Normally I don't get excited about NBA exhibition games, especially if they involve the L.A. Clippers.
But I made an exception to this rule last Wednesday morning when I turned to the back page of my favorite sports section. News story: The Clippers played the Golden State Warriors in Fresno. The Warriors won by two. Benoit Benjamin, the Clippers' young center, did not play because he brought two left basketball shoes to Fresno.
No big deal? Think again, friend:
--This is history, the first recorded incident in the NBA, maybe in any sport , of a player missing a game because he brought two left shoes. This will force changes. On an official NBA box score, "DNP-CD" is the designation for "Did Not Play--Coach's Decision." Now available for box score use is "DNP-BTLS" for "Did Not Play--Brought Two Left Shoes."
--Benjamin is a shoe specialist. One day last season he spent $1,700 on shoes. Let's hope that somewhere in that $1,700 collection he got some left-right matches.
--Ben, as his teammates call him, wasn't fined by Coach Don (Duck) Chaney for bringing two left shoes to Fresno, the reasoning being that at least Ben brought shoes.
--Amazingly, not one person was mean-spirited enough to say this was the first time since Benoit came to L.A. that his footwear matched his footwork.
--This latest incident, I believe, officially qualifies Benjamin for designation as a true NBA funky flaky folk hero, a status coveted by many but obtained by few.
I didn't need the shoe incident to decide that Benjamin is my favorite NBA player. I decided that two weeks before when he arrived at training camp in a Rolls-Royce, waddled into the gym 26 pounds overweight and said, "Most of my weight is liquid."
How can you not love this kid?
In one year, he has already had a colorful career, which has gone something like this:
--The Clippers draft him out of Creighton and sign him for four years at $800,000 per. He is to be the franchise's seven-foot savior.
--But he turns out to be a sleeping giant. He misses planes, buses, practices. One afternoon he goes on that $1,700 shoe-shopping spree, falls asleep in his hotel room and misses the bus to that night's game. When he does show up for games, Benjamin is a one-man horror show for the Clippers. Even on this terrible team, Benjamin sets a new standard for bad basketball.
--At mid-season he is on his way to being named by acclimation to the NBA's All-Time All-Stiff Team. He is a triple-threat man, unable or unwilling to score, rebound or block shots.
--"Horrendous" is the word Duck Chaney uses to describe Benjamin's performance.
--The Clippers are aghast, chagrined and ticked off. They might as well have drafted Lumpy Rutherford.
--Sure, Benjamin is the youngest player in the NBA at 20, but he could have passed for 12.
--In an effort to straighten out the kid, Chaney sends help in waves. He calls in Bill Russell, Willis Reed (Ben's college coach), Carl Scheer (then general manager), Larry Fleisher (Ben's agent). Chaney assigns Clipper players, by turns, to act as 'round-the-clock counselors and bodyguards.
--Chaney calls in everyone but Dr. Ruth and Carl Sagan.
--Finally, something clicks. Who knows what or how?
--In the last one-third of the season, Benjamin becomes a very good player, averaging 19 points and 11 rebounds--double his earlier statistics. He makes most of the team planes and buses.
What happened? "It's all really mental," Benjamin explained to me one day last week after a team workout. "Some people adjust mentally quicker than others. It's a level of maturity you have to reach. . . . As you get into a groove, you progress accordingly."
And, what the heck, maybe it was all blown out of proportion.
"With L.A. being a big press market," Benjamin said, "some of the things you don't expect to be blown up, all of a sudden it's a big deal."
Uh, speaking of being blown out of proportion, Ben, what about those extra 26 pounds you packed into camp this year, sending the scales rocketing to 272?
"I was never concerned," he said. "Everything has worked out the way I planned it. If I had come in lighter, I'd probably be ahead of what I am now, but I wasn't as bad as people thought I was."
Ben's right. He really didn't look so bad at 272. Not as long as he was standing between Udo Beyer and Nell Carter.
Fortunately for Benjamin, he's got one of the most sensitive and understanding coaches in the NBA in Duck Chaney.
"I really like Ben," Chaney said. "I like him like a son. He's not flaky. I think the right world would be naive. He's a real good person, but he's naive about life."
Ben is learning fast. He has already lost 20 pounds, got a hip haircut, traded in his Rolls-Royce ("I was just trying it out") for a modest Mercedes-Benz with smoked windows and a telephone, and matched up his sneakers.
Let the season begin.