There may have been no one happier to be in Cleveland for All-Star weekend than Channing Frye. The current television analyst and retired NBA big man was back in the city where he won a title to, among other things, open a newly-renovated basketball court during the All-Star festivities.
In partnership with Mobil 1 and nonprofit organization Project Backboard, Frye spoke to Dime on the Friday of All-Star weekend at the court’s official opening at Merrick Center. Ahead of the event, Frye discussed giving back to Cleveland with the court, why the city won him over, and why he’s excited by big men dominating the NBA so far this season.
Tell me about what you’re doing with Mobil 1.
It starts with my relationship with Cleveland, and then, I’m always looking for ways to not only do something for this city that I love — especially during a time like All-Star — but to work with companies like Mobil 1. And with Project Backboard, a basketball court can be endless based on whose imagination is using it. This hit home with me with based on how much I was on a basketball court growing up.
You can walk the court. I’ve walked the court talking about things that were important to me with a mentor. I’ve just shot around to relieve stress. It makes everyone equal because it’s based on a game. So to give this to the kids, to refurbish it, especially when it’s so close to downtown, is a huge gift. And it just made sense as a relationship.
You’ve talked a lot about Cleveland, so apologies if this hits some notes you’ve hit before. But what ultimately won you over with the city? Winning probably helps, but what made it somewhere you still have a relationship with?
I think first of all, I’m not a superstar. I’m not an All-Star. I was specialist. I was a role player. And they appreciated that. The people of Cleveland, and everyone in Ohio and Cavs fans, they know sports. And they appreciated each one of us individually obviously through winning championships, through both of my parents dying while I was in Cleveland. And that love and empathy seeped through to me on the court and to my family being there. For me to be able to come back and be welcomed when I said I was going to retire in Cleveland when I had a short career there was wild. I felt like I didn’t deserve it, but I felt like the love was reciprocated both ways. I wouldn’t be who I am as a person without the city of Cleveland. I say that a lot and it’s the truth.
And for me, everything about the city of Cleveland is me. It’s not fancy. It’s just about having a good time and enjoying people’s time and going to work when you need to go to work.
People still talk a lot about the parade being nuts — and I’m sure you always will remember that — but I also remember how nuts it was when Richard [Jefferson] was leaving before [LeBron’s] last season and you guys did the live show at a Homage shop. I remember that being maybe more insane in some ways, because it was impromptu and just a horde of people collecting in tight space.
Whether that’s ZZ Tops down in Westlake with the best wings — that little dive bar — or that place right off the freeway, and I’m so mad I’m blanking on the name, we had local watering holes, right? And it wasn’t like we were celebrities. It was just like, “Hey, Channing, you’re in again for the bacon cheeseburger after the game, right?” And we would just talk about the game. I got to be Channing. I got to turn off No. 9 or No. 8, whichever one you followed, and just got to be Channing.
Winning a championship and being with LeBron and with Kyrie and with Kevin, it felt good that I could be famous when it mattered and then be Channing and still live a regular life, especially with my kids. My kids didn’t even know I played basketball until I retired. They were like, “Oh, this is what you do.” I’m like, “Ya guys, this is what I do.” [Laughs]
What does it mean to get to make this court actually happen?
I think any time you get blessings, you should give back, even if it’s small things. If I get a new pair of shoes, I try to give two away to Goodwill. That’s worked for me. So for everything that Cleveland has given me, for me to be able to give back, that’s endless. And hopefully we can continue to do this more and more, even when All-Star is not there, and build these type of things out so kids can have an opportunity to be special, to build confidence, to learn about team sports, and to learn about themselves.
I learned so much about myself just playing basketball, whether that was perseverance or pushing through. Nobody wants to run lines, but if you do the work, you see the reward. For me, a court can be all of those things. Whatever it is, you belong there. And you have an opportunity to better yourself and better your day and just have fun.
To transition to basketball and to look ahead, what to you has been the biggest surprise, or some of the biggest surprises of the season?
