A summer league basketball game was in progress on a warm night in Los Angeles, where a second-stage smog alert had been declared. Out on the floor of the Cypress College gym, Kent Benson, who a few years ago was the premier college basketball player in the country, had committed his sixth foul in a game between Milwaukee Buck rookies and a team made up of free agents and Center Swen Nater of the NBA's new San Diego franchise.
John Killilea, the Bucks' assistant coach, frustrated by the call—and also with Benson—was ejected for protesting too vociferously. "The reason I got so angry," said Killilea later, "is that it costs the Bucks $30,000 to bring a team out here for six weeks. The only reason we did it this summer is because of Bennie. I've spent 75 to 80% of my time thinking, 'What can we do to get Bennie going?' Then, here we have a perfect learning situation—a close game in the last few minutes with a Nater to go up against—and where is Bennie? On the bench with six fouls."
When Benson came to the bench, the free-agent team immediately went inside to Nater, who was fouled by Buck Forward Otis Howard, a muscular fourth-round draft choice from Austin Peay.
"Not your fault, Otis, don't sweat it," yelled Benson from the sideline. "You got nailed because you're still a rookie."
And so, too, at this point in his career is Kent Benson.
While two of his more successful young teammates, ex-UCLA stars Marques Johnson and David Meyers, were taking a well-earned vacation from the nearly nine-month NBA season by sleeping late and hitting the beach, Benson was slaving away at the game of basketball in a gym one-third the size of the New Castle, Ind. arena where he played high school ball. His task during the six-week refresher course is simple. After averaging only 7.7 points and 4.28 rebounds per game as a part-time player last year, he has to prove he belongs in the NBA.
Not that Benson's backup center's job is on the line: he is in the second year of a six-year, no-cut contract worth $150,000 a year. It's just that the summer league, the equivalent of baseball's instructional league, is no place for the NBA's top draft choice. Austin Carr (1971) did come out and play when he was trying to rehabilitate an injured leg, and LaRue Martin (1972) has participated off and on while trying to find a spot in the pros following his release by Portland. Also, players like Paul Westphal, George Gervin and Dennis Johnson got their first taste of pro experience in the SCPBL before becoming NBA stars. But, basically, the league is a tryout camp at which teams can weed out draftees and free agents who have no chance of making the roster. Once in a great while a has-been will resurface, such as 36-year-old Joe Caldwell, a former NBA and ABA All-Star who this summer is in the midst of what seems to be an unsuccessful attempt at a comeback. Such a mixed bag of personalities and ability levels tends to produce wild games with high scores. A lot of players come off the court twitching their shoulders, shaking their heads and muttering, "I was open in the corner...I was open in the corner."
Besides the Bucks, who sent out Forward Ernie Grunfeld (6.9 points a game in his rookie season) as well as Benson, six other NBA teams are represented in the SCPBL this summer—the Chicago Bulls, Golden State, Portland, Los Angeles, Houston and Phoenix. There also are two teams of free agents. After his problems against one of the free-agent teams, Benson settled down and through last Friday night held the league scoring lead with a 28.8 average in seven games. In his last three games he had scored 99 points and upped his rebounding average to 10.7, but as Killilea says, "We didn't know what was in Bennie's head last year, and we still don't. All I know is that he has to make a lot of improvements from within. The funny thing about Bobby Knight players is while they know the game, they tend to do things by the numbers. Benson is somewhat the same way. For four or five minutes he shows some Dave Cowens-type instincts, but then it stops. We're trying to get him to react better to changing situations."
Benson skipped the summer league last year—against the Bucks' wishes—and did not play particularly well during the exhibition schedule, making his share of rookie mistakes and nearly getting eaten alive by the 76ers' front line one night. However, the Bucks' expectations were considerably lower in October than they were by the end of the season, when Milwaukee upset Phoenix in the first round of the playoffs and took Denver to seven games in the Western Conference semifinals.
