One More Year?

Ben Wallace has another year on his contract and an open invitation to return. The ball is in his court, which means Big Ben has been on the court – of course – figuring out if his magnificently sculpted body can bear up to one final NBA season.

“I just want to get in the gym a couple of more days, get up and down, pound that hardwood and see what happens on the off days,” he said after his second straight day of workouts at the Pistons’ practice facility since NBA teams were given the OK to make them available to players. “That’s usually when you can tell. If I come in here and go hard for two hours, 2½ hours, go home and can’t move the next day, that’s not a good sign. But if I can get up and get around and run behind the kids and do my usual, that tells me my body is getting strong.”

He said he feels better than he did a year ago at this point, a little less certain about his conditioning than he was upon his return to the Pistons two years ago. “Legs were strong, back was strong – if I can get to that point, there won’t be a question whether I play again or not.”

One enticement to returning will be to erase the sting of last season, when the uncertainty of ownership hovered over every aspect of the franchise.

“Last year was tough for everybody – players, coaches, owners, potential owners, front office,” Wallace said. “We tried to avoid talking about it, but it was one of those things that was always in the back of your mind. When the team was going to be sold, who was going to buy the team. A lot of stuff was just up in the air. We didn’t know what the situation was. We just tried to play through it the best way we could.

“You could sometimes see the frustration. I know I could feel it from coaches, front office, players, media – we all lived through it. Now it’s a clean slate.”

Part of that clean slate is Lawrence Frank, who was coach of the New Jersey Nets when Wallace was the anchor of the best defensive team of their era. The 2004 NBA championship Pistons cleared their toughest playoff hurdle in the second round when they beat the Nets in seven games, overcoming a 3-2 deficit to do so. Wallace remembers those teams as disciplined, well coached and mentally tough and is looking forward to playing under Frank – if his body gives him the all-clear.

It wasn’t all just a psychological or emotional toll that last year took on Wallace, though; it was physical, as well, he said. Not because he played too many minutes, but because of how those minutes were allotted.

“I didn’t think I played too many minutes, but I played too many consecutive minutes,” he said. “I was playing 12 straight minutes. I definitely wasn’t ready for that. Maybe with five, six minutes here, five, six minutes there, I could contribute better to the team than playing 12 straight in the first quarter, 12 straight in the third quarter.

“It takes its toll on the two most important parts of your body as a basketball player – your knees and your back. You go out there, you pound your knees for 12 minutes, then you come and sit for 12 minutes, your back gets tight. Then you’ve got to go back out there for another 12 minutes and then come and sit for 12 minutes, and then maybe at the end of the game your team needs a stop and you can’t help your team. It pounds the knees and stiffens up your back.”

The return of Jonas Jerebko – should he re-sign with the Pistons as a restricted free agent – after missing all of last season following an Achilles tendon tear and the improvement Wallace anticipates from second-year center Greg Monroe will give Frank two frontcourt pieces that figure to lessen the demands on Wallace.

A Jerebko return would “mean a lot,” Wallace said. “We were hurt without Jonas. The things he could bring to the table, the versatility he can bring to the team – rebounds, being a pest on defense, he can score the basketball, he can defend. As players, we would be the last ones to say that, but I think we missed what he brings to the game.

“There’s definitely another step for (Monroe). That was just the tip of the iceberg for Greg Monroe. As the season went on and he got comfortable in his role, he was able to show everybody what he was capable of doing and now everybody’s going to want to see a little more of that. A lot of weight is going to be on his shoulders to come out and show everybody he can be that player they think he can be.”

It sure looks like that’s just a few more days in the gym from becoming a reality.