From prison to the pros: Lee Benson is making the most of his freedom, hoping to parlay pro success overseas to a spot in the NBA
THIRTEEN YEARS AGO, LEE Benson seemed like a lock for the NBA.
After playing just a year of high school ball in Dayton, dozens of Division I schools, including Oklahoma, Clemson, and California, wanted the 6’11” Benson badly.
It’s not hard to see why. In that one year at Dunbar High School, forward Benson averaged 22.0 ppg and 15.6 rpg, winning city MVP honors.
Then he screwed up. The way Benson explains things, he began hanging out with a group of “thugs from the neighborhood” and getting in trouble. It was the biggest mistake of his life. He ended up getting convicted of drug trafficking and abduction with a firearm–and spending 8 1/2 years in prison.
Now, at an age when some pros begin to think about retirement, the 29-year-old is trying to salvage one last shot at the NBA. And while Benson may be firing up a desperation three-pointer from mid-court, he’s not ready to quit.
Benson was released from the Warren Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in Lebanon, Ohio, in August 2001. He played the 2001-02 season for Brown Mackie Junior College in Salina, Kan., and then declared for the 2002 NBA draft. Benson wasn’t picked, but he spent three weeks in the Washington Wizards summer camp; however, he didn’t get invited to training camp.
After striking out in the NBA, Benson played three months for a professional team in Greece from November to February, averaging 15 points and 13 rebounds (ranking second in the 14-team A1 league).
Benson’s life story, from high school star to convicted felon to pro basketball player, has earned him more attention than his accomplishments on the court ever could.
“I don’t think my story in unique,” Benson says. “I’m a person trying hard to fulfill his dream. I won’t stop. I know with my work ethic, if I keep working hard, I will get a chance to play in the NBA.”
Marty Blake, the NBA’s director of scouting, says few if any prospects, have ever been through what Benson has. “I’ve never heard of a story like his,” he says. “And I’ve been in the NBA for 50 years and in pro ball for 60.”
Even so, Blake calls Benson a longshot to make the NBA. “He’s a very good athlete, but he’s a raw talent,” Blake says. “It’s an amazing story. Where will it lead?”
It appeared for a while that Benson’s basketball dreams ended with his conviction. He was sentenced to 8 1/2 to 25 years, so he didn’t know if would be getting out of prison while he was still in his 20s–or after his 40th birthday. But the uncertainty didn’t stop him from playing hoops at every chance he got.
For the most part, Benson preferred to practice on his own rather than play in the prison yard pickup games with murderers, even though the other prisoners would complain that he was hogging the court.
It was less dangerous that way. After one game, in which he hit the winning shot, Benson was actually stabbed.
“I ended up getting cut on my side,” he says. “At that point, I feared for my life. I stopped playing ball for a while, but I loved the game so much that I had to go back out there.”
After that, though, he wasn’t as reluctant to risk the other inmates’ displeasure with his solo practice sessions. “When I could, I’d practice by myself,” Benson says. “Sometimes that made the best practices. When you played in groups, they didn’t want you to dunk, so you had to pull up for a jump shot. If you went for a dunk, you’d get hurt. That’s how I developed an outside shot.”
Benson was still in prison when Brown Mackie coach Francis Flax began visiting him. Flax learned about Benson from Benson’s cousin, Marcus Stewart, who played two years at Brown Mackie. But Flax only decided to make a visit to Benson at Warren Correctional Institution in Lebanon, Ohio, after talking to Benson’s father, Lee Benson Sr.
“It was just a situation where he comes from a great family,” Flax says. “His parents have been married for more than 30 years. His father is a master educator from Ohio. I knew Lee had to have some good in him.”
Benson enrolled in Brown Mackie, a business junior college, after he left prison in August 2001. Not surprisingly, he faced some challenges adjusting to life as a student
“He was afraid of computers,” Flax says. “It was something he didn’t know anything about.”
Throughout the year at Brown Mackie, Flax kept a close eye on Benson, driving him to school in the mornings and making sure he attended classes and followed his conditioning routine.
Most players come to junior college with baggage, but Flax says few were carrying quite as much as Benson.
“You’re taking a huge risk” by recruiting a player out of prison, he says. “You wonder if he’s going to fit in your community, let alone your school. Is it going to be more of a babysitting job, or something where you can go home comfortably at night and not worry about the phone ringing and it being the police?”
Luckily for Flax, the gamble paid off. The 240-pound Benson had a monster season for the Lions, averaging 34.8 points, 13.6 rebounds, and 3.7 blocks in 34 games.
“He was the leading scorer in the nation at any level,” Flax says. “It was amazing, all the things he could do. He could shoot NBA threes, he could dribble the length of the court, and go up over everybody and dunk. I was disappointed we didn’t win the national championship, but a lot of our guys would throw him the ball and stand there and watch.”
The attention Benson received helped rekindle his dream of playing in the NBA. “Every day we were contacted by some different newspaper or radio station,” Flax explains. “We were on sports radio talk shows from coast to coast. As a veteran coach, I didn’t need all that stuff, but I thought it was good for Lee. It taught him that he was something special and that he needed to take the opportunity and run with it.”
Flax wanted Benson to stay a second year, but Benson decided to declare for the 2002 NBA draft. The league invited him to its pre-draft camp in Chicago. “It wasn’t that he went undrafted,” Blake says. “He wasn’t good enough.”
Benson was disappointed, but not surprised. He worked out for Washington, the Phoenix Suns, Milwaukee Bucks, and Miami Heat prior to the draft. “I thought I might get drafted, but I wasn’t expecting to,” he says.
Benson played three games for the USBL’s Kansas Cagerz before bolting for Washington’s summer camp, where he worked out with young Wizards stars like Kwame Brown, Etan Thomas, Jared Jeffries, and Juan Dixon. Although Benson didn’t get invited to a training camp in the fall, he showed flashes of promise.
“His perimeter shooting is probably his best attribute,” says Washington’s assistant GM, Rod Higgins. “It’s a really tough scenario for any player to be sitting out for as long as he did and play at a high level.”
Benson was drafted No. 7 overall by the Rockford (Ill.) Lightning in the 2002 CBA draft in October. He signed a contract that would have paid him about $800 a week, but he chose to buy out Rockford out and play in Europe for more money–and to face tougher inside players.
A number of former NBA players compete in Greece’s A1 league, with Tyrone Nesby and Will Solomon among them.
“I would have made close to $200,000,” Benson says.
However, Benson’s team in Greece breached his contract, he says. (“They would give you $3,000 here and $3,000 there.”) He’s since moved on to play for a brief stint in Cyprus (with the same team the Orlando Magic’s Darrell Armstrong once played for) and then for Hapoaa, in Israel.
In one respect going overseas has paid off. Benson’s footwork, which was never developed to NBA standards in prison, has unproved noticeably.
Higgins isn’t sure he has seen the last of Benson. “Our coaching staff had an opportunity to work with him and they all enjoyed the experience,” he says. “I think he can still learn the game. Experience is the best teacher for any young player. Without experience, you don’t get to the next level. He is a 6’11” jump shooter. There’s always a spot for a guy like that.”
COPYRIGHT 2003 Century Publishing
COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group