Guess who the new darling of Los Angeles pro basketball fans is. . . .
Bill Laimbeer? Jake O'Donnell? Danny Ainge? No, but you're getting warm. It's Benoit Benjamin. . . .
The former Clipper center who never has been a leading candidate for the hustle award was booed every time he touched the ball at the Sports Arena as a Seattle SuperSonic and wasn't exactly a favorite at the Forum, either. . . .
But in his Laker debut Sunday, No. 00 drew applause from Jack Nicholson, cheers from Dyan Cannon and nods of approval from most of the rest of the 16,895 fans as he scored eight points and grabbed four rebounds during 12 minutes of a victory over none other than the Clippers. . . .
"I love Laker fans," said Benjamin, who once said something slightly less complimentary about Clipper fans. . . .
After playing in one game, he also likes his new teammates. The feeling is mutual. They kept patting him on the shoulders and head and the other new Laker, Doug Christie, stood and applauded after each of Big Ben's four baskets. . . .
"Everyone on the team wants him to do well," Laker Coach Randy Pfund said. "They know this is a tough business and that people are taking shots at you all the time." . . .
Pfund says that he doesn't want to rush Benjamin because he has just started to learn the system. . . .
"Ben knows eight or 10 of our plays," Pfund said. "With variations, that leaves about 50 for him to learn. The terminology is different, too. I call out, 'Rip,' which is a certain type of screen, and he's used to hearing, 'Back pick.' I wish I could have a week of training camp in Hawaii right now to work on play sets with him and Christie." . . .
The importance of the Clippers eventually getting something for Danny Manning--or signing another free agent after next season with the money they won't be paying him--was illustrated Sunday when they struggled down the stretch without their star forward. . . .
Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing are centers of more attention, but Hakeem Olajuwon is having perhaps his finest season for the Houston Rockets, who visit the Sports Arena tonight. . . .
Olajuwon is averaging 24.8 points, 12.9 rebounds and 4.3 blocked shots. . . .
Bill Frieder is getting the most out of Arizona State, but the Pacific 10 Conference coach of the year should be Lute Olson if Arizona finishes the league season unbeaten. . . .
That was some crowd--52,400--for the third and final round of the Nissan L.A. Open at Riviera. . . .
Trainer Roger Stein has done a remarkable job with Southern Truce, who upset Paseana in the $300,000 Santa Margarita Handicap Sunday at Santa Anita two years after having been claimed by Stein for $16,000. . . .
President Paul Reddam of the California Harness Racing Assn. instituted a policy of races going off every 17 minutes at Los Alamitos and nobody is getting shut out at the parimutuel windows. . . .
Tom Weiskopf, 50, will make his debut on the Senior PGA Tour this weekend at the $500,000 GTE West Classic at the Ojai Valley Inn and Country Club after leading the United States to a victory over an international team in the Chrysler Cup. Weiskopf last won on the regular tour in the 1982 Western Open. . . .
The Lennox Lewis-Tony Tucker World Boxing Council heavyweight title bout, a Mirage hotel production, is set for May 8 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. Julio Cesar Chavez might fight on the undercard. . . .
Payback: USC won two of three baseball games from Fresno State last week at Dedeaux Field. . . .
I could have sworn that Baltimore Manager Johnny Oates caught some games that new Oriole acquisition Fernando Valenzuela pitched for the Dodgers, but Oates was here from 1977-79 and Valenzuela didn't arrive until 1980. . . .
My favorite spring training TV bite: Nolan Ryan sitting on a chair at the Texas Rangers' camp and signing autographs free of charge for a long line of fans. . . .
The top three goal scorers in the NHL are Europeans--Alexander Mogilny, Teemu Selanne, and Pavel Bure. . . .
The best thing the Kings have going for them in the Smythe Division playoff race is the Edmonton Oilers. . . .
The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim? It sure beats the Mighty Ducks of Los Angeles or Mighty Ducks of California.