Two-time NBA rebounding champion and four-time Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace knew a thing or two about playing physical. From his mean game face to his aggressiveness to his chiseled 6'9", 240-pound frame, "Big Ben" helped set the tone for the Eastern Conference's grind-it-out style of play in the early 2000s.
That last attribute of Wallace's—his muscle—was always his most important training focus, and he preached that to his pupil, Chris Copeland, this past summer when they worked out together in Virginia. With Copeland going from the New York Knicks last season—his first team in the NBA—to the Indiana Pacers, Wallace felt that the 29-year-old needed to bulk up to better cope with the beasts of the East.
"The East is always competitive," Wallace told Bleacher Report. "It's not like on the West Coast with that run-and-gun, fast-paced style of basketball. On the East Coast, we beat each other up and we slow it down. We make guys work for everything they get. So the East is always going to be competitive."
With the two having a longtime Virginia connection—when Wallace played college ball at Virginia Union in the mid-1990s, he knew Copeland as a Division I recruit at Hermitage High School in Henrico, Va.—they connected every summer in local pickup games. But it wasn't really until this July, after Copeland experienced a full season in the NBA, that Wallace had a prime objective for the 6'8" forward: Copeland needed to get stronger, especially to boost his lateral quickness for defensive maneuvering.
For about three weeks—three times per week, two hours each session—they were together at Wallace's own basketball and training facility, which he opened last summer in Richmond, Va. And everything started in the weight room.
"Weights are always first. That's a must," Wallace said. "If you want to work out with me, you're going to have to hit the weights first. I always told him he just needed to get a little bit stronger. We got in the weight room pushing weights around, trying to build his body up so he can withstand the pounding that he's going to take in the league for 82 games."
After lifting, they hit the court to work on defensive techniques, which Copeland improved on last season by getting a better sense of rotations under the direction of coach Mike Woodson and veteran big men Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas and Rasheed Wallace. Woodson was actually the assistant coach and Wallace the star forward when the two teamed up in Detroit in 2003-04, the season they helped upset the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.
While Wallace said Copeland has the "size and quickness to defend," he still needs to fine-tune his "focus and court awareness" on that end of the court.
"That's probably one of the biggest things that he needs to work on—just being aware of what's going on around him at all times on the court," Wallace said. "Even in New York, I thought he did a great job of rebounding the basketball. I think that's the key to finishing off a great defensive play—being able to come up with the ball at the end of a play."
In addition to training with Wallace, Copeland played in the retired big man's local pro-am tournament before having arthroscopic surgery in early August to remove a loose body in his left knee. Also in attendance were Virginia-connected NBA players Ed Davis (Memphis Grizzlies) and Reggie Williams (Houston Rockets), as well as Chauncey Billups, who was Wallace's teammate in Detroit and is playing there again this season.
Like Wallace, Copeland also has a longstanding connection to Billups, who said it's "basically like a big-brother, little-brother type of relationship." They met through their alma mater, Colorado, and were both coached by Ricardo Patton. To this day, Billups and Copeland run pickup games together every summer in Denver.
"Every time I play with (Billups and Wallace), I feel like I learn something new," Copeland said.
There's also another common thread between the three of them. Billups and Wallace didn't have NBA success right away, either—in fact, Wallace went undrafted like Copeland—and they were both in Cope's ears providing motivation through the years.
"(Copeland and I) both experienced a lot of disappointment, a lot of ups and a lot of downs, and we had to be resilient through that process," Billups said. "I'm just so happy for Cope, man. Not often do you hear stories like his, where a guy has to really go in and work his behind off to get an opportunity to be in the NBA, and it happens."
Wallace added: "I just tried to tell him to stay focused and just keep working hard. I just tried to tell him my story. I made it, so anything is possible if you put your mind to it and stay focused. You'll get there. It's good to see it pay off for him."
Copeland's standout work ethic showed this summer, as he worked tirelessly with Wallace to add strength to his frame and learn more about defensive tactics. Copeland traveled to Los Angeles to train with former Knicks teammate and 2012 Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler for a few days. By summer's end, Copeland had gained about 15 pounds of muscle.
"I really got to see why (Chandler) is who he is. That's the best way to put it," Copeland said. "That guy is special and he works extremely, extremely hard. To become a star, you've got to work like that. I have nothing but the most respect for him. I remember leaving there and my legs were so on fire, I was like, 'No wonder he jumps like that.' The stuff that he does in the weight room is pretty intense."
Copeland said his left knee is now "fully functional," while still adjusting to scrimmaging, and he will be ready for the start of the regular season after recovering from the surgery. He said he started feeling discomfort in the knee during last season's playoffs with the Knicks, but first tried rest as a remedy in the early part of the summer. Eventually, after consulting with doctors, he felt going under the knife would better protect him in the future.
"Honestly, my guys were telling me during the playoffs, 'Is there something wrong with your knee?'" he said. "It seemed like I was playing with my socks, and I've got the high socks. But I could feel it. It's not an injury, like I tore something. It was just a discomfort, and clearly I could play with it. I played in the playoffs with it. It felt like something was moving around in there. It wasn't real pain, but it was like a discomfort.
"It felt like certain movements would lock on me, so I was like, 'I'd rather not play a whole season with this.' It wasn't something that had to be done, but it was something I felt like to go forward, I think it would help. They had to remove it. Whatever it was, it probably wasn't going to go away."
Looking ahead, Copeland said "it would be nice" to see more consistent minutes this season—in New York, he fluctuated at times from starting to playing little to not playing at all—but he's not sure what's in store for him in Indiana. While coach Frank Vogel has talked to him about his potential role, Copeland also realizes there's a lot at stake with the team's increased roster depth. He said he's "happy for whatever" comes his way.
"The goal is a championship, man. My job is to help this team win," he said. "I'm a competitor first, and hopefully I can add a lot to the puzzle."
For now, Copeland knows his first order of business is learning Vogel's defensive strategy and rotations, which, he said, "are different than New York as a whole." (He preferred not to get into detail about the system.) Offensively, he envisions "handling the ball a lot more" as a point forward.
"I have some new tricks up my sleeve," he said. "I think you'll see me a lot more aggressive off the dribble than you've seen in the past probably. A lot of people feel like I'm just a shooter, but I'm going to take advantage of driving opportunities to create for my teammates and myself if necessary. I'm confident in my ability to be ready for (Vogel) when he does need me. I hope whatever people saw from me last year, I hope they see something new, that I'm better and improved this year."
Billups called Copeland "a special talent" for his scoring ability. Last season, he averaged 8.7 points on 42.1-percent three-point shooting in just 15 minutes per game. That kind of stat line once again will be a major plus for the Pacers' bench in a much more competitive Eastern Conference, where one win or loss could determine home-court advantage.
"I think it's an exciting time, man. That's what it's all about," Copeland said. "I grew up on the East Coast where it was the Bulls, the Knicks, etc. Miami was tough, Orlando. I believe this is one of the better Eastern Conferences that we've seen. I'm looking forward to it. I love competition, so I'm looking forward to this year."
Copeland is also excited about a possible one-on-one matchup on the Pacers' practice court—going up against legend Larry Bird from beyond the arc.
"I've thrown it out there a couple times that we need a shooting competition or something," Copeland said of Bird, the Pacers' team president. "I've done it jokingly. I'm ready for it."
Copeland is ready to showcase a lot of new things once he gets back on the court—his physique, defensive ability, ball-handling and new sneaker deal with Adidas. But it's that quick-release shooting touch that will make him one of the scariest X-factors this season.