CLEVELAND — NBA Hall of Famer and former Cleveland Cavaliers forward Ben Wallace has been honored with accolades stemming from his illustrious career. He added another—a very special honor—Wednesday evening when his jersey was retired by Cuyahoga Community College, where he got his start.
Wallace wasn't a basketball player initially. He played football through most of high school until an injury his senior year forced him to switch sports. A pinched nerve led him to basketball, which he played for the last year of high school.
It didn't seem likely anything would come of it, but Wallace decided to keep playing through college. The Alabama native decided to branch out from home and play basketball a long way from home—Cleveland, Ohio.
"From high school basketball came here to Tri-C," Wallace said. "I feel like here is where I actually learned how to play basketball. I always played basketball, it was one thing to put on some shoes, go to the gym and bounce the ball around. But it's something different to become a student of the game. I feel like at Tri-C I became a student of the game and that's when my career took off."
Wallace was a force at Cuyahoga Community College, averaging 26 points, 17 rebounds and 6.9 blocks per game. His basketball prowess began to emerge in Cleveland and that's where he began to realize he could be a force at a higher level.
"There were moments during the course of the game where I sort of leaned over to my teammates and said, 'I think I can play this game at the highest level,'" Wallace recalled.
Wallace played at Tri-C from 1992 to 1994 before going on to play at Virginia Union. Still rather unknown in the basketball world, Wallace was undrafted and while he got a spot on the Celtics' Summer League roster, didn't make the cut. He went on to play overseas for a brief time and then Washington called, giving him a spot on their roster.
In a bench role, Wallace stayed patient and was eventually awarded with a starting role with the Orlando Magic in 1999.
From there, Wallace made a name for himself as a physical basketball player, focusing more and more on being dominant defensively;y, which was evident when he became a Detroit Piston.
His NBA journey led him to different teams around the league, but one move brought him back to Cleveland for a brief time.
Wallace was traded to the Cavs in 2008 where he joined a young LeBron James, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejão. It was a full circle moment for Wallace, who had spent two years right down the street from his new arena.
"When I came back to play for the Cavs, it was such a surreal moment. Right? Because if you think about it, just a couple of blocks or a couple of miles down the street is where it all started. And over half of them people that packed that arena was this close to me all the time and never knew," Wallace recalled. "So that was a surreal moment every time I stepped on the floor. People coming in, wearing wigs and afros, and I'm like, 'Man, do they even know that I started a couple of miles down the street, a kid that nobody knew anything about?' And now here we are."
Here meaning right back at Tri-C. After Wallace's remarkable career ended, he had walked away from the NBA a champion, a four-time All-Star and four-time Defensive Player of the Year. In 2021, Wallace was selected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
All of those accolades leading him back to his first team on Wednesday, where Tri-C honored Wallace by retiring his jersey—No. 4—recognizing where he got his start.
It seems a no-brainer move, but it's an especially fitting one as it marks the first time the school has retired a player's jersey. That, for Wallace, means the most.
"For every other jersey retirement or ceremony that I've been into, I was prepared, because I had watched somebody go before me. I had seen an NBA player get their jersey retired. I have seen an NBA player win a championship. I've seen guys go into the Hall of Fame and do all that stuff. I never seen anybody jersey raised in here," Wallace said. "So it's an eerie feeling, right? Because there's always something said about being the best. So now this is going to signify I was the best first. So it might be somebody better, but there will be another first."
Wallace is the first and the best, no doubt. And he believes the jersey retirement is something that symbolizes another bow tied on his Hall of Fame and unforgettable career.
"I think it signifies the full circle of physical basketball for me because this is where my career started. This is where the journey took off. And I think it's just fitting for me to come back here and put a close to my physical basketball career," Wallace said.
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