Benjamin Is Becoming a Real Pro : Clippers: Center has given a strong effort from start to finish.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It has been an annual ritual: Cherry trees blossom in Washington, swallows return to Capistrano, and Benoit Benjamin acts like an NBA center for the last 25 games of the season.

But this year, it has been a tough few months for the Ben Bashers of the world, who must accept that what is currently taking place is not another spring fling.

There was the preseason holdout, when he alienated practically the entire organization by cruising through the summer without an agent and, obviously, a diet. . . . The aborted hop to Italy, which only his advisers and the most naive believed would last. . . . The weigh-in of 291 pounds, about 40 more than his weight at the end of the 1988-89 season. . . . The sight of him at training camp during the holdout, watching in short pants, thighs rubbing.

That was nothing, it turned out, compared to the oddity that followed his return eight games into the season. Lenard Benoit Benjamin, 25, former No. 3 overall draft pick, fifth-year player, acted like a professional. All season.

"We've noticed that," said Ken Norman, who, as a third-year Clipper, has played with Benjamin as long as anyone. "Even when he first signed and came in overweight, he was still working hard."

This much has been as apparent as his losing between 35 and 40 pounds. No more walking during practices. For the first time, his scoring average will not improve from one season to the next, and that is fine, too, because the team is winning more often.

Said Coach Don Casey: "He's the kind of player who can't miss training camp because the practice days (now) are limited. So, it was a slow start. But his approach has been good."

The rub, of course, is that it's news when Benjamin acts NBA-like for a long stretch. Shouldn't that be expected ? This is the player, remember, who was given an incentive clause in his contract to stay in shape, with an additional bonus for coming to camp in the fall in a workable condition, specifics to be determined.

Benjamin agrees that this season is different, but he buys into the improved-maturity angle only so far. Settled down after getting married recently and buying a house in Baldwin Hills, probably. Operating under less pressure since the arrival of Ron Harper and the continued emergence of others, definitely.

"The weight of the entire organization was on my shoulders, and I think I responded like an immature person would do," Benjamin said of the past seasons. "I wasn't used to the L.A. press. I wasn't used to everything just being thrown on my shoulders. But I think I handled it well considering all the directions I could have turned to."

He has always found reason to blame others--coaches, media--so Benjamin hasn't changed completely. The reason he got cold-shouldered during contract negotiations in the fall was his inability to hire a new agent within four months after the death of Larry Fleisher. And the weight problem, well, that's looked upon as part of the years-old routine.

In truth, it's not always easy being Benoit Benjamin, when events can turn extra critical. Previous indiscretions that could have passed, instead became legend. Other players have packed two left shoes, or forgotten some part of the uniform all together, but when Benjamin once did it before a bus trip to Central California for an exhibition game, it stayed with him.

Sensitivity and the appearance of indifference in the same person can be an affront to common sense. But so is spending years saying one has become callous and then reacting in an emotional manner. In truth, he feels.

It's often for all to see, too--another contradiction in someone who is otherwise very private.

A fan walks past the bench, as the Clippers are blowing a 21-point lead to the Miami Heat, and screams insults. Benjamin grabs a plastic container of rosin and cocks his arm as if to throw it at the stranger who had kept walking. Benjamin makes a spectacular one-hand block of a Mychal Thompson slam-dunk attempt that helps spark the Clippers' comeback from a 23-point deficit against the Lakers, and the rest of the night he's pumped up as though it were Game 7 of the NBA finals.

Casey has been able to get this positive reaction from Benjamin more than any other Clipper coach. It looks as if they're fighting when Casey fires X-rated insults toward Benjamin during a game, but they come with the best intentions.

"I just want to remind him that there's someone here on the sideline who will get after him," Casey said. "Then he shouts back, and I know he's on target. If he didn't shout back, then I would be upset."

Leaving others to concentrate on offense, Benjamin has provided the blocked shots and double-digit rebounding that the Clippers need.

He has done that before, though, at the end of the season--to bring in the summer on an upbeat note. What's been long in coming, in the eyes of the organization that he has teased and then disappointed, is attitude. It has yet to be determined if this will get him a new contract, or if the Clippers will instead merely choose to exercise the option for next season, but it is a step in the direction of a sound career.

Throw out any notion of potential, keeping only reality. The past shows someone destined to go down as one of the enigmas in NBA history. The present offers a hard-working, 7-foot force inside. An NBA center, for 82 games.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°