Auburn Hills — When Ben Wallace first received word the Pistons planned to retire his jersey number, he was skeptical.
He thought it was a joke.
“It was a bit before Christmas when I got the call and I really didn’t believe it at the time,” said Wallace, who played nine seasons with the Pistons (2000-06, 2009-12). “It was like, ‘Who’s playing games now? We’re getting too old to be playing these games.'
“Then they called back and convinced me that they were serious about it, and for me that was a great Christmas present.”
Tonight, Wallace will become the eighth Pistons player to have his number retired as his No. 3 jersey joins Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman, Isiah Thomas, Vinnie Johnson, Bob Lanier, Dave Bing and Bill Laimbeer. He’ll also be the first member of the 2004 championship team to receive the honor. Chauncey Billups’ No. 1 is set to be retired Feb. 10.
“It means a lot,” said Wallace, who went undrafted in 1996. “Not just to be the first one out of that group, but just to have your jersey retired, period. ... It’s symbolized the hard work I’ve put in, the dedication I had for the game, the love I had for the game and the love I had for the work to get here.”
The Pistons will don special socks picturing Wallace to mark the occasion, and former teammates Billups, Rasheed Wallace and Richard Hamilton are expected to attend.
“I know what it feels like to have The Palace packed and I know what it feels like to be honored on the floor at The Palace, but I still don’t know what to expect once that jersey starts going up,” Wallace said. “For me right now, it’s fun and exciting. I expect the emotions to kick in around game time.”
Wallace, an undersized 6-foot-9 center, was a five-time all-defensive first team selection, four-time All-Star and four-time defensive player of the year — tied for most with Dikembe Mutombo. In 655 games with the Pistons, he averaged 11.1 rebounds, 6.6 points, 2.3 blocks and 1.4 steals.
He also holds the franchise record for blocks in the regular season (1,486) and playoffs (215), and ranks No. 2 in steals (931) and No. 3 in rebounds (7,264).
More importantly, Wallace was an integral part of a Pistons team that made six consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference finals (2003-08), won two Eastern Conference championships and helped deliver the franchise’s third title in 2004.
“The thing you remember about Ben is that he played with great energy and intensity on a very consistent basis,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. “Great rebounder, good shot-blocker, defensive player of the year guy, who was the anchor of that team’s defense and they won because of their defense.
“In a lot of ways, if he’s the anchor of your defense and you’re winning because of your defense, you almost have to think he’s the MVP of that group.”
Of all the moments and highlights throughout his career, Wallace said the one that stands out was his first home game with the Pistons after he was acquired from the Magic in a sign-and-trade deal for Grant Hill.
“(I remember) coming out and seeing the empty seats, people sitting and eating, and I think there’s a good game going out on the floor,” Wallace said of that Nov. 3, 2000, game against the Kings. “First thing I realized is we were playing in burgundy and teal (jerseys). No wonder everybody is bored and nobody is excited to be here.
“Once we got back to that red, white and blue, the fan base came back, we started winning and the team took off.”
Wallace, 41, admits he misses being able to compete in front of thousands of fans on a nightly basis.
“You miss a lot of things about this game,” he said. “There’s no one thing that goes quiet about this game. Everything at some point in time you’re going to think about it. I don’t miss no one thing, I miss the entire game. But I know my time has come and passed.”
Come tonight, though, his imprint and impact on the Pistons franchise will live on in the rafters.
“I don’t really have any one or two things I want people to remember,” Wallace said. “Just the fact that now I know they’re going to have to remember me when that jersey goes up. All the fans that come to the arena will look up and, whether it’s their first time or their fifth time, they want to know how those numbers get up there and who are those people.
“I just feel honored and blessed to be one of those people that 20 to 30 years from now people are going to come into the arena and see that jersey and be like, ‘Who’s that guy? What’s his story?’ ”
Warriors at Pistons
Tip-off: 7:30 tonight, The Palace, Auburn Hills
Outlook: The Pistons are reeling after a last-second loss to the Grizzlies. ... In the first meeting against the Warriors, the Pistons were within four points entering the fourth quarter before losing by 14.