Abdul-Jabbar broke his right hand in the process, and was fined $5,000 by the league. Benson's injuries, both physical and emotional, were more serious. The blow to the head resulted in a mild concussion. "It was a horrible way to break in with my parents and fianc�e watching," Benson says. He had severe headaches for nearly two months after the incident, and around Christmas he went on TV in Milwaukee and painted a chilling picture of his mental anguish.
"I am still fearful," he told Bucks Announcer Eddie Doucette. "I see these fists coming at me whenever I turn my head from side to side on the court."
Benson actually missed only one game following the fight, but the Bucks played better with John Gianelli in the lineup, and Benson never came close to winning his starting job back. When he sprained an ankle and tore knee ligaments in a collision with New York's Bob McAdoo in December, the Bucks got Jim Eakins to back up Gianelli and Benson. Benson's rookie season had hardly been anything to write Bobby Knight about.
Benson played on Knight's 1976 NCAA championship team at Indiana, which, except for an injury to Scott May, might have won two NCAA titles and 69 games in a row. A two-time All-America, Benson would likely have been any NBA team's choice as the first pick in last year's draft. He was listed as 6'11" and 245 pounds, and though he has small hands for someone his size and wasn't considered quick or a great leaper, he set a mean pick, didn't shy away from contact and could shoot a jump shot from outside and put up a short hook shot. He had averaged a solid 19.8 points and 10.4 rebounds per game during his senior year.
There was a catch, however, which was easy to see when Benson lined up against the 6'11" Nater the other night. Instead of being 6'11" himself, which was what he was listed as at Indiana, Benson seems more like 6'9". Two inches may not sound like much, but they are very important in Benson's case. Perhaps that even answers Killilea's incessant question: "Why, when Bennie hustles so hard, isn't more happening out there?"
It should be noted that Bill Walton needed two years to overcome injuries and to adjust to life in the NBA. So, too, may Benson. But if he is going to develop into the dominant center that Milwaukee needs to go with its wondrous young forward, Johnson, and his running mate, Meyers, Benson is going to have to step out of character a bit.
" Kent is such a decent, civilized, God-fearing person that I think he's going to have problems reconciling his idealistic view of the world with the superficial approach to life that he sees in the NBA," says one member of the Bucks. "All year long he hustled, yet the look on his face seemed to be saying, 'Is this what life is about? A smashed-up face, nothing but travel and lots of questions about when am I going to live up to my potential?' "
Apart from being a pro basketball player, Kent Benson is a very religious, family-oriented bass fisherman from southern Indiana, who never came close to adapting to the life of an NBA gypsy in his rookie season. A confirmed non-drinker in a confirmed beer-drinkers' town, he didn't sit on a barstool or sweet-talk a barmaid the entire year—which is to say that he didn't spend many off-hours with his teammates. Eating out with them in a restaurant was O.K., as long as they weren't going for something like enchiladas, which are not within Benson's realm of experience, either. When he was invited to a teammate's apartment for dinner, he often replied with a polite but firm "No thanks," so that he could relax at home with the Bible and call his fianc�e back home in Indiana. He never became one of the guys, on the court or off.
"I realize now that I alienated myself from my teammates," Benson says, "but I'm such a down-to-earth person, I was, well, surprised at all the big-city guys in this league with their big-city life-styles. This year I guess there's no reason I can't go into a bar with Grunfeld or somebody on the road and have a Coke while they have a couple of beers. Maybe I'll really get to know them that way and it will help me play better. To be honest, basketball is just a job to me at this point in my life. But I feel 110% better about it right now than I did last year when all I ever thought about was why, why, why or if, if, if.
"It has been somewhat humbling for me to have to come out and prove myself in the summer league. But I'm man enough to do what I have to do to become the kind of player that I want to be again and that the Bucks organization wants me to be."