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GROWING PAINS : A Failure at 22, Benoit Benjamin Vows Clippers Will See a Change in Their Center of Controversy

Times Staff Writer

Benoit Benjamin thought the young fan was going to ask for an autograph.

“Say, aren’t you Benoit Benjamin?” the youngster asked. “Don’t you play for the Clippers?

“You guys are awful!”

Benjamin still has nightmares about the Clippers’ dismal 1986-87 season. Some Clipper fans would probably consider that fair turnabout.

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Things got so bad during the team’s 12-70 season, second worst in National Basketball Assn. history, that Benjamin wouldn’t leave his house except to go to games and practices. He said he would sit at home, staring at his giant fish tank.

In the Clippers’ winter of their greatest discontent, the biggest Clipper of them all, 7-foot Benjamin, became perhaps the most discontented.

“I didn’t want to go anywhere,” Benjamin said. “I didn’t want to go out. When the last game was over, I was so relieved. I couldn’t wait to come back home to Monroe and regroup. I’m just a country boy.”

But now, Benjamin says he can’t wait for the start of the next season, his third in the pros. Big Ben said he would like to prove that he’s not a big stiff.

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Benjamin, 22, a flop in his first two seasons, said he’s had a change of heart and will have a new attitude this season.

There are plenty of skeptics, including Don Chaney, who coached Benjamin for the last two seasons.

“He has the potential to be a great player,” Chaney said, speaking from his home in Atlanta, where he’s now an assistant coach with the Hawks. “But he’s his own worst enemy. If he doesn’t reach that level, he has only himself to blame. In order for him to reach that full potential, he has to put in time in the off-season. And I don’t think he’s that dedicated.

“The key to Ben is his weight. If he weighs 250-245, then he’s ready to play. If not, then it’s the same old thing. I called one month last summer, and he said he was 245. He was 270 when he showed up at camp. If he said he weighs 245, you’d better take a scale with you.

“I’d like to see him get serious about the game and improve. If he was serious, he’d work out in the summer.”

Benjamin said he has grown up and learned from his mistakes.

“It’s the same me, it’s just a better me,” he said. “I knew I was going through tough times last season. Anyone could have had as tough a year as I did. When you’re in the middle and making the money, it (the criticism) comes with the territory. I tried to learn from it. I learned that you can give your best and people still won’t be satisfied.”

Benjamin, who ballooned to 272 pounds at the start of training camp last season, said he’s down to 255 after a summer of running, weightlifting and swimming.

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“I’d like to lose 10 more pounds by the time training camp opens next month,” he said. “I had Eddie Robinson (Grambling football coach) weigh me so people wouldn’t say I weighed myself. Actually, it wasn’t Robinson who weighed me, but an assistant coach.”

Benjamin continued to talk, as he prepared dinner--a baked potato, salad and chicken at his mother’s house here.

“I got pushed around some last season,” he said. “I wanted to get stronger and firm up. I felt I wasn’t soft, but I wanted to tone up. I can bench press 250 pounds. And I’ve been watching what I eat this summer. I’ve only had sweets three times all summer.”

Tony Griffin, a Grambling football player who worked out with Benjamin, testified to the Clipper center’s new approach.

“He worked harder than he did last season,” Griffin said. “Last year, he just sat around. But this year, once we started him working, he was a workaholic.”

Benjamin said that the new Benoit is new in more ways than just physical.

“I got into the church,” he said. “I wanted to find myself spiritually. I’ve been going to Riverside Baptist Church. I came home to get the spiritual side of my life back together.

“I see a better season for me. I’m planning on having a good year. I’d like to average 20 points and 10 to 12 rebounds a game.”

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The Clippers, who signed Benjamin to a four-year, $3.5-million contract in 1985, are counting on him to deliver on their investment this season.

“I hope he means it,” General Manager Elgin Baylor said. “I hope he has matured. But you don’t know until he plays the season.”

Gene Shue, the Clippers’ new coach, said he was impressed after meeting Benjamin earlier this summer.

“He’s a very young player with some talent,” Shue said of Benjamin. “Basically, I’m just going to try to communicate with Benoit and give him guidelines to succeed.”

The Clippers turned down several offers to trade Benjamin during the off-season, including one from the Sacramento Kings. The Kings’ new coach is Bill Russell, the former NBA great who was called in by the Clippers to work with Benjamin during his rookie season. Willis Reed, Benjamin’s college coach at Creighton University, is Russell’s assistant coach.

“Why should we trade him?” Baylor asked. “Can we get somebody better than Benoit for him? He’s got a lot of growing up to do. He’s younger than the kids coming out of college.”

Except for a flash of brilliance at the end of his rookie season, Benjamin has played down to his uniform number--00--since being drafted third behind Patrick Ewing and Wayman Tisdale in 1985. Last season, he was an object of ridicule.

He missed planes, practices and meetings, once brought two left shoes to an exhibition and made obscene gestures to heckling fans at games. Even when he did show up on time for games, he was often missing in action.

Things got so bad last season that teammates stopped talking with him.

Although Shue and the Clippers are counting on a rejuvenated Benjamin, others hold less hope for that sort of turnabout.

“I don’t expect any big change in him,” said a sportswriter for the Monroe News-Star-World, Jack Mitchella, who has been covering Benjamin since he led Carroll High to the state basketball championship in 1982.

“It’s easy to work out hard at home, but it’s not easy to work hard in the pros. What a waste of talent to have a body like that, with a personality like his.

“He’s alienated himself from a lot of people in Monroe. A lot of people wouldn’t walk across the street to shake his hand.”

Last month, Benjamin failed to keep a commitment to attend the Big Man’s camp at Stanford, run by the highly respected Pete Newell. Benjamin said he was tired after driving 48 straight hours cross-country and that he arrived at the camp a day late.

