Benjamin Gives Clippers a Lift, 125-120

Times Staff Writer

At last, the Clippers received something better than Dramamine to ease a severe case of road sickness on their seven-game Eastern trip. This unlikely relief was supplied by rookie center Benoit Benjamin.

Benjamin, playing with previously untapped aggressiveness and passion, had the strongest game of his young career Friday night to help lead the Clippers to a 125-120 win over the New Jersey Nets before 10,573 fans at the Meadowlands Arena.

Not only was this the Clippers' first win of the trip after four straight losses--raising their road record to 4-15--but it marked their first victory in 1986, as well. Shockingly, it came against the Nets, who entered Friday's game with a 17-3 home record.

It also came on a night when the Clippers' attempt to trade guard Norm Nixon to the New York Knicks seemingly stalled. A source close to the situation said the deal that would have brought Darrell Walker and Ken Bannister to the Clippers is dead.

However, General Manager Carl Scheer said he still is seriously considering acquiring Darnell Valentine from the Portland Trail Blazers, who apparently want the Clippers' 1986 first-round draft pick (from Boston) as compensation.

"I have to make some big decisions about that," Scheer said. "The Valentine deal is not off. It might be uncomfortable to have Darnell and Norm on the same team, but we could do that. I'd hate to see Valentine go to another team."

But trades were not what the Clippers wanted to talk about Friday. Everyone from Coach Don Chaney to star forward Marques Johnson enjoyed the opportunity to say good things finally about Benjamin's play.

Benjamin scored 9 points, grabbed 7 rebounds and blocked 4 shots in what clearly was his best performance of a rookie season that so far has been disastrous. Playing the final 5:40 of the game, Benjamin helped the Clippers maintain a tenuous lead by coming up with two blocked shots on Net center Mike Gminski and guard Otis Birdsong, and grabbing three important rebounds.

After Benjamin swatted away Gminski's shot, and Johnson converted it into a fast-break layup with 2:57 left, assistant coach Don Casey approached Benjamin and yelled, "About time!"

No one was more surprised by Benjamin than his teammates, who have been frustrated by both his on-court performance and chronic lateness for planes and buses. Friday, though, Big Ben answered his wakeup call.

"Young Ben may be maturing into older Ben," Cedric Maxwell said. "He's coming of age."

What age is that, Max?

"Any age," he said. "Without Ben, we're really not going anywhere as a team. It all starts with a big man in the middle. He made some big plays."

Some, but not all. The Clippers (12-25) needed peak performances from more than just Benjamin to turn back the 23-15 Nets, who had won 13 of their previous 16 games.

Marques Johnson, starting at off-guard for the second straight game, had a game-high 29 points. He scored eight points late in the fourth quarter, preventing New Jersey from getting any closer than four points during the final 3:47. Veterans Maxwell (21 points, 11 rebounds) and Nixon (21 points, 8 assists) also made crucial free throws late in the fourth quarter, offsetting three desperate but accurate three-point shots by the Nets' Darwin Cook, Albert King and Birdsong.

As impressive as the Clippers' win was, it was overshadowed by Benjamin. When the soft-spoken Benjamin was summoned to be interviewed for New Jersey's postgame TV show, his Clipper teammates erupted in laughter.

"You want Ben ?" one Clipper screamed. "Try not to talk too much, Ben."

Once Benjamin left, Clipper players took turns talking about their center, who was the third overall selection in last June's draft. No less than four players and two coaches said they have pulled Benjamin aside recently and spoken to him, heart to heart.

"We're all trying to get into his mind," Johnson said. "We weren't sure what we'd found until tonight, maybe. I had a talk with Ben, and he told me he's more comfortable now that the season is almost half over.

"His latest turning point? This trip, it was when he got rid of his awful crushed velvet suit."

Clipper guard Franklin Edwards, who starred off the bench Friday with 12 points, not only helped Benjamin change his wardrobe but helped him realize what type of effort is needed to make it as an NBA center.

"I took Ben over to my house (in Philadelphia), and we watched videotape of the NBA playoffs, just to let him see the level of effort it takes to play in the league," Edwards said. "He was shocked by the intensity.

"I think the key with Ben is to keep him motivated. That's hard, because he's only 21. I remember when I was 21 and. . . ."

Said Chaney: "I've tried every approach with Ben. He's sensitive to criticism he gets from his peers and coaches when he doesn't play well. I tried being rough with him, being gentle. Now, I'm just taking time to be with him. He needs to be explained every aspect of basketball, and I'll do it."

Benjamin said he felt more comfortable and "in the fluid," even though Net backup center Darryl Dawkins scored many of his 27 points against the rookie.

"I feel better about myself," Benjamin said. "I think the guys are accepting me more."

Clipper Notes

Norm Nixon said before the game that he would welcome a trade to the Knicks. "If they want to trade me, I want to go," Nixon said. "I don't think anyone would want to play for a team that doesn't want them. Right now, I'm at a point in my career where a move to New York would be good for me and my wife (actress Debbie Allen). My wife said she'd love to live in New York, so that's it with me." . . . The Clippers continue the trip tonight against the Chicago Bulls. The game will be televised (Channel 5, 5:30 p.m. PST).

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