball would eventually become his meal ticket out of Alabama, but his passion for remote control cars wasn’t something he left behind. NBA paychecks only meant that Wallace could afford to turn this hobby into an obsession.

“He’s like an engineer in a basketball player’s body,” says Darvin Ham, a former teammate and long-time friend of Wallace’s.

A 1999 trade that sent Wallace from the Bullets—who signed him in 1996 after he graduated from DII Virginia Union—to the Magic allowed him to discover a remote control car hobby shop located about 13 miles east of Orlando in Casselberry, FL, and owned by a man named Robbie Michaels. Wallace now lives in Richmond, VA, but he still places orders with Super Hobbies. Every two weeks he calls Michaels with a request and then takes his new toys about 100 miles east to a track in Virginia Beach.

Over the years he’s also become close with one of Michaels’ employees, Michael Bruce, whom he met when he first walked in the store. Bruce has spent time in Wallace’s home and his garage, which is filled with nearly 100 remote control cars, some of which cost up to $1,000 and all of which were built with Wallace’s own hands. He’s seen the small tire tracks that blanket the house’s full-length outdoor basketball court.

“We don’t play a lot of ball out here,” Wallace said to Bruce the first time he visited. “We mostly run the cars.”

NBA players deal with retirement differently. Some go into coaching and try to stay as close to the game as possible. Others find broadcasting jobs. Some prefer to live out their golden years in solitude, far away from the spotlight.

Ask Ben Wallace how he’s spending his, and all he wants to discuss are his toy cars.

“You’re putting something you built against something that someone else built,” Wallace says. “It’s the competition, and seeing something you put together work the way you intended it to.”

Wallace was always drawn to competition. It’s how, despite “needing to put shoes on and wear three pairs of orthotics just to get to 6-7,” according to Chauncey Billups, who played with Wallace in Detroit, and despite as a rookie being told by the Bullets coaching staff to go work out with the team’s guards, Wallace was able to transform himself into one of the game’s top centers and a four-time Defensive Player of the Year. That ability helped lead the Pistons to five straight Eastern Conference Finals and a 2004 Finals win over the three-time defending Champion Los Angeles Lakers.

“Did I think I was better than Shaq? No,” Wallace says when asked how he guarded the much larger Shaquille O’Neal during that series. “But that doesn’t mean I was going to roll over for him. He was going to have to earn his stripes. I just wanted to compete.”

And that he did. Wallace used his mind, octopus arms and ox-like strength to make up for his lack of height. “He was so good at anticipating things,” says Billups. “I made two All-Defensive teams and I attribute them both to Ben Wallace. He’s the best I’ve ever seen at being able to block a shot and take a charge.”

Wallace averaged just 5.7 points per game and shot just 47 percent from the field through his career. But he corralled every rebound in sight, sealed off the path to the rim and was adroit at making himself useful on the offensive end.

“His ability to help a team without the basketball was special,” says Tayshaun Prince, another one of Wallace’s Detroit teammates. “He wasn’t a great scorer, but he was still able to use his IQ to create points.”

That IQ is something that Wallace, now 40 and in his third year of retirement, wanted to impart on young basketball players everywhere. So six years ago he used some of the $88 million he made during his 16-year NBA career to build a gym in Richmond, right off Route 195.

“I always wanted to give back to the community and I couldn’t start a school or anything like that,” he says. “Basketball is what I knew.”

The words BIG BEN’S HOMECOURT are engraved in red letters at half court. Banners celebrating Wallace’s achievements hang on the walls. The facility also has some offices and a weight room. Wallace is there about four times a week. His remote control cars can often be seen zipping through the hallways. Most of the time he can be found honing his ping-pong skills on the sideline or lifting weights.

Wallace’s signature Afro is no more. His thick dark hair is now cut short and specked with patches of gray. But from the neck down Big Ben still looks like the man who was nicknamed “Body” by his teammates in Detroit.

It’s when he’s convinced to lace up his sneakers and step on to the court that Wallace looks different. Games against newcomers typically follow the same series of events. Wallace fields the ball on the perimeter and is given room by whomever is guarding him. He’ll then rise up and bury a jump shot over a stunned defender.

“The guy who plays in the gym is a completely different player than the one who played in the NBA,” says Spurs forward and Virginia native Reggie Williams. “He brings the ball up and shoots jumpers. The first time I came through and saw him I was shocked.” Wallace attempted just 51 three-pointers during his NBA career and made just 7. He was also a 41 percent free-throw shooter. A pure jump shot is not a skill basketball fans associate with him. And yet, when he plays in his Richmond gym, “he’s getting buckets,” says Billups. “He’s got a mean handle, too. It’s hilarious.”

“I’m not going to go into the gym and just rebound and stuff like that,” Wallace says. “The way I played in the League was work for me. Now I get a chance to go out and play basketball.”

But life hasn’t been all smiles recently. In February 2014, at around 2:00 a.m. on a Saturday, Wallace drove his Cadillac Escalade through a fence on Henrico County, VA, and crashed into a tree. He then fled the scene before officers arrived. A month later, following an investigation, Wallace was arrested.

It was the second time in three years that Wallace had been placed in cuffs. In September 2011, he was pulled over for driving recklessly. He was later charged with drunken driving and unlawfully carrying a concealed weapon and was sentenced to a year of probation. The second time Wallace was sentenced to a year in prison, with all but two days suspended. He spent one night in jail.

“I felt like I disappointed the people around me,” Wallace says. “Being there, it really hits you that your freedom, the ability to do things like get up and get water from the kitchen because you’re thirsty, can be taken away from you.”

Wallace won’t go into details about his second arrest or why he decided to leave the scene of the crash. But he’s sanguine about the experience. He does point out that, where he grew up, in a tough neighborhood surrounded by gangs and drugs and boys spending their days on the streets instead of in school, prison often seemed like an inevitable destination.

“Where I came from, if you had told me that by the time I was 40 the worst thing people would be able to say about me is that I spent one night in jail, I’d say I’m still winning,” Wallace says. “I’m proud of what I’ve done. My life could have gone in a lot of different directions. But looking back, I feel like when it was time to make those big decisions, I made the right ones.”

So now Wallace gets to enjoy a life that kids from White Hall aren’t supposed to have. He can play pool and drink Coronas. He can go fishing with Dave Robbins, his Virginia Union coach. He can spend time helping out the basketball team at his alma mater. He can watch cartoons like Teen Titans with his 9-year-old daughter and two older sons. He can keep in touch with the starting lineup from that Championship Pistons team in a group chat. (“Rasheed is the instigator,” he says.)

And, of course, he can race his toy cars. In April, Wallace and five friends piled into his black Ford F-650 and the accompanying trailer that Wallace uses to transport his collection and drove 13 hours south to Orlando to compete in a race. There was no prize to be won and Wallace doesn’t even remember what place he finished in.

What he does remember is how he felt watching his creations speed around the track. He had taken metal scraps and turned them into an efficient machine that could travel 90 miles per hour. This was a life he never thought he would have. It is a damn good one.

Yaron Weitzman is an Editorial Assistant at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman

Images via Getty

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