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Ian Thomsen
December 11, 2006
Sweat Equity
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December 11, 2006

The Nba

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Sweat Equity

A silly flap over Ben Wallace's headband may have been just what the struggling Bulls needed to kick-start their season

BULLS CENTER Ben Wallace was stunned when words such as insurrection and mutiny were used to describe his second-half benching after he violated a team rule by wearing a headband during a Nov. 25 win at New York. "They tried to make it sound like I mugged somebody in an alley," he says of the media hyperbole. And yet he seemed oddly flattered that he has become a big enough name to cause a ruckus simply by making a fashion statement. "It should start bothering you when people are not talking about you anymore," he says.

The circumstances that led to Wallace's transgression were innocuous enough: After a loss at Philadelphia the previous night dropped the Bulls to 3--9, coach Scott Skiles implored his players to stop feeling the pressure of increased expectations (created in no small part by the signing of Wallace, the top free agent this past summer, to a four-year, $60 million deal) and to just be themselves. To Wallace, that meant putting on his headband. But after talking, Wallace, Skiles and general manager John Paxson reached an understanding that Wallace will conform with the rule, which will be revisited over the summer.

The absence of the headband isn't what is hurting Wallace these days; rather, it's the absence of Rasheed Wallace, who over the previous three years in Detroit had complemented Ben Wallace at both ends of the court—as a scorer and as a defensive stopper who allowed him to roam the paint. Now the Bulls are trying to give Wallace that same kind of help. "We're one inside scorer away from being really good," says Paxson, raising the possibility of a trade to strengthen Chicago's front line. "But in order to do that, we'd have to move two guys who start for us now."

The Bulls signed Wallace 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 10 maturing talents 25 or younger who have yet to reach the second round of the playoffs. Criticisms of Wallace's play are premature: While his rebounding (9.1 per game) and shot blocking (1.56) are at seven-year lows, that's mostly because of his unfamiliarity with his new surroundings. As the ultimate team defender, he'll need more time to find the balance between guarding his own man and helping younger teammates. Skiles acknowledges that Ben Gordon, Andres Nocioni and even Luol Deng have struggled under the pressure of playing for new contracts. "We're trying to set a standard where if we win, we'll take care of guys; if we don't, we won't," says Skiles. "We want that to be the important thing, not your individual stats."

Indeed, the Bulls (7--9 at week's end) seemed to rally after the headband dustup, winning their fourth straight game, 112--94, last Saturday over the Wizards. Gordon (28 points) 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 expect that Headbandgate will have been long forgotten.