Creighton coach Willis Reed and his wife, Gale, were dining recently at Maxine's Restaurant in Omaha with Benoit Benjamin, the Bluejays' 7-foot junior center. At one point during the dinner Reed, 42, the seven-time NBA All-Star center, who was dressed in a conservative business suit, sat back and gazed through his gold-rimmed glasses at the sight across the table. There sat Benjamin, 20, in a blue velveteen suit, cardigan sweater, striped shirt, club tie and double-strand gold necklace.
"You're doing well with all that gold around your neck," Reed said. Benjamin wondered what was coming next.
"Son?" said Reed.
"When you turn pro, Gale and I are going to visit you at your country estate. We're going to eat your food, ride your horses, use your tennis courts and sit by your pool."
"Aw, Coach," said Benjamin, not altogether embarrassed, "gimme a break."
Reed hasn't given Benjamin very many breaks, and Benjamin is all the better for it. After two years of criticizing, cajoling and kidding his baby-faced protégé, Reed is getting the results he'd hoped for all along. At week's end Benjamin was averaging 23.0 points per game for the 20-7 Bluejays, with 5.4 blocked shots and 14.6 rebounds, first and second, respectively, among NCAA Division I players.
Benjamin's transformation has been astonishing, fulfilling almost to the letter the plans Reed laid out for him three years ago. Benjamin has changed from a small-town mama's boy to a man's man, from a lone wolf to a team player who insists he'll return to Creighton next year for his senior season, no matter what temptations the NBA might offer.
"Generally, every big man is lacking something," says Reed, who certainly never lacked intelligence. "Even Ralph Sampson isn't very strong. But Ben's got it all: height, strength, quickness, coordination, touch." And Benjamin has been using it all in Missouri Valley Conference games. Witness his 43 points against Southern Illinois on Jan. 11, followed two days later by 45 against Indiana State. Not since Larry Bird in 1976-77 has a Missouri Valley player scored 40 or more points in consecutive games. After Benjamin ran up 29 points, 12 rebounds and 12 blocks in a 71-68 overtime victory at Bradley on Feb. 2, losing coach Dick Versace said, "If I were starting an NBA expansion team and had time to develop a center, he'd be my man over Georgetown's Patrick Ewing. Sure, Ewing's more aggressive right now, but he also has some offensive problems. Benjamin influences every aspect of the game, and he's still learning."
An only child from Monroe, La.—which, it happens, is also former Boston Celtic center Bill Russell's hometown—Benoit was named after his great-uncle Lenard Benoit Nickleberry, who played football at Grambling. (Though Benjamin pronounces his given name ben-NOIT, in Southern Louisiana's Cajun country he's referred to as ben-WAH.) Benjamin's father died when Benoit was nine, and he was raised by three women—his mother, Carolyn, his aunt Emily Benjamin Winston and his grandmother Catherine N. Benjamin.
"I was always finding father figures in coaches," Benjamin says. The first was Jimmy Jones, the basketball coach at Carroll High. When Jones saw Benjamin, then a 6'6" eighth-grader, wander into the gym, he began rolling stray balls toward the boy in the hope that he would take up the game. After a few weeks Benjamin came to a decision. "I want," he told Jones, "to hoop."
By his senior year he was Mr. Hoop. As Carroll won the state championship, Benjamin—by now wearing the uniform number 00 made famous by another Louisiana-born Celtic pivotman, Robert Parish—averaged 29 points and 19.5 rebounds a game. Considered by many scouts to be the top prospect in the country, Benjamin was sought by 350 colleges. Again he looked for a father figure, preferably a college coach who had played center. Though the best-known man with such qualifications, Georgetown's John Thompson, visited Monroe several times, Benoit and his mother chose another Louisianian—Reed, who grew up in nearby Bernice. It also helped that Reed had graduated from Carolyn's alma mater, Grambling, and had captained the New York Knicks to two NBA championships. "Playing for the best wasn't an incentive," says Benjamin. "It was the incentive."
Benjamin arrived for his freshman year at Creighton 40 pounds overweight, at 280; his huge body and smallish head gave him the appearance of a dinosaur. "Fat, fat, fat," says his mother. Slow, slow, slow, thought Reed, watching Benjamin run the court. And weak, weak, weak was Benjamin after he lost 40 pounds in a hurry. Admittedly spoiled by the women in his life, Benjamin took poorly to Reed's needle. "You're not Big Ben—you're Baby Ben," Reed would say in moments of exasperation. Opposing centers muscled Benjamin around and rattled him easily. "We thought," says Creighton athletic director Dan Offenburger, "we had ourselves a dog."
In truth the Bluejays had a young man dogged by extraordinary pressures. He was hailed as the program's savior—Creighton had been 7-20 the season before Benjamin arrived and had lost three potential starters to transfer or injury. His 14.9 scoring and 9.6 rebounding averages didn't matter to critics; that the Bluejays went 8-19 did. "Benoit became depressed," says his mother. About all that kept him from quitting was Reed's extraordinary patience. "You want the glory of being a great professional athlete," Reed explained to him, "but once that spotlight is turned on, you can't turn it off. Everything positive or negative will be magnified."
Though Benjamin still was outplayed at times, he averaged 16.2 points and 9.8 rebounds as a sophomore while Creighton went 17-14 and played in the NIT. This season Benjamin has dominated almost everyone who has guarded him. After hundreds of hours under Reed's scrutiny, it's no wonder that the student has come to resemble the teacher. The Reed trademarks are stamped all over Benjamin's game: the turnaround jump shot (righthanded, not lefty like Reed's), the aggressive rebounding, the monolithic picks. But Reed is certain that there's room for improvement, which is one reason Benjamin won't be bolting for the NBA this spring. "Most centers just use their height," says Reed. "He's going to learn to use his body on screens and posts. I don't see anybody in college being better."
"I've learned that life's going to be a bitch, and I'd better start taking advice," Benjamin says. "I've changed about 80 percent since I came to school. Now I'm my own worst critic. After some games I'll sit at the mirror and ask myself what I could have done better. Then I'll see it"—he snaps his fingers and points at his head—"one more rebound, one less turnover."