A silly flap overBen Wallace's headband may have been just what the struggling Bulls needed tokick-start their season
BULLS CENTER BenWallace was stunned when words such as insurrection and mutiny were used todescribe his second-half benching after he violated a team rule by wearing aheadband during a Nov. 25 win at New York. "They tried to make it soundlike I mugged somebody in an alley," he says of the media hyperbole. Andyet he seemed oddly flattered that he has become a big enough name to cause aruckus simply by making a fashion statement. "It should start bothering youwhen people are not talking about you anymore," he says.
The circumstancesthat led to Wallace's transgression were innocuous enough: After a loss atPhiladelphia the previous night dropped the Bulls to 3--9, coach Scott Skilesimplored his players to stop feeling the pressure of increased expectations(created in no small part by the signing of Wallace, the top free agent thispast summer, to a four-year, $60 million deal) and to just be themselves. ToWallace, that meant putting on his headband. But after talking, Wallace, Skilesand general manager John Paxson reached an understanding that Wallace willconform with the rule, which will be revisited over the summer.
The absence ofthe headband isn't what is hurting Wallace these days; rather, it's the absenceof Rasheed Wallace, who over the previous three years in Detroit hadcomplemented Ben Wallace at both ends of the court—as a scorer and as adefensive stopper who allowed him to roam the paint. Now the Bulls are tryingto give Wallace that same kind of help. "We're one inside scorer away frombeing really good," says Paxson, raising the possibility of a trade tostrengthen Chicago's front line. "But in order to do that, we'd have tomove two guys who start for us now."
The Bulls signedWallace for two reasons: They had now-or-never cap space, and, to quote Paxson,they needed "a man" with championship experience to help guide their 10maturing talents 25 or younger who have yet to reach the second round of theplayoffs. Criticisms of Wallace's play are premature: While his rebounding (9.1per game) and shot blocking (1.56) are at seven-year lows, that's mostlybecause of his unfamiliarity with his new surroundings. As the ultimate teamdefender, he'll need more time to find the balance between guarding his own manand helping younger teammates. Skiles acknowledges that Ben Gordon, AndresNocioni and even Luol Deng have struggled under the pressure of playing for newcontracts. "We're trying to set a standard where if we win, we'll take careof guys; if we don't, we won't," says Skiles. "We want that to be theimportant thing, not your individual stats."
Indeed, the Bulls(7--9 at week's end) seemed to rally after the headband dustup, winning theirfourth straight game, 112--94, last Saturday over the Wizards. Gordon (28points) and Nocioni (24) had big nights, and Chicago held Washington to 42.5%shooting, developments that bode well for the spring. By then the Bulls expectthat Headbandgate will have been long forgotten.
On Clippers power forward Elton Brand (right), who atweek's end was averaging a career-low 18.0 points:
"The Clippers have become selfish to the pointthat their big men can't get enough touches. A 37-year-old [Sam Cassell]coleads the team in scoring and jacks up 17-foot jumpers, and as the game wearson, the big men don't run the floor hard because they know they're not going toget the ball. Defenses are zeroing in on Brand to make sure that he doesn't getthe early scores that can get him going, but he also has to be frustrated thathe isn't getting fed in the post. As classy as he is, everybody has his limit,and if things don't change soon, he's bound to go off and let everyone know heisn't happy."
TIM HEITMAN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
Wallace (3) is still finding his way, but Skiles (inset) has the Bulls on agood run.
LISA BLUMENFELD/GETTY IMAGES (SKILES)
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (BRAND)