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Basket Case : Austrian Youngster Knows the Magic in Game He Loves

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sandro Bennati doesn’t just enjoy basketball. The 16-year-old from Austria worships the men who play it.

At home, his room is wallpapered with posters of Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and his favorite player, Magic Johnson.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that Bennati found a way to come all the way from his native land to attend the Magic Johnson basketball camp at Cal Lutheran.

Bennati’s insatiable appetite for basketball may have finally been satisfied Thursday when the camp concluded with a graduation ceremony. “I’ll never forget this,” he said. “This was the greatest week of my life.”

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Bennati got this chance only because of a remarkable turn of events nearly a half-century ago when the lives of two soldiers--one an American, one an Austrian--crossed and changed each other’s lives forever.

Bennati’s grandfather, Guenther Flaig, is Austrian, but was conscripted into the German army before World War II. In 1946 he was transferred to a prisoner-of-war camp at Gorizia in northern Italy after Germany surrendered to Allied forces.

Jerry Newmark, a resident of Reseda who was in the U.S. Army, was stationed in the camp where Flaig was imprisoned, but they did not know each other at the time.

Newmark was discharged in 1946 and returned to the United States, but went back to Europe in 1950 to study languages on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Grenoble. He needed someone to teach him German and put out a call for a private tutor.

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Flaig, who was studying philosophy at Grenoble on scholarship from the Austrian government, answered, and he and Newmark became lifelong friends.

“Just think, had it been a few years before, we could’ve been shooting at each other,” Newmark said.

It was Newmark and his wife, Deborah, who helped make Sandro Bennati’s journey possible. The Newmarks have visited the Bennati family every year in Bludenz, a small town nestled in the Alps. During the annual visits, Newmark observed the flourishing of young Sandro’s love of sports, especially basketball.

“He’s such a sports fanatic,” Deborah Newmark said. “Every 15 minutes he would be calling Jerry to give him updates on tennis, basketball . . . any sport.”

During last year’s visit to Bludenz, Newmark told Bennati about the Magic Johnson camp. Did Bennati want to go? Was there ever a doubt?

“At first (people back home) didn’t believe it,” Bennati said. “My friends didn’t believe, my coaches didn’t believe. Then I showed them (the brochure) and then they believed.”

Bennati arrived in Los Angeles last Sunday for the first day of camp. Johnson addressed campers for the first time on Monday.

“It was fantastic,” Bennati said. “The greatest moment for me was when I saw Magic for the first time.”

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