LEON BENBOW: Columbia Basketball Legend

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LEON BENBOW: Columbia Basketball Legend

BY: Moses Brown

Moses Brown

For the Carolina Midlands, one source of regional pride are “Native Sons”; basketball “prodigies” in particular who have brought great honor to our “Famously Hot” Capital City of Columbia South Carolina. Their unique talents carried them to the pinnacle of basketball success; careers in the National Basketball Association (NBA). It’s commonly thought that Alex English was the first to make the giant leap (Dreher) embarking on a Hall-of-Fame career with the Denver Nuggets. Xavier “X-Man” McDaniel & Tyrone Corbin followed; teammates at A.C. Flora, both had long professional careers, and most recently Jermaine O’Neal left Eau Claire & went straight to the Pros and is now concluding (Golden State Warriors) his 18th season in “The Association”.

Unfortunately, one player appears forgotten; the “Granddaddy” of them all, “Blazed” the trail for those aforementioned to follow. His name is Leon Benbow a 1969 graduate of the “Legendary” Booker T Washington High School. Leon played for the Chicago Bulls for two seasons in the mid 1970’s. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Benbow and he enthusiastically reminisced about his early “Life & Times” which ultimately led to his career in professional basketball. His playing career commenced while attending Florence C. Benson Middle School located in Columbia’s Wheeler Hill neighborhood. Florence C. Benson had a serious basketball tradition—every classroom had a team. It was there that Leon befriended Sam Sumter who was his rival at F.C.B.; and they both took their skills on to Booker T Washington and were teammates on the Junior Varsity team.

When they arrived the school had a well established reputation of athletic prominence that regularly won championships in football, basketball, baseball as well as track & field which were all sports that Leon excelled at while at Booker Washington (with the exception of baseball). Leon states that, “The coaches for all sports were excellent, the names are legendary, Coach Bob Reynolds, Coach Carl Williams, Coach William Partlow, Coach George Glymph, Coach Sam “Hercules” Goodwin among others—they were the coaches and they all worked with the athletes together. They developed a summer league (opened the gym) where players from all around the area would come, college players from Benedict & Allen, SC State, players from as far away as Maryland Eastern Shore would come & play in the summer leagues”.

Later Coach Partlow started this Metropolitan League where players from all over the City would come & play—college players competed in this league, high school All-Americans, you had star players from all over the City. Players from the North side, the South side, from West Cola., your Harden street players, from Wheeler Hill & Valley Park, they all competed—Leon credits this for preparing him when it was his time to “Shine”. And Leon especially remembers how competitive the intercity rivalry was between Booker T Washington and C.A. Johnson. “It really was a heated rivalry—BTW had players from low poverty areas, but C. A. Johnson was considered upper-level, economically a little superior. When you crossed Gervais Street & went down the other side of Read Street on up, you were C. A. Johnson—from Read Street on back you were Booker Washington—and this was the history of all the alumni”, remembers Leon.

By the time Leon became a part of the rivalry for one of the only times ever, C.A. Johnson had beaten BTW for a couple of years in a row. When the two teams met you couldn’t get a seat in the stadium (now Bolden Stadium) or at either team’s gymnasium, unless you arrived early. One of the things that prepared Leon for upcoming games against his archrival began in 8th grade when he was on the JV team coached by Carl Williams. Coach Williams started playing Prep-Schools; Charlie Scott (first Black Basketball player at UNC/NBA Champ Boston Celtics) had come down from New York to play for a Prep-School in North Carolina. “We would go there and play them while on the JV, we’d get beat but these guys were a lot older than us; I remember playing them when Charlie was there, we’d lose to them but it would always be a great game—we’d come within inches of beating them. We were like 15/16 and these guys were like 18/19 but we always competed well against them”, remembers Leon.