For me, it’s Jokic and Embiid. I don’t know if people know what they are watching, right? As much as we talk about the greats — Hakeem and Tim Duncan and obviously Shaq — and I’m even going to put Giannis in this, but you’re looking at the three most unstoppable players in the NBA all technically being centers and all three are international, which shows the evolution of this game and the transition between the Golden State era where it’s guard oriented to “look at all the big men.” You cannot be an elite team without a versatile big man. I would even put Brooklyn in there because Kevin Durant is 7-foot.
Well, he says he’s not not 7-foot. But he’s seven-foot.
Oh stop it. He’s 7-foot. Look at the Cavs. You start three seven footers. That is exciting, to me, to see this transition to not just seeing these big aircraft carrier centers, but these centers that are like top-10 in scoring, rebounding, blocks. They’re defending. Seeing them doing everything at a high level has been wild.
Looking at Embiid, watching how he just played against Jarrett Allen was incredible, to do what he did against Allen and Mobley and others was nuts. So how do you envision him fitting with Harden?
I think it’s going to be big chemistry thing, and that’s going to grow. For me, when I look at it, Embiid cannot lend himself to Harden. He cannot say, “Oh, well James Harden is here, they don’t need me to be as aggressive.” When Joel Embiid this year is at his best, it’s when he’s an absolute monster, when he has no regard for human life and just tries to dunk on everybody, to get 50 points and do everything in his will to not only be available — which is a skill — but to dominate the game, whether it’s posting up, playing in the screen and roll, or taking big men out and hitting ’em with the whoopty-whoop with the handles. He can’t lend himself to Harden. Harden has to make room, Harden has to make everyone else better — Thybulle, Tobias, Maxey. He has to make everyone else better and it’s going to elevate the team, he has to raise the tide.
Are you surprised at how good the East seems to be? There are 10 teams looking locked into the 1-10 spots, but are you surprised at how good the teams in the playoff and play-in seem to all be?
Do you know what’s a wild thing? And hopefully this is a hot take, but it’s not: Every time LeBron switches conferences, it’s the the other conference that’s so good. I remember we were in the East and they were like, “Oh, the West is so dominant,” and then LeBron goes to the West, wins, and then everybody goes to the East. I’m not saying LeBron does that on purpose, but what I’m saying is that it’s not wild to me. It’s happened every single year he’s been in the league. I remember when I was with the Phoenix Suns, we won 48 games and didn’t make the playoffs in 2014. Every section is avoiding somebody. And even though the Lakers aren’t the best, the East has just developed its players to be different. For the Cavs to have success with three big men is just the beginning of this new generation.
Last thing: As far as the 82 game season goes, since you’re retired, do you view that as too many games? Or did you when you playing? Watching from afar — say, Darius Garland for instance, he looks like he needs a couple extra days off in-between games to get his back right. It seems like such a toll for everyone.
Well, I say this: Why Darius Garland and his team look tired is because they’ve never done this before. This is new for them.
I don’t want this to be easy, right? I don’t know if you’ve ever played pickup basketball or still do, but dudes complain all the time about pickup basketball, just innately, but they keep playing. So for me, if this was easy, the respect of winning a championship, going to the playoffs. If you only had 30 games, somebody can go out to Vegas every single night and play 30 games in their sleep. I want you to make a sacrifice for the season. Make it, take care of yourself.
Why is LeBron so special? Because he takes care of himself all the time. So how does he go to 10 NBA Finals and suddenly no one else can go to five? You can’t go to five NBA Finals? So why he is so different? It’s because he takes care of his body. These kids are getting into the league at 18, 19 years old knowing they have to sacrifice, knowing that the season is long, knowing that there are ups and downs, and to assess talent is hard. The first 25 games, people are getting in shape. The next 25 is that weird trade deadline area. Then the next 25 is the All-Star break — did you make it, did you not. And whatever is after All-Star is, are you going for a pick, are you developing your culture for the next year, or are you ramping up for the playoffs? And that’s it. And you need that time.
Would 72 be reasonable? Or is it more 82, to you as a former player, worth keeping because it puts guys through that meat grinder?
I think 82 is great. I also think once you start messing with guys’ checks, I betcha they play 82. The checks that these guys are getting nowadays, they gonna play 82. And if you’re team is good, you can take a day off. But if you’re losing, you’ve got to go out there and earn that check. That’s just how I think.