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Scott Ostler

A Giant Leap for Clippers; a Small Step for Ben

November 12, 1987|Scott Ostler

These old sportswriter eyes have seen some amazing sights. Koufax no-hitting the Mets. . . . Masterpieces painted by Jaguar Jon, O.J. and Eric the Gone. . . . Arnie charging. . . . Baylor and West, the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid of hoops, re-inventing the game . . .

Now, into that hopper filled with golden memories of incredible feats, I have added this one: The night Benoit Benjamin had 10 points, 7 rebounds, 9 assists and 4 blocks, and helped the Clippers beat the Utah Jazz.

It happened Tuesday night at the Sports Arena. I was there. I have the ticket stub to prove it, and witnesses. I call dibs on the movie rights.

Now, a visitor from Albania might say, "What's the big deal about a 7-foot veteran who earns more than a million bucks a season, playing an efficient, workmanlike game? Wouldn't that be an average quarter for Magic Johnson?"

Of course, we all would laugh in the Albanian's naive face.

This is Ben , we would tell him (or her). This is the kid who was supposed to save a franchise, who was a gift from the NBA lottery god, and who has been the object of a two-year missing-person manhunt.

Some games, the Clippers have been tempted to hold a mirror under Ben's nose, to see if he could fog it. If he's dead, you want to hold back his per diem.

Ben's huge salary, he blows on fast cars and fast food. He's the only guy I know who has a Winchell's gold card.

"So why do the Clippers keep him?" the Albanian would inquire.

Not a bad question, actually. They keep him because to release him outright would be an embarrassment and an admission of huge failure. They could trade him, but for what? Tape cutters?

So they keep him around, hoping he'll mature, hoping he'll eventually grow tired of orbiting Jupiter and decide to play ball every night the way he played Tuesday night. In which case, he'd be a decent NBA center.

From game to game, Ben fades in and out, like the reception on your car radio when you're driving through the mountains.

Some nights he takes such shots, you'd swear he couldn't beat Frankenstein's monster in a game of H-O-R-S-E. Some nights he wanders about the court like a guy searching the floor for loose change. And some nights he plays hard and helps a team desperately in need of his help.

The Clippers lost their first two games this season by an average of 35.5 points. Ben missed one game with a sprained ankle, then went out dancing after the game.

Sensing history in the making, I rushed to the Sports Arena Tuesday evening.

The Clippers took the court as the P.A. system played a recording of the team's new fight song, as inspiring as a toothpaste jingle. Sample lyrics: "The Clippers got a lot on the ball . . . "

When Ben jogged onto the court for pregame introductions, he was booed by many in the sparse crowd. He threw his right arm in the air with two fingers extended, like a "hook 'em Horns" signal. I don't know what this meant. Maybe he was flagging down a passing hot dog vendor.

The Clippers played hard. It's tough not to feel some affection for a team that includes Michael Cage, Joe Wolf and Mike Woodson, guys who seem to possess some talent and a lot of heart.

It's impossible to not like a team run by Elgin Baylor, who is the general manager.

On the other side of the scales is Ben.

Ben came off the bench and played adequately in the first half. Made some nice passes. Blocked one of Mark Eaton's ozone hooks. Then, with five minutes left in the game and the Jazz making a run, Ben had a great little run of his own.

He blocked Darrell Griffith's layup and controlled the ball. He hustled for a clutch defensive rebound. He set picks and made two textbook rolls to the hoop, taking passes and converting them to four points. From the top of the key, he consistently got the ball to the open man inside, leading to speculation that his true position is point center.

After the game, Clipper Coach Gene Shue was very happy, until I made the mistake of asking him about Ben's performance. A look of pain crossed Shue's face.

"I don't want to answer any questions on Benoit," Shue said. "If you want to say something good about him, terrific. As I've said many times, he is a project."

So was the Panama Canal. A lot of good men died on that project. Shue is hoping to survive this one.

Benjamin kept his postgame comments brief and to the point.

"I ain't got nothin' to say," he confided to me.

No problem. Sometimes I don't feel like talking to me, either.

I left the Arena with mixed emotions. I had seen the Clippers blow a chance to extend their losing steak to 17. But I had seen Ben on a good night, a memory I could someday pass along to my grandkids.

Will there be many more such nights, or was this a freak occurrence, the NBA equivalent of a UFO sighting?

That is the question that has Shue so edgy, that has the Clippers walking the fine line between respectability and the dumpster.

That is the question. Whither goest thou, Ben?

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