During this era Columbia City schools (as they were all over the south) were segregated according to race—BTW and CAJ never competed against other City schools that were all white. Eau Claire, AC Flora, Columbia High, Dreher, Lower Richland, there was no competition between them. Though it was never talked about Coach Sy Sakacki the head basketball coach at A.C. Flora befriended Coach Williams & Coach Glymph and they arranged scrimmages against each other. These clandestine activities were scheduled for late nights: States Leon, “They would scrimmage us but wouldn’t let anybody know about it—we would go over there & scrimmage them. The gym would be locked, and we’d beat them like 65 to 20, we had a pressing defense where our theory was to pick them up, end-line-to-end-line. It was a conditioning thing, and they couldn’t get the ball across half court—and they were considered the top team in the Metro area”.

When Leon began play on the varsity as a 9th grader Sam Oglesby (later played at W. Virginia) was the team’s star player. Leon credits Coach Williams for developing him on the JV and then turning him over to Coach Partlow (left BTW to become Head Coach at Benedict College). “I remember being challenged because there were more Wheeler Hill players & very few Valley Park players where I was from. But I wanted to play & I was very competitive, I worked my way in—I mean through hard, hard work. In the summer, at night, I mean doing it; I remember going out at night to Valley Park, no lights and the net was made of chains—when you shot the only way you knew the ball went in the basket—was when you heard the chains singing; chang, chang, chang, and then you knew you had done something”.

When Leon arrived on Varsity Coach Partlow took him under his wing, the team was geared toward running plays for Sam Oglesby. But Leon was such a fierce competitor & had great quickness, as well as being an excellent shooter—that Coach Partlow eventually geared the offense around him. Sam was two years ahead of Leon and they played together two seasons when Leon was in 9th & 10th grade. He and his childhood friend Sam Sumter came along together & played football as well as basketball together at Booker. Leon remembers that, “Sam was the quarterback & I was the wide-receiver—I was all area in football, I was all-area in basketball & I was all-area in track”.

The University of South Carolina was a “stones-throw” away from Booker Washington. Leon remembers sneaking into the Field-House to watch them scrimmage. Watching Kevin Joyce, John Roche, Skip Harlika, Jack Thompson play, he even managed to find himself playing pickup games with the college players and doing very well. “I was in 10th grade and so I’m saying if I can compete on this level with these freshman & sophomores, I’m not bad. And I remember going around from park to park with this guy named “Applejack” (local playground legend) and another childhood friend Bobby Goodwin, going from park to park. We’d beat teams at each park & then leave there when competition got weak, & go to another park—we’d have a group of fans who would follow us from park to park watching us destroy the competition”!

During Leon’s junior & senior years at Booker Washington he remembers winning championships in football, basketball as well as track & field. Leon states that, “I never lost when I was there, I always won a State Championship—we won championships in football, basketball as well as track & field. Our track team was coached by Bob Reynolds (later coached track at AC Flora-& athletic director), I ran the 880, I ran the mile, & I think I lost two races in track in my four years there. In football I was a split-end, a guard & small forward in basketball. I was invited to play in the North/South All-Star games in both football & basketball—I decided to play in the basketball All-Star game”. The North/South basketball game was played in Greenville, SC—Leon knew several of the players on the North squad, from Sterling High School, Schofield High School, and Greenville High School. On the South squad Leon was the only Black player—traditionally this game was very competitive and scouts from most college teams from within the State (including USC) as well as surrounding states were well represented.

Leon went on to become the Most-Valuable-Player in the game, not only scoring the winning basket but also the basket that tied the game up in the closing seconds. Leon remembers it this way, “We had a great coach & he chose me to take the last shot, I remember he put his “fist” up for me to go one-on-one—I’ve forgotten who was checking me—but I remember looking in this guys eyes, and I remember thinking, I’ve got to make this bucket, not just for me but to make way for other Black athletes to play in this game. I remember I turned around & looked in this guys eyes, & I saw fear, and I went directly at him—with the quickness, jarring, shaking & baking, moving him back—I went with such steam that he backed up about two feet. He gave me the jump shot, and for me a jump shot was like a layup. I took the shot & hit nothing but net”.

