Rasheed Wallace showed up at the Detroit Pistons’ practice last week, and it wasn’t long before his old teammates swarmed him. Ben Wallace, Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince took turns teasing ‘Sheed about his retirement and reminiscing about their glory days. For the three Pistons – the last holdovers from the franchise’s not-so-distant past as an Eastern Conference finals contender – ‘Sheed’s visit served as a reminder that their own time together could be nearing an end.
“Once you win a championship together, you are going to be linked together for life,” Ben Wallace said. “… I can go two or three years and not talk to them and still feel the same. There could be time lost, and we’d pick up from where we left off.”
Said Hamilton, “We had a special group, and we did special things.”
The Pistons won the 2004 championship and advanced to six straight East finals from 2003-08. During most of that time, they were anchored by a core featuring Chauncey Billups(notes), Hamilton, Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace. The group – brought together by Pistons general manager Joe Dumars – was close on and off the court. The stereo in the team’s locker room was almost always on, playing hip-hop music, exceeded in volume by only the players’ laughter.
“Everybody held each other accountable,” Hamilton said. “Everyone was happy for each other. We never let egos get involved in how we wanted to be successful.”
Now in the throes of a difficult rebuilding process, the Pistons are transitioning from their contending days to a younger team with its eye on the future. The first crack in Detroit’s armor came when Larry Brown left to coach the New York Knicks after the Pistons lost in the 2005 NBA Finals. The Pistons have since shuffled through three coaches with John Kuester now set to begin his second season.
“L.B. was great for us because he didn’t allow no slippage,” Hamilton said. “Everyone came in knowing what we were doing regardless of whether we liked it or not. We were a special group and we needed someone to say, ‘You need to do this,’ regardless of how great we were.”
Said Prince, “Once we didn’t have Larry Brown anymore, things started to fall apart.”
Ben Wallace was the first key player to depart when he left for a $60 million contract with the Chicago Bulls in the summer of 2006. Dumars then traded Billups for Allen Iverson(notes) early in the 2008-09 season to free up salary-cap space and hasten the development of young point guard Rodney Stuckey(notes). Rasheed Wallace left as a free agent in the summer of 2009, but spent just one season with the Boston Celtics before announcing his retirement.
After Billups was traded, “We were trying to figure out who we are and what we were going to be,” Prince said. “From that point on, things pretty much took a turn.”
Said Ben Wallace, “Seeing how things are now, it does make me appreciate how good we had it.”
Hamilton and Prince are the only two starters left from that Pistons era who didn’t depart. Both, however, have been mentioned in numerous trade scenarios in recent seasons. Prince will be a free agent after the season. Hamilton is slated to make nearly $38 million over the next three seasons.
The Pistons’ roster is loaded with swingmen, which could make both Prince and Hamilton expendable. Neither veteran would be surprised if Detroit’s rebuilding efforts eventually continue without them.
“Each and every guy that gets drafted, their goal is to be with that one team their whole career,” Prince said. “But obviously you know it’s a business, and things can happen. If certain guys are available, you can be moved at any time.”
The Pistons also had to convince Ben Wallace to return this summer, signing him to a two-year contract worth $1.9 million per season. He also, however, could follow Rasheed Wallace into retirement after the season.
“I was the first one to retire. They just convinced me to come back,” Ben Wallace said. “I know my time is limited as far as being a player. That’s something I’ve already accepted and come to peace with. You are not going to be young forever, but my motto is, ‘You can’t change what I was.’ ”
The arrival of rookie forward Greg Monroe(notes), who was taken with the seventh overall pick of the draft, combined with other young players like Ben Gordon(notes), Charlie Villanueva(notes), Austin Daye(notes), Jonas Jerebko(notes) and Stuckey, gives the Pistons hope they can make a push for a playoff berth. While the Pistons are clearly focused on the future, they also haven’t forgotten their past. That was evident when the loudest ovation from fans at the team’s open scrimmage last week was directed at someone not even in uniform: Rasheed Wallace.
“That showed how much the fans appreciated that team,” Ben Wallace said. “I’ve never been on a team that close, even the high school guys that I played with.
“But you got to accept the times. Times are changing. Players are aging. You got to accept the hand you are dealt now.”