When the Bucks came home last Oct. 18 to open the 1977-78 season against Los Angeles, Benson was the team's starting center. By all indications he seemed headed toward a promising career. Then he got Kareemed. The two men had never played against each other, yet the fight developed immediately. Benson had said the biggest adjustment he would have to make from college ball to the pros was learning the "push and shove style of play in the NBA," and in jockeying for position on his first offensive series in the NBA he caught Abdul-Jabbar in the stomach with an elbow. Kareem doubled up in pain, then moments later flattened Benson from the blind side with a roundhouse right.
Abdul-Jabbar broke his right hand in the process, and was fined $5,000 by the league. Benson's injuries, both physical and emotional, were more serious. The blow to the head resulted in a mild concussion. "It was a horrible way to break in with my parents and fiancèe watching," Benson says. He had severe headaches for nearly two months after the incident, and around Christmas he went on TV in Milwaukee and painted a chilling picture of his mental anguish.
"I am still fearful," he told Bucks Announcer Eddie Doucette. "I see these fists coming at me whenever I turn my head from side to side on the court."
Benson actually missed only one game following the fight, but the Bucks played better with John Gianelli in the lineup, and Benson never came close to winning his starting job back. When he sprained an ankle and tore knee ligaments in a collision with New York's Bob McAdoo in December, the Bucks got Jim Eakins to back up Gianelli and Benson. Benson's rookie season had hardly been anything to write Bobby Knight about.
Benson played on Knight's 1976 NCAA championship team at Indiana, which, except for an injury to Scott May, might have won two NCAA titles and 69 games in a row. A two-time All-America, Benson would likely have been any NBA team's choice as the first pick in last year's draft. He was listed as 6'11" and 245 pounds, and though he has small hands for someone his size and wasn't considered quick or a great leaper, he set a mean pick, didn't shy away from contact and could shoot a jump shot from outside and put up a short hook shot. He had averaged a solid 19.8 points and 10.4 rebounds per game during his senior year.
There was a catch, however, which was easy to see when Benson lined up against the 6'11" Nater the other night. Instead of being 6'11" himself, which was what he was listed as at Indiana, Benson seems more like 6'9". Two inches may not sound like much, but they are very important in Benson's case. Perhaps that even answers Killilea's incessant question: "Why, when Bennie hustles so hard, isn't more happening out there?"
It should be noted that Bill Walton needed two years to overcome injuries and to adjust to life in the NBA. So, too, may Benson. But if he is going to develop into the dominant center that Milwaukee needs to go with its wondrous young forward, Johnson, and his running mate, Meyers, Benson is going to have to step out of character a bit.
"Kent is such a decent, civilized, God-fearing person that I think he's going to have problems reconciling his idealistic view of the world with the superficial approach to life that he sees in the NBA," says one member of the Bucks. "All year long he hustled, yet the look on his face seemed to be saying, 'Is this what life is about? A smashed-up face, nothing but travel and lots of questions about when am I going to live up to my potential?' "
Apart from being a pro basketball player, Kent Benson is a very religious, family-oriented bass fisherman from southern Indiana, who never came close to adapting to the life of an NBA gypsy in his rookie season. A confirmed non-drinker in a confirmed beer-drinkers' town, he didn't sit on a barstool or sweet-talk a barmaid the entire year—which is to say that he didn't spend many off-hours with his teammates. Eating out with them in a restaurant was O.K., as long as they weren't going for something like enchiladas, which are not within Benson's realm of experience, either. When he was invited to a teammate's apartment for dinner, he often replied with a polite but firm "No thanks," so that he could relax at home with the Bible and call his fiancèe back home in Indiana. He never became one of the guys, on the court or off.
"I realize now that I alienated myself from my teammates," Benson says, "but I'm such a down-to-earth person, I was, well, surprised at all the big-city guys in this league with their big-city life-styles. This year I guess there's no reason I can't go into a bar with Grunfeld or somebody on the road and have a Coke while they have a couple of beers. Maybe I'll really get to know them that way and it will help me play better. To be honest, basketball is just a job to me at this point in my life. But I feel 110% better about it right now than I did last year when all I ever thought about was why, why, why or if, if, if.
"It has been somewhat humbling for me to have to come out and prove myself in the summer league. But I'm man enough to do what I have to do to become the kind of player that I want to be again and that the Bucks organization wants me to be."