Detroit Pistons

NBA Accessories Week: The armbands of Ben Wallace were a force

Ben Wallace became one of the seminal players of the 2000s due to strapping the burly confluence of his upper arms with sweatbands.

Many iconic accessories appeared throughout the annals of basketball history. George Mikan’s spectacles, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s goggles, any and every time a player had to wear a mask, and John Stockton’s hotpants, to name a few.

Ben Wallace became one of the seminal players of the 2000s due to both his unorthodox impact on the game and his distinct appearance. In addition to the afro/headband combo he rocked through his prominence, Wallace strapped the burly confluence of his upper arms with sweatbands.

I can’t remember another player before or since who’s worn them, making them strictly unique to Wallace. I also can’t remember a player built like a 6-foot-9 action figure, so that’s strictly unique to Wallace too.

Unheralded, he came into the NBA as an undrafted free agent out of Virginia Union — Charles Oakley’s alma mater, uncoincidentally — for the then-Washington Bullets. After a handful of mostly uneventful seasons bouncing from the nation’s capital to Orlando, Wallace’s career took off as a defensive world wrecker in Detroit.

He anchored the league’s best defenses through the mid-aughts after joining the Pistons. Staring up at height disadvantages on a nightly basis, he’d use sheer brute force to make up the difference. Despite never averaging 10 points per game in a season, Wallace made four All-Star teams, All-NBA Second Team three times and All-NBA Third Team twice.

He won the Defensive Player of the Year Award four times, a record he shares with Dikembe Mutombo. Wallace currently sits 33rd all-time in rebounds, sandwiched between Hall-of-Famers David Robinson and Dave Cowens.

He led the league in rebounding twice (2001-02 and 2002-03) and in blocks once (2001-02). Only six times in NBA history has a player led the league in both categories in the same season. Wallace shares that elite accomplishment with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1975-76), Bill Walton (1976-77), Hakeem Olajuwon (1989-90) and Dwight Howard twice (2008-10).

Big Ben Wallace even became the face of the short-lived ESPN basketball video game. While the scope may have been limited, the marketing — featuring this gem with Tracy Morgan — is a gift that keeps on giving.

For all of Wallace’s accolades, the largest touchstone of his career was making defense cool in the age of the methodical and soft-spoken Tim Duncan Spurs and the glamourous-yet-volatile Shaq/Kobe Lakers. His iconographic individuality pushed it forward with the trademark armbands as the catalyst.

Suddenly, those lacking the flashy skills of crossovers and one-on-one scoring had an idol. Being a menacing presence and doing the visceral work of cleaning the glass and protecting the fort became en vogue. It birthed a generation of kids trudging on courts with sweatbands hanging on for dear life to their barely post-pubescent, overflexed muscles.

The origin story of Wallace’s armbands remains murky, lost to both time and lore.

Legend has it they were just run-of-the-mill wristbands stretched thin and swallowed by the muscular journey up his sinewy, well-sculpted tree trunks of arms. Some theorize they might have actually been headbands, since his bicep circumference measures the same as an above-average cranium. Still, others say he summoned them like Thor did his hammer, reaching his arms straight out until the cloth rings flew through the air and landed at their rightful resting place.

Next: NBA Accessories Week: Allen Iverson’s shooting sleeve

Did Wallace derive his power from the armbands? Hard to say. But he didn’t become a star until he put them on. It’s the most chicken-or-the-egg scenario ever applicable to a real-life question. Regardless, once adorned, the bands would form a bond so strong, they’d become one with Wallace. The only path of removal was a surgical procedure in the post-game, which resulted in sometimes cutting into his arms, which resulted in his muscles regenerating larger than before. It was a symbiotic process, grotesque and beautiful all at once.

Wherever the truth lies, Wallace and his armbands were a force to be reckoned with. Even today, if you ever see someone strutting on a basketball court with sweatbands rolled to their shoulders, you have the legend of Big Ben Wallace to thank.

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