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Going one-on-one with Ben Wallace is no easy task, even when you know he’s not looking to plant you with one of those monstrous guns of his – like he has to NBA opponents for the past dozen years. The man is intimidating.
Wallace, part of the blockbuster 11-player trade the Cavaliers pulled off last February, brought four Defensive Player of the Year trophies and a Championship ring with him to Cleveland. He started 22 games for the Wine and Gold to close out the season, and was a presence in the playoffs – especially against Boston’s Kevin Garnett.
This year, Wallace comes to Camp with a clean slate – healthy, hungry and ready to get his hands back on the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Big Ben took a minute away from the hardwood to chat with cavs.com about Cleveland’s quest for the Championship, his relationship with Charles Oakley, and the fact that – among eight brothers – he’s the smallest Wallace.
As the only guy on the roster with a Ring. Can you sense whether this team has that feel to it?
Ben Wallace: I like our roster right now. I like the pieces that we’ve added. Along with the veterans that are coming back, I think we have the opportunity to win a Championship. But as far as that X-factor, you really don’t know that until you get in the flow of the season and see how things turn out.
Does a Championship team have a noticeable swagger or confidence?
Wallace: It’s not necessarily a confidence thing, but a rhythm. You can tell by the rhythm that the team gets into.
It would be tough to go around this league and find any team or any player that doesn’t have confidence. So, it’s about that rhythm – when a team gets into a certain rhythm you can tell the way they roll whether they’re going to compete for a Championship or not.
What did you work on in the off-season?
Wallace: I worked on a little bit of everything during the off-season. But this off-season, I worked on getting stronger in certain areas. Just trying to be in the best possible shape, coming back.
Last year, I had some problems with my back and I’m trying not to revisit those injuries. Hopefully, I can have a full season without having those problems.
Charles Oakley was instrumental in your basketball career, especially before you were in the NBA. How did that relationship get started?
Wallace: Oakley had a basketball camp down in Alabama. I was 16, going on 17. In my junior year.
We were in the camp, and he came in and the counselors were talking to us, after lunch. We were just being kids, playing around a little bit. And Oakley came in and sat us down and started talking, pretty much telling us, ‘If y’all think y’all know everything, you don’t need to be in this camp.’ And something like ‘If you think you’re bigger than this camp, come up here and play me.’
Somebody volunteered me to go out and play. So Oak and me went out and played. I didn’t back down. He played me tough, I played him tough. After that, he liked my potential. He said if you keep playing like that, the sky’s limit.
You were all-state in basketball and football. Could you have played football at the next level?
Wallace: Without a doubt, no question. My high school football coach, to this day, says football would have been my sport.
I played D-end and tight end. When I left high school, I wanted to go to Auburn, and they said they were going to let me go both ways. And my “both ways” was “football and basketball.” And their “both ways” was “offense and defense.” So it didn’t work out for me.
I really wanted to play basketball at the time. I thought I could have a career in basketball. So I wanted to play both.
Do you owe a big part of your toughness to the fact that you’re the youngest of eight boys?
Wallace: Yeah, I try to tell everybody – I don’t think a lot of people believe me – that I’m the youngest and the smallest of eight boys. People don’t believe me until they see us all together. I’m one of the tallest, but size-wise, I’m one of the smallest.
That sounds painful.
Wallace: I took my lumps. But I always had backup; I always had mom. Mom was 6-4, 235 herself.
You’ve had a little time to battle the rookies here at practice. What are your thoughts?
Wallace: I like the young guys, they play hard. They’re in early, they leave late. That’s what you want to see in a young guy.
You joined the Cavaliers with just 26 games to go last year. How big is it to have a full Training Camp under your belt?
Wallace: I think that’s my biggest thing, as far as getting guys together and having them bond as teammates. You have to go through Training Camp. You have to face those battles in Training Camp. Because you get to know a guy when he’s at his best, and when he’s tired and at his worst. That means a lot.
When I came to the team, everyone had their rhythm going and you’re coming in trying to fit in. But in Camp, there’ll be a time where there won’t be any rhythm at all, and you’re just going to be out there playing on smarts and heart.
That’s where you get to know a guy.