Benson Battling Adversity

On: 08 July 2008

Lee BensonBy Joaquin M. Henson
The Philippine Star, 08 July 2008

Sta. Lucia Realty import Lee Benson knows what it's like battling adversity and tomorrow, he'll be in the same pressure-cooker situation that's been part of his life since spending 8 1/2 years in a maximum-security prison for drug trafficking and abduction with a firearm.

The Realtors are in a do-or-die predicament against defending Fiesta Conference champion Alaska in a PBA knockout wildcard game at the Ynares Center. A loss will mean an early vacation for Sta. Lucia and a brief stay for Benson in town.

Sta. Lucia, coming off a championship showing in the All-Filipino Cup, finished the double-round eliminations with a 7-11 record, losing seven of its last eight after a roaring 3-0 start. The only win in the Realtors' last eight games was a 95-75 romp over Alaska - one of only two teams they didn't lose to in the entire conference (the other was Welcoat).

Alaska wound up with a 9-9 mark, spiked by a six-game winning streak. The Aces would've qualified for an outright quarterfinals slot if they didn't lose to Ginebra last Sunday. Now, Alaska has to dispose of Sta. Lucia - a team it hasn't beaten this conference - and the survivor of the other knockout wildcard game between Talk 'N' Text and Purefoods to arrange a showdown with Coca-Cola in a best-of-3 quarterfinal series.

If there's anyone who knows what defying the odds is all about, it's Benson.

In 1993, he was sentenced to 8 1/2 to 25 years after committing what he called his biggest mistake - hanging out with a group of thugs from the neighborhood. Life at the Warren Correctional Institution in Lebanon, Ohio, was miserable. Benson couldn't even play a decent game without fearing for his life. Once, he played with other prisoners and was stabbed for hitting the winning basket.

"I ended up getting out on my side," recalled Benson, quoted by Tom Worgo in Basketball Digest (May, 2003). "At that point, I feared for my life. I stopped playing ball for a while but I loved the game so much that I had to go back out there. When I could, I'd practice by myself. Sometimes that made the best practices. When you played in groups, they didn't want you to dunk so you had to pull up for a jump shot. If you went for a dunk, you'd get hurt. That's how I developed an outside shot."

* * *

Before his conviction, the 6-9 Benson was destined to play high-level collegiate ball. He averaged 22 points and 15.6 rebounds in his first playing year at Dunbar High School in Dayton, Ohio, and scouts from Division I schools like Oklahoma, Clemson and California were drooling.

The future dimmed for Benson when he was sent to prison.

But there was one man who never lost hope in Benson - Francis Flax, coach of Brown Mackie Junior College, a Division II school in Salina, Kansas. Benson's cousin Marcus Stewart played two years at Brown Mackie and told Flax about his imprisoned relative. Flax then sought out Benson's father Lee, Sr. to decide if it was worth pursuing a convict.

"It was just a situation where he comes from a great family," said Flax, quoted by Worgo. "His parents have been married for more than 30 years. His father is a master educator from Ohio. I knew Lee had to have some good in him."

While Benson languished in prison, Flax made regular visits to encourage him not to lose hope. Flax assured him there would be a spot waiting in the Brown Mackie roster upon his release. By the way, Flax used to coach NBA cagers Eddie Robinson and Darren Kelly.

When Benson left prison in 2001, he enrolled at Brown Mackie. Flax took care of Benson for a year, driving him to school, monitoring his class attendance and checking on his conditioning regimen.

Benson responded by averaging 34.8 points, 13.6 rebounds and 3.7 blocked shots in 34 games for the Lions. He erupted for 44 points on 17-of-27 field goals in lifting Brown Mackie to a 90-88 win over Redlands and scored 40, including 4-of-5 triples, against Dodge City. Brown Mackie almost made it to the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II Tournament but lost the decider to Redlands despite 30 points from Benson.

* * *

Trying to make up for lost time, Benson renounced his last year of varsity eligibility at Brown Mackie to apply for the NBA draft in 2002. He wasn't picked but joined the Washington Wizards summer camp with Kwame Brown, Etan Thomas, Jared Jeffries and Juan Dixon.

Benson, now 34, never made it to the NBA. But he has traveled the world playing the game he loves. He has played in Greece, Cyprus, Venezuela, France, Puerto Rico, China, Dominican Republic, Korea, Uruguay and Mexico - not to mention US minor leagues like the USBL and CBA.

Benson wouldn't have discovered the PBA if Sta. Lucia didn't get rid of Jamar Brown (who played only two games) and original import Wesley Wilson. Destiny brought Benson to the PBA and now, it's in his hands to pay back the Realtors by rescuing them from intensive care.

Last Sunday, Benson scored 27 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in 42 minutes but Sta. Lucia sputtered down the stretch in losing an 85-81 decision to Red Bull whose deeper bench made the difference.

Benson will be out to prove himself all over again tomorrow. Alaska, however, won't make it easy for the Kevin Garnett look-alike who's making the most of his second lease on life.

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