Big Ben, Say Hello to Big Bill : Benjamin Given Tips at Center From Master

Times Staff Writer

The kid, who could not have been more than 13, had sneaked into the Sports Arena Tuesday morning to watch the Clippers practice, and maybe to shoot a few baskets when no one was looking.

After nearly everyone had left, he still was intently watching Benoit Benjamin, the Clippers' 7-foot rookie center, working out with an older man of about the same height. "Who is that guy in the hat and jeans?" the kid asked.

Told that this other intruder at the Clippers' practice was Bill Russell, the former Boston Celtic star and a close friend of Clipper Coach Don Chaney, the kid's only retort was that he figured someone as famous as Russell would be able to afford better clothes.

On the court, however, Benjamin seemed much more impressed that Russell would drive all the way from his home in Seattle for the expressed purpose of trying to improve the rookie's baffling, inconsistent play this season.

Russell, looking and acting much younger than 52, took Benjamin to the low post and showed him a couple of aggressive moves that left Benjamin gaping in awe. For half an hour, the dominant sounds in the arena were the squeaking of shoes and Russell's distinctive cackle.

Finally finished, the two big men walked to the locker room, Benjamin sweating much more than Russell.

"I think he's going to be OK," said Russell, cackling some more. "Maybe really good."

Coming from Russell, considered by many as the greatest center in National Basketball Assn. history, that assessment cannot be taken lightly.

The Clippers, waiting for Benjamin to become the franchise-altering center he was purported to be before last June's NBA draft, are no doubt hoping that Russell's two-day consultation with Benjamin will help. Russell left town Tuesday but will continue to monitor Benjamin's play via videotape analysis and telephone conversations.

Russell, whose only sign of aging is a salt-and-pepper goatee, has worked with other young centers, most notably Portland's Sam Bowie, when he is not working as an announcer on WTBS's pro basketball telecasts.

Though often hesitant to discuss his personal life with the media, Russell was willing to talk at length about Benjamin and added some of his views on the current level of play in the NBA.

Two months ago, Russell had promised Chaney, who played for Russell on the Celtics' 1969 championship team, that he would make it to Los Angeles to work with Benjamin. Business obligations kept him from arriving any earlier.

"I would have never done it unless (Benjamin) wanted me to and, more importantly, unless Don wanted me to," said Russell, who, like Benjamin, was born in West Monroe, La. "Basically, what I've tried to do is watch him move and try to suggest things. I would never dream of changing his game.

"I see enormous potential. He's a kid. It depends on a lot of things. You've got to remember that he's not playing in a vacuum. A lot depends on the way his team is playing. I already think Ben has made a lot of progress, from the first time I saw him in exhibition season to now."

Both Russell and Chaney said that a certain amount of a rookie's development depends on the success of his team. Since the Clippers were 23-38 after beating Cleveland Tuesday, Benjamin's growth might have been stunted.

Said Chaney: "I agree when Bill says that when you break in with good teams, you gain good work habits. When you break in with a bad team, you get bad work habits. That's why the good teams almost always stay good and the bad teams bad."

The Clippers, of course, are forever trying to change their status, even if it's just from bad to mediocre. Much of the pressure has been put on Benjamin, who is being compensated for the burden with a four-year contract worth $800,000 a year.

"What I see is a nice young man who has been thrown into a raging river and they say, 'Sink or swim,' " Russell said. "It's nobody's fault, but that's the way it is. I see him struggling and I'm here to help him work it out. If I can do that, nothing would bring me more pleasure."

One disadvantage for Benjamin, according to Russell, is that there is no big man on the team to teach him the nuances of the game.

"When I was a rookie, I had a tremendous amount of help from my teammates and Red Auerbach, especially my teammates," Russell said. "Arnie Risen was the starting center when I got there, and every time out, he'd stop and tell me what was going on."

It is Russell's belief that there are very few players--he mentioned Larry Bird and Magic Johnson as the outstanding exceptions--who are satisfactorily prepared when entering the NBA. He said that even Patrick Ewing has a lot to learn. "He still doesn't know how to play this game," Russell said.

"Benoit's got to learn to play the game," Russell said. "There have been guys who've played 10 or 12 years and never learn to play it correctly. It's hard to say, but there's a different set of values.

"I wasn't ready for the NBA--at the start. There's nothing anybody can tell you, really, to get ready for it.

"I'll never forget that I talked to Patrick at Georgetown a few years ago just before he was going to play Virginia and (Ralph) Sampson. I said to him there was nothing to do except go out and do it. Now, a guy like Ewing or Ben comes to the NBA and there are two dozen other guys like a Sampson."

Specifically, Russell worked with Benjamin on position in the low post. According to Russell, Benjamin tends to stand too erect on both offense and defense and therefore is easily pushed away by other big men.

Russell also talked with Benjamin about using the proper judgment on blocking shots, which Benjamin now does whenever the ball comes his way, and the mental preparation needed to survive in the NBA, night after night.

Basically, this is what Chaney has been telling Benjamin all season. Coming from Russell, however, Chaney figured Benjamin would be more apt to listen.

"Ben loves this," Chaney said. "Every word Russ says, Ben comprehends. But I also think Ben is little embarrassed, getting all this special attention."

Russell, in turn, didn't want attention drawn to himself. He said he has instructed many centers but usually keeps it quiet.

"I just enjoy the game," Russell said. "The better the game is, the better I like it. And if I can get 23 centers in the league and could help them play better, I'd do it."

If Russell's tutoring helps transform Benjamin into a quality center, surely no small feat, you might see others line up for help.

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