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Ex-Piston Wallace returns to Detroit - as a Celtic

The Celtics’ Rasheed Wallace is unsure how Detroit fans will react to him tonight. The Celtics’ Rasheed Wallace is unsure how Detroit fans will react to him tonight. (Barry Chin/File/The Boston Globe)
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / January 20, 2010

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DETROIT - At Hometown Favorites, a smallish shop that sells college and professional sports gear in the mall area of Detroit Metro Airport, employee Hazel is watching the Pistons-Knicks game, and she is elated that her hometown team just took a 2-point lead in the third quarter.

She didn’t seem to know the game was on tape delay, or perhaps she didn’t care. She relished watching the Pistons during her work shift, despite a season’s worth of injuries and an uncharacteristically long losing streak.

A once-proud organization is in the midst of rebuilding, having to decide what to do with aging veterans such as Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince while exhibiting patience with its younger core. Tonight at the Palace of Auburn Hills, a member of the Pistons’ glorious recent past will return, sporting a bushy, woolen beard and specks of gray in his thick hair.

Nearly six years ago, Pistons president Joe Dumars acquired Rasheed Wallace from the Atlanta Hawks in a two-week process that began with Wallace being traded from Portland to Atlanta, where he played one game. Once he was shipped to Detroit, he shattered the status quo in the Eastern Conference.

For 5 1/2 seasons, Wallace dived into the culture of working-class Detroit, becoming a fixture in the community and quickly bonding with the fans, who felt represented by his cantankerous attitude and appreciative that his versatile floor game made the Pistons perennial championship contenders.

Wallace had developed a reputation in Portland, labeled by some as a selfish, bratty star with a bad attitude. In Detroit, he refined his image, and when the Pistons turned into a dominant defensive team and a gifted offensive one, Wallace was credited for helping them reach elite status.

His return tonight in a Celtics uniform is bittersweet. His final years in Detroit were stained by the same boorish attitude that plagued him in Portland, but he helped the Pistons win a championship in 2003-04. They made it back to the Finals the next season, and reached the Eastern Conference finals the next three years.

While Wallace may not be basketball royalty in Detroit, he does deserve accolades for his impact on the franchise’s resurrection.

“It was cool,’’ he said. “I didn’t even know I was going to end up in Detroit. But once I did, guys panned out to be cool on the defensive mind-set and we were just riding that wave, riding that high, and took it home.’’

No one on the Pistons quite knew what to expect with Wallace’s arrival. He was known as a hot-headed player with a propensity for technical fouls, and he was joining a team that had several All-Star-caliber players with their own distinct personalities.

“It took a while,’’ said Prince, who was in his second season when Wallace arrived. “I don’t care what player you bring to a team, it’s going to take a while to jell. It took us some games, but right before the playoffs started, we knew what we were going to get out of him and what he was going to bring to our team.

“He was the ultimate teammate, definitely one guy in our league who is very misunderstood. What he brought to us was that inside-outside presence, the ability to spread the floor, and he was so good on the defensive end. Him alongside Ben [Wallace] as our defensive bigs at the time, we built that chemistry.’’

Understated in Portland was Wallace’s defensive prowess, and his blend with Ben Wallace gave the Pistons a nearly insurmountable presence in the paint. That helped catapult them past Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and the Lakers in the 2004 Finals.

In the next year’s Finals against San Antonio, many observers believe the fortunes of the Pistons’ franchise shifted when Wallace left Robert Horry alone for a decisive 3-pointer with 5.9 seconds left in overtime of Game 5. The Pistons had to travel back to San Antonio down, three games to two, and they eventually lost in seven games.

Under new coach Flip Saunders, the Pistons remained an upper-echelon team, losing to Miami, Cleveland, and Boston in the next three Eastern Conference finals.

“Yeah, we could have [won more],’’ Wallace said. “Things didn’t go our way. It wasn’t our time after that, even though we went back next year to defend it. It all goes in one motion.’’

Said Prince, “We should have gotten two or three but, hey, things happen in this league and you always live for the moment when you are playing those games.’’

Wallace had a troubled relationship with Saunders, who was blamed by many for failing to get the Pistons to a title in his tenure. The team was aging, and it couldn’t overcome the fresh legs and shooting prowess of LeBron James, the duo of Dwyane Wade and O’Neal, and the guile of the Celtics’ Big Three.

Besieged by injuries, deflated by the trade of Chauncey Billups and the disastrous acquisition of Allen Iverson, and uninspired by new coach Michael Curry, the Pistons limped their way to a 39-43 record last season and were wiped out in the first round by the Cavaliers.

Meanwhile, Wallace’s production was down and his contract was up. The Pistons were at a crossroads, and he was expendable.

“We would have loved to have him back,’’ said Dumars, “but I understood why he chose Boston.’’

“I think the handwriting was on the wall that there was going to be some changes,’’ said Pistons television analyst Greg Kelser, “and he would be swept in those changes.

“I think with Rasheed, there’s a balance. You take some of that bad because of the overwhelming good he could do, but I think that that balance was starting to shift a little bit. And for Rasheed personally, he probably needed a change. It was probably time for Detroit to move on.’’

Tonight will be an opportunity for the Detroit faithful to recognize Wallace any way they see fit - whether it be with a thunderous ovation during pregame introductions or a chorus of boos because of his decision to sign with Boston.

For Wallace, his Detroit years were the highlight of a bumpy career. He found a place that embraced him and didn’t expect All-Star stats or choir boy behavior. He was lauded for his production and personified the city’s toughness.

“I think I had a good career there, a good time there with the fellas,’’ he said. “It was the first [title] that we had won in Detroit in 13, 14 years, and I see the way [the fans] remembered that 1989-90 team.

“I am not sure how I will be accepted. ‘The D’ has some diehard fans. I might be booed. I’m playing with Boston, and over the last few years, that was one of our rivals, so I am not sure.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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