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Having a Ball : Would-Be Cagers Live the Illusion of the Big Time

June 16, 1988|RAY RIPTON | Times Staff Writer

You could never mistake this Benjamin for Benoit Benjamin, the 7-foot center of the National Basketball Assn.'s Los Angeles Clippers.

Alan Benjamin is a 5-9, 150-pound, 35-year-old attorney with thinning hair who doesn't look much like an athlete and could never command a fabulous salary for stuffing a ball through a hoop.

The attorney has never slam-dunked a basketball; he can't jump that high. But he does play basketball once in a while--in occasional pickup games at the Santa Monica YMCA and twice at a Sportsworld fantasy camp for adults led by John Wooden, regarded by many as the best college coach in the history of basketball.

Benjamin and his fellow campers--lawyers, real estate developers, accountants, businessmen--don't seem to mind spending good money at a three-day basketball camp. This year the fee for the camp, held at Pepperdine University, was $1,195.

The fee included food, lodging, a uniform with the participant's name on the back, athletic shoes, a copy of Wooden's book "They Call Me Coach" and a videotape of highlights of an individual's performance at camp games. But $400 a day is still a stiff price.

Still, Benjamin and the other campers seem to think it is well worth it to learn about basketball from the 78-year-old Wooden, whose record of 10 National Collegiate Athletic Assn. championships before he retired at UCLA may never be equaled, let alone surpassed.

1964 Champions

The fee also includes a chance to play against Wooden's first NCAA championship team at UCLA--the 1964 squad that included Gail Goodrich, Walt Hazzard, Jack Hirsch, Fred Slaughter, Keith Erickson and Kenny Washington.

Not only do you get to play against those basketball greats, but camp staffers make you look good doing it. The videotape each camper receives is skillfully edited. Your jump shot can turn out to look nearly as beautiful as one by Goodrich.

Benjamin grew up in Fullerton and attended Sunny Hills High School, where he played on the tennis team but did not play basketball for the varsity. He went on to UCLA, where he played intramural basketball for Sproul Hall. He did not have many opportunities to perfect his hook shot at UCLA, but he got hooked on basketball as a fan while he was getting a bachelor's degree and a joint graduate degree in law and business.

He was at UCLA from 1970 to 1977, years that included four NCAA titles for Wooden and were great for UCLA fans. "College was fun, and I went to almost every game," he said. "It was the thing to do every Friday and Saturday night.

"I used to camp out overnight to get season tickets. Initially, they were free (to students), and I think they later raised them to a quarter a game. We would talk about last year's team and whether this year's team would go all the way. Someone would save your place in line, and you would go to class and come back again."

Surprise Gift

He did not stand in line to attend Wooden's basketball camp last year for the first time. He said that his wife, Linda Engle, "decided that it (going to camp) would be good for me as a Father's Day present and did not tell me about it till the week before.

"Of course, I tried madly to get in shape before, which didn't work. But I enjoyed it, nonetheless."

He said that his wife, also an attorney and UCLA graduate, "thought it would be fun for me and the fulfillment of a fantasy."

He was fulfilled enough after his first camp to write the following testimonial on a brochure for this year's session: "People like John Wooden come along once, maybe twice, in a lifetime. I'm lucky that my wife made sure I didn't miss my chance. I will never forget it."

He kept the camp in mind when it came time for Wooden to conduct his seventh--and possibly his last--such camp for adults in early June. He leads the camps with a staff of high school and college coaches and guest speakers. One of the guests this year was Jim Harrick, the former Pepperdine basketball coach, who recently was named UCLA's coach, the sixth since Wooden retired in 1975.

"I went back a second time," Benjamin said. "I just love listening to Wooden."

What did he get out of listening? "I really thought there were two aspects to the camp. There was the basketball camp itself, where you're taught by coaches the fine points of the game. Coach Wooden taught the high-post offense, defense and rebounding.

"I certainly enjoy watching the game on TV, and learning about defensive principles and different offensive alignments made it more enjoyable watching the games. I appreciate what's going on among the players without the ball.

Coach's Philosophy

"The second aspect was listening to Coach Wooden reminisce about basketball as well as talk about his philosophy of life. Coach Wooden is a good man, a sincere man, who has ideals and philosophies that we all should strive for. So it was both fun and a time to reflect."

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