Lee Benson Jr. is still waiting for a hard foul. In the six
months since he traded his prison jumpsuit for the uniform of
Brown Mackie junior college in Salina, Kans., Benson, a 6'11",
231-pound freshman center, has suffered bruises, bumps, hacks
and clawing triple teams, but he has encountered nothing like
the body blows he endured on virtually every shot he took during
8 1/2 years of prison ball. "Those games were tough," he says.
"We played by the no-layup rule because you could get hurt going
inside. You were forced to shoot jumpers."
A well-developed outside game is only one reason Benson has been
attracting the attention of NBA scouts, even though he's 28
years old and admittedly rusty. "He has huge hands, long arms
and a great court temperament," says one NBA scout of Benson,
who through Sunday led Division II junior colleges in scoring,
at 35.4 points per game, and ranked second in rebound average
(13.9). "He runs the floor well and is clever around the basket.
Problem is, he's 28 and could be 31 before he's ready to play.
But his body is lively and well-preserved. He looks like he's
Benson has matured immeasurably in the last 10 years, but he says
that physically he doesn't feel much different than he did as a
junior at Dunbar High in Dayton in 1990-91, when he was named
co-MVP of the city league after averaging 22.5 points and 18.0
rebounds and drew interest from scores of schools, including
Cincinnati and Oklahoma. When his coach quit before his senior
season, Benson didn't play ball, got behind in school, dropped
out and later that year headed for Independence (Kans.) Community
College. He left there after a few weeks, when he learned he
couldn't play basketball until the following year.
Benson returned to Dayton and began hanging out with "the wrong
people," he says. In January 1992 he was arrested for auto
theft, but his six-month sentence in a rehabilitation center was
suspended. Three months later Benson fired a gun while arguing
with a man over a previous drug deal. Benson then forced the man
to go to a nearby apartment, where the man told Benson he would
make a phone call to try to clear things up. Benson was charged
and convicted of abduction and gun possession. In a separate
case Benson pleaded guilty to three counts of drug trafficking.
He was sentenced to a total of 10-to-25 years in prison.
Mackie Brown coach Francis Flax heard about Benson from Benson's
cousin Marcus Stewart, who played on Flax's 1999 Division II
junior college championship team, but he didn't think of
pursuing him. Then on a trip to Dayton in the spring of 2000,
Flax stopped in to see Colonel White High biology and physics
teacher Lee Benson, whose 6'6" son, Prince, had been on Flax's
recruiting list the year before. Pulling out a scrapbook and a
stack of nine-year-old press clippings, a teary-eyed Benson told
Flax, "I have a son who should be in the NBA, but he's in
Intrigued, Flax began to correspond with Lee Jr. and in August
2000 secured a permit to visit him at the Warren Correctional
Institution in Lebanon, Ohio. "We talked for about 21/2 hours,
and I saw a good person there," says Flax. As he was leaving,
Flax noticed on a prison transcript that Lee Jr. had become
eligible for parole in December 1998. Flax called the elder
Benson and encouraged him to hire a lawyer to speed up his son's
release. After an agreement between the Ohio and Kansas parole
boards was worked out, Lee Jr. walked out of prison on Aug. 17,
Flax was there waiting for him, and within three weeks, Benson
had earned his GED and enrolled at Brown Mackie, a 350-student
school located between a Mister Penguin Tuxedo Rental and a
Domino's Pizza in Salina. Benson had much to get acquainted with,
including the Internet, cell phones, Flax's brutal conditioning
program--which includes sprints up a levee while carrying
bricks--and a populace that embraced him despite his background.
"I really like it here," says Benson. "It's peaceful, and the
people are the nicest people I've ever met in my life."
Though at least one NBA scout says he is willing to bet that
Benson will play in the NBA, Benson isn't getting too far ahead
of himself. "My main focus now is staying straight," says Benson,
whose parole doesn't end until August. "Wherever I go from here,
I don't want to go back."
COLOR PHOTO: ELI REICHMAN