Creighton coach Willis Reed and his wife, Gale, were dining recently at Maxine's Restaurant in Omaha with Benoit Benjamin, the Bluejays' 7-foot junior center. At one point during the dinner Reed, 42, the seven-time NBA All-Star center, who was dressed in a conservative business suit, sat back and gazed through his gold-rimmed glasses at the sight across the table. There sat Benjamin, 20, in a blue velveteen suit, cardigan sweater, striped shirt, club tie and double-strand gold necklace.
"You're doing well with all that gold around your neck," Reed said. Benjamin wondered what was coming next.
"Son?" said Reed.
"When you turn pro, Gale and I are going to visit you at your country estate. We're going to eat your food, ride your horses, use your tennis courts and sit by your pool."
"Aw, Coach," said Benjamin, not altogether embarrassed, "gimme a break."
Reed hasn't given Benjamin very many breaks, and Benjamin is all the better for it. After two years of criticizing, cajoling and kidding his baby-faced prot�g�, Reed is getting the results he'd hoped for all along. At week's end Benjamin was averaging 23.0 points per game for the 20-7 Bluejays, with 5.4 blocked shots and 14.6 rebounds, first and second, respectively, among NCAA Division I players.
Benjamin's transformation has been astonishing, fulfilling almost to the letter the plans Reed laid out for him three years ago. Benjamin has changed from a small-town mama's boy to a man's man, from a lone wolf to a team player who insists he'll return to Creighton next year for his senior season, no matter what temptations the NBA might offer.
"Generally, every big man is lacking something," says Reed, who certainly never lacked intelligence. "Even Ralph Sampson isn't very strong. But Ben's got it all: height, strength, quickness, coordination, touch." And Benjamin has been using it all in Missouri Valley Conference games. Witness his 43 points against Southern Illinois on Jan. 11, followed two days later by 45 against Indiana State. Not since Larry Bird in 1976-77 has a Missouri Valley player scored 40 or more points in consecutive games. After Benjamin ran up 29 points, 12 rebounds and 12 blocks in a 71-68 overtime victory at Bradley on Feb. 2, losing coach Dick Versace said, "If I were starting an NBA expansion team and had time to develop a center, he'd be my man over Georgetown's Patrick Ewing. Sure, Ewing's more aggressive right now, but he also has some offensive problems. Benjamin influences every aspect of the game, and he's still learning."
An only child from Monroe, La.—which, it happens, is also former Boston Celtic center Bill Russell's hometown—Benoit was named after his great-uncle Lenard Benoit Nickleberry, who played football at Grambling. (Though Benjamin pronounces his given name ben-NOIT, in Southern Louisiana's Cajun country he's referred to as ben-WAH.) Benjamin's father died when Benoit was nine, and he was raised by three women—his mother, Carolyn, his aunt Emily Benjamin Winston and his grandmother Catherine N. Benjamin.