“I was just late,” Benjamin said. “Elgin (Baylor) told me to go home because I’d disrupt the camp.”

Benjamin’s mother, Carolyn, told a different story. She said Benoit made several stops on the way to the camp. First, he stopped off in Omaha to drop off his 4-year-old daughter, Alicia, with the child’s mother, a former girlfriend he met while attending Creighton.

His next stop was Dallas, where he visited a friend. By then, it was too late to drive to California, so Benjamin left his car in Texas and flew to the camp, arriving a day late.

Said Baylor: “It doesn’t make any sense to me. We sent Benoit a plane ticket to fly to California and the ticket was used. When Benoit didn’t show up at the camp Monday morning I called his house (in Los Angeles) and they said that he had left at 6 a.m. to drive up to Stanford. I knew there was no way he was going to make it.

“I asked him what happened, and he said he was tired. I said that if he was tired, that he should go back home and rest.”

While tiny Monroe doesn’t have much of a night life, Benjamin, perhaps the richest young bachelor thereabouts, finds ways to enjoy himself.

“He’s a Casanova,” Carolyn Benjamin joked, adding that her son had spent one night at home this summer, and “that was with company.”

Said Benjamin: “Ah mom, don’t be telling a reporter that.”

Benjamin’s new $18,000, 20-foot power boat has been his other passion this summer.

“It’s fast,” Benjamin said. “It’s the fastest boat on the river. I love to fly up and down the river. People tried to get me to race, because I got one of the fastest boats on the river.

“My mother was on it once, but she said I drove too fast and she couldn’t swim. I park it in the middle of the river and go swimming.”

Besides the boat and the opposite sex, Benjamin’s maroon BMW sedan is his other love. He bought the car for his mother last summer, but he has been driving it because his other car, a Mercedes, is in Los Angeles.

The flashy foreign car has caused problems for Benjamin.

He was arrested for speeding in May of 1986, just after he bought the car. According to a report in the local paper, Benjamin became belligerent to the police officers after he was pulled over for driving 56 miles an hour in a 35-m.p.h. zone. He was handcuffed and taken to jail, then released on $100 bond.

Benjamin eventually paid a speeding fine after his mother met with the mayor to charge the police with harassment.

Carolyn Benjamin is her son’s biggest fan. Her office in the Monroe courthouse annex looks like a shrine dedicated to her only child. There are large pictures of Benoit in his Clipper uniform on the wall behind her desk.

If the past season was tough on Benoit, it was even tougher on her.

Carolyn Benjamin took a six-month leave of absence from her job as assistant director of the comprehensive employment and training act office and moved to Los Angeles to be with her son. She plans to stay at home in Louisiana this season but said that she will catch the first plane to Los Angeles if Benoit needs her.

She attended every game at the Sports Arena and even made a trip to Detroit and Atlanta.

“It was hard on me,” she said. “It’s not a good feeling when you look at your child and see he’s not happy. But it’s all a part of growing up. I grew up at 19, but he’s still growing up.”

She blames Chaney, fired at the end of the season, for many of Benoit’s problems last season.

“I wish Chaney all the luck in the world, but I’m glad to see him gone,” Carolyn Benjamin said. “I just stopped trying to speak to him. Chaney was so arrogant. I was out there for six months and I went to all the games. Chaney went by me for three months without speaking to me.

“There was a great communication barrier there between Benoit and Chaney. That was one of the major problems. The Clippers treated Benoit more like an obstacle than a teammate.

Said Chaney: “I used to think his mother could make a difference in him, but not any more. His mom babies him. I don’t think an outside source is going to change Benoit Benjamin. It’s got to be Benoit.”

If Chaney could do it all over again, he’d still draft Benjamin.

“We didn’t have a choice,” Chaney said. “It was Benoit or Tisdale. We were in a situation where we couldn’t pass him up.

“He’s very immature. He’s a big 7-footer, but he’s a big immature kid. He’s typical of a young, big player. But some players never grow up.”

“A lot of things come into play--his childhood, contract, his being spoiled at a young age and coming to the pros with a big guaranteed contract didn’t help.

“He has got to look at himself from inside and separate his inner self from his body. He doesn’t face reality well. He sees himself differently. It’s like he has blinders on. It’s hard to reach players like that. Believe it or not, he thought he had a good season last year.”

One of the mistakes the Clippers made was trading away centers Bill Walton and James Donaldson after they acquired Benjamin in 1985, because it put too much pressure on him to produce immediately.

Said Chaney: “Benoit didn’t have anyone to learn from. But as long as James Donaldson was there, he wouldn’t have developed as fast. But Benoit was a huge investment. The Clippers saw him as a savior, but he’s too young to be subjected to that type of pressure. He can’t carry a team.

“I think he’ll be better next year, because his supporting cast is better. It makes a difference being the first option as opposed to the second or third. He’s not capable of handling it. He’ll play great if the other four players are decent.”

Jimmy Jones was like a father to Benoit Benjamin.

Jones, the basketball coach at Carroll High, coached Benjamin for four years. Benjamin rode to school with Jones every day, and Jones’ son, Allen, was Benoit’s best friend in high school.

Jones retired as coach in 1984 to become the principal at Carroll Junior High. Jones had a record of 326-72 in 13 years as head coach, and his team made six trips to the high school final four.

“I don’t even want to claim the guy (Benjamin),” Jones said. “I hope Benoit has changed for the better. I think he made tremendous mistakes in his first two years. But I think he realizes that he can be an NBA player today, but his career won’t last forever.

“I think he’s maturing. It’s what we’ve been hoping for. I think he realizes that playing basketball is like going to the office.”


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