Prior to the contest it was announced that the game’s MVP would receive a kiss from the Homecoming Queen. No one imagined that a Black player would win it, “I don’t think anybody gave odds of me being MVP, but I remember scoring 27pts & grabbing 17rebs & being voted MVP. I was getting ready to go out on the court when my teammates lifted me up & carried me. But I never did get to kiss the Homecoming Queen—though I knew that that would never happen anyway”, a Sign-of-the-Times.

Leon Benbow had several hundred college scholarship offers for football, basketball and track & field as a high school senior. But he never received a scholarship offer from the University of South Carolina. “This always bothered me because I watched the Gamecocks, Coach MaGuire, Paul Dietzel, Bob Fulton; I remember the Gamecocks football and basketball teams and I dreamed about being a part of that. I was recruited by teams from all over the nation: Southern Cal, Fla. State, Notre Dame, Wake Forest, NC State, W. Virginia & many others; but The University of South Carolina never offered me a scholarship—and I wanted to be a Gamecock. A lot of people I’ve never told that—but that’s where I wanted to be. I do remember having a conversation with Coach MaGuire, and I appreciated what he told me. Coach MaGuire said at that time the South was not ready for a Black ballplayer—he told me about coaching Wilt Chamberlain—how he had Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar) on the campus and talked with him. Chamberlain in advising Alcindor as to where he should go to college; told Alcindor that wherever Coach MaGuire is, to go there—this was in 1966 so I understand that Coach MaGuire’s advice to Alcindor was similar to what he advised me—that the South was not ready for a Black Athlete”, states Leon.

Leon realized that playing for South Carolina would never become a reality—so he turned his attention to plan “B”—Jacksonville University emerged as the “front-runner” when they sent an assistant coach up to watch Leon perform in the North/South All-Star game. Don Rutledge was the coach from JU: “He told me “Man” you’re a “Stud”, and you made me look like a genius—I told them that you’d get MVP, and you got it!” Jacksonville had gone to the Final-Four that season. The team was led by seven-footers, Artis Gilmore and Pembrook Burrows III—they lost in the National Championship game to UCLA, Coached by the Legendary John Wooden and led on the floor by Curtis Rowe and Sidney Wicks. Jacksonville recruited Leon intensely, leaving no doubt that they wanted him to join their program. “I remember they came down and signed me—they said they wanted my talent—and I was thinking, if the number one ranked team in America wanted me; I knew that I should have been able to play at the University of South Carolina, and I was bitter about that for a long time”.

When Leon arrived at Jacksonville he was expecting to see 15 to 16 thousand students. But when he arrived, there weren’t a thousand students at this private school. “I said “Man”; but I remember having that one-on-one attention from the teachers in the classroom—which was a blessing”. At this time freshmen were not eligible for varsity competition, but Leon does remember upon his arrival having the opportunity to scrimmage against varsity players—including seven-footer Artis Gilmore. He states that, “My freshman year I wasn’t allowed to practice against the varsity—but I believe some of the coaches wanted to see my skills—and I remember running with the varsity. The first time I got the ball; I got by my defender, drove to the basket and dunked the ball. After that I came down and hit five or six jump shots in a row—we played out there for about two hours. In the locker-room after it was over, I remember the Coach asking the players—can he play? I remember Artis and Ernie Flemming saying, Coach, He Can Play! You didn’t make a mistake by offering him a scholarship”.

Leon didn’t play his freshman year due to academic reasons—he scored over 800 on the SAT, and was a C-plus student at BTW—but academically he got off to a slow start at JU. He did put his time to good use and remained eligible for the next three seasons. The team started Leon’s sophomore year ranked among the top 10 teams in the Nation. His team played in the post season (NIT-72/ NCAA-73/ NIT-74) all three years Leon was on the varsity. He remembers that, “I was always scheduled to take the opposition’s toughest player—Coach Partlow, Coach Williams, Coach Glymph gave me this—you ask for the toughest player—you ask for that assignment. It made me so competitive. Every game I would tell Coach, I want to guard the number-one player on that team—I don’t care how big he is, I want to check him”. Even though Leon was an excellent offensive talent; shooter, ball handler, distributer; defense was his “calling-card”. While at Jacksonville he had the opportunity to go head-to-head with some of the Nation’s top scorers—and he invariably shut them down.

