Years before he was a two-time WWE Champion, Paul Wight (a/k/a The Big Show) was a reserve center on the Wichita State basketball team, averaging 2.0 points and 2.1 rebounds in 21 games during the 1991-92 season. With the Shockers back in the Sweet 16 for just the second time since the tournament expanded in 1985, I caught up with him to talk about his experience playing basketball, what made college hoops so difficult after he dominated in high school and next week's return of WrestleMania to the NYC area.
What can you tell us about your college basketball career?
Big Show: My college experience at Wichita State was definitely a learning curve. I had a great time at Wichita State. It's a great university. I love the program. I chose Wichita State specifically because they didn't have a football program. Wichita State was all about basketball and baseball -- and we all know I have a strike zone the size of Nebraska so I don’t think I would have made it as a baseball player.
The basketball program had a lot of potential and I think that was one of the reasons I made the decision. I really liked Coach [Mike] Cohen at the time, who recruited me. I liked the university. I liked the town. The people in Wichita are very supportive of their athletic programs. Wichita's a fun place. It's a great place to go to school. It's a big university, but at the same time it's not too big. The program was awesome. The colors were cool with the black and gold. I still haven't figured out exactly what a Shocker is. People ask me all the time: "It's a ... shock ... of ... wheat ... I don't know?"
The whole fact that Wichita State’s in the Sweet 16, I’m very happy for the program and I’m very happy for Wichita itself. But also for me it's kind of a weird year because this past year I've started getting back into college basketball and I live in Miami now. And I’ve made a lot of roots and a lot of ties in the local community so I started going to a lot of the U of M games, just getting back into college basketball and appreciating those great student-athletes. Now the team that I played for and always supported, and then now a team that I supported in my community, they're both in the Sweet 16 and they might wind up facing each other in the Final Four. It makes March Madness just that much crazier in my house.
When did you first start playing basketball?
Big Show: My first game was for Aiken Prep School in seventh grade. The first shot I took -- somebody passed me the ball and I was about 10 feet away -- I shot it and I made it. That was the first time I had ever had a crowd reaction, so to speak. There was probably like 60 people there but for me at the time it might as well have been Giants Stadium. It got me hooked. Basketball and athletics were a way for me to start to bond with other kids. You know at 12, I was like 6-2. At 13, I was like 6-5 or 6-6. I had always stuck out as a bit of a freak, so athletics gave me a chance to make friends and I guess find my “cool” vibe if there's such a thing when you’re in high school.
It also gave a chance for me to attend university. Let’s face it, my dad was a mechanic and my mom was a cop: my college options in seventh grade didn’t look that great. And the chance I got to go to college and experience college life is something that's pretty precious to me. I’ve always made the statement that I’m going to go back and get a degree. I just haven’t had time; I work 290 days a year wrestling now. But I love getting to go to a couple of U of M games and see the college atmosphere and appreciate the student-athletes. If there’s any advice I could give any of those athletes, it’s that life has a lot of challenges in front of you and don’t put all your eggs in one basket. If you have a chance to get the degree, get it. Take full advantage of the education. All the hard work you’re putting in on the court, the practice time and sacrifices you’re making, if you get a chance to get the degree, take the degree and have that in your back pocket. I started out thinking I was going to play in the NBA, now I travel the world as a WWE Superstar. Life changes.
Do you have a favorite memory from your basketball days?
Big Show: There's a lot of great memories. I got benched a lot because I was an arrogant S.O.B. as a young teenager if you can imagine that or not. I remember Coach Cohen was a really personable coach. I think that was probably our biggest downfall because he cared too much about his players, when sometimes being a coach means you have to think about the program first and making the program work. But for me, he was like a father figure. He was on me all the time about being arrogant. I talked trash when I played, I fought in practice. It was different for me. I was used to being the guy, the stud in high school. Team play was kind of a new concept. We ran kind of a UCLA high-post offense at the time. There was a lot of movement and setting screens and flashing to the top. And I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to sit on the low block. I wanted to post up. Just throw me the ball and I’ll put it in the hole. And I was like a black hole. If you threw the ball in, obviously the defense would collapse and I couldn’t do anything with it, but I didn’t have enough sense to understand at the time that if you move the ball around, you create more opportunities for the team. I think back then I was trying to create opportunities for myself.
I remember 5 a.m. runs for smarting off and sitting the bench a lot for smarting off. I missed the team bus one time -- we were going to play Tulsa -- and me and a couple of the guys drove my car all the way to Tulsa. We were burning oil and we couldn’t afford the gas and everything else, and when we arrived they turned us around and sent us back because we missed the team bus.
For me, my college basketball experience wasn't what I thought it was going to be out of high school. But I think in life adult lessons, I learned a lot from Wichita State. The town was always good to me. The fans were always good to me. The people in Wichita were always good to me. I don’t have any complaints at all about any time that I spent at all in Wichita.
WrestleMania returns to the NYC area next week for the first time in nearly a decade. Is pro wrestling's flagship event any different when it's in New York?
Big Show: It's completely different. New York and New Jersey fans are like no other fans anywhere in the world. It's funny because New York is known for being competitive. New York likes champions. If you’re not pulling your weight, New York lets you know. Trust me: If you have a crappy match, New York fans will let you know right in the middle of it. They'll chant boring. They'll chant you suck. They’ll chant you messed up. The pressure to do well is always a little bit higher in New York. But like anything, that pressure makes you better.
So the only thing that I’m a little concerned about is the weather. Because, you know, I'm not wearing much. I'm wearing Spandex. It's gonna be a little chilly out there.
Hate to put you on the spot, but if it did end up being Wichita State and Miami in the Final Four, who would you be supporting?
Big Show: If it was Wichita State and Miami in the Final Four who would I be supporting? Wow, you are a real reporter, aren't you. You're really diving into the question that everyone wants to know, where any answer that I give somebody's gonna hate me, and I thank you so much for that question and it's so nice of you to ask me that question. Let's see. Well. Um. [Thinks.] Honestly, both programs … Miami's doing well with their program. I live in Miami. I’m going to root for Miami just because I’ve got too many friends that will make my life miserable if I said Wichita State. So, I think, uh, yeah, I’m going to root for Miami. But then again, Wichita State is a Cinderella team and everybody wants to see that real underdog win. I think just for me, because I live in Miami and I get my coffee in Miami, I'm going to say Miami.
All you had to say is you're going to root for a good game!
Big Show: Why don't you just put that then! I'm just going to root for a good game. I'm not good at this! I change my answer! I just hope that it's a great game. That's why you get the big bucks.