He vividly remembers going up against the top scorers in college basketball. Oral Roberts, Richie Fuqua, was the Nation’s leading scorer at 34points per-game, Dwight “Bo” Lamar from Southwest Louisiana, and Ed Radliff from Long Beach State were the three leading scorers in Division One in the 1971/72 season. First up was Fuqua, “So I’m watching film, I’m saying “Man” ain’t no way that guy can get 30pts on me. Coach was saying I don’t know what we’re going to do. I remember walking into the coaches’ office, and I told Coach, I’ll shut him down, he won’t score 10pts.So we go up against Fuqua in a Tournament up in New York, and I shut him down. I told him, listen, I said when you hit the floor I’m going to pick you up from end-line-to-end-line. I said when you go to the bathroom, I’m gonna give you permission—and we went on from there and I held him to 10pts, and we beat them. We went up against Ed Radliff and Long Beach State, and I shut him down, but we lost that game”. Leon also competed against Bo Lamar and held him to 11pts—and from this time on—every game six or seven pro scouts (Atlanta Hawks, Buffalo Braves, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks & others) could be found in any arena Leon was competing, evaluating his professional potential.

Coming into his senior season Leon was “Honorably Mentioned” as an All-American candidate: he averaged 20.6 pts, 6.0 rebs, and 3.1 assts per game—with averages of 17.0 pts, 5 rebs and 3.2 assts over his three year career in Jacksonville—still, his defense was what pro scouts were raving about. It was rumored that the Chicago Bulls had become enamored with Leon, not for his point production, though he was an excellent scorer—they felt that he could play NBA-level defense right now. In the 1974 NBA Draft the Chicago Bulls selected Leon Benbow with the 27th pick—he was also drafted by the San Diego Conquistadors of the American Basketball Association. Leon joined a Chicago Bulls team coached by Dick Motta; on the roster were a number of Hall-of-Fame players and coaches: Jerry Sloan, Norm Van Lier, Nate Thurmond, Chet Walker, Bob Love, and Rick Adelman, Bob Weiss, and Matt Guokas.

The Chicago Bulls were an NBA expansion team in 1966—the team had enjoyed modest success prior to the 1974/75 season. Leon’s rookie year was the first time that the Chicago Bulls franchise had ever won a Division Title (Midwest Division-47-35). The Bulls defeated the Kansas City-Omaha Kings and their star player, Nate “Tiny” Archibald in the first round of the playoffs, and led the Golden State Warriors 3 games to 2 in the Western Conference Finals. Leon states, “We just about played for the NBA Championship my first year there—we lost to the Golden State Warriors, led by one of the NBA’s all-time-greats, Rick Barry, in seven games—we had them down three games to two; and I’m thinking, “Boy” I’ve got a “Ring” my first year up here. Bob Love was twice selected NBA first team All-Defense and was a 20ppg career scorer; but ill advisedly he slapped Rick Barry—and that was the worst mistake he could have made—from that point forward, Barry played like a man possessed” .

The Warriors climbed out of the three games to two deficits, winning game seven on their home court—they then went on to defeat the heavily favored Washington Bullets in a four game “sweep”. Leon played sparingly his first year in the league, but in year two he established himself in the rotation becoming a valued commodity with the team. He signed a four year contract extension at the seasons’ conclusion, and it appeared that he was on his way to becoming one of the leagues bright young “Stars”. In athletics as well as in life, “Fate” sometimes administers some cruel blows—a serious ankle injury had not properly healed when Leon signed his new contract—and not only did he have to pass a team physical, but it was necessary that he pass a physical by the teams insurer, Lloyds of London, who had to guarantee the contract. Lloyds of London refused to insure the agreement—and Bulls management decided to void the contract—this effectively ended the professional career of Leon Benbow.

The Life & Times of Leon Benbow has faded from the memory of many residents of his home town. Timing in life is everything: imagine Coach Frank MaGuire finding the courage to make Leon Benbow the first Black-American basketball player in the University of South Carolinas’ history. Think of the possibilities, Leon Benbow in a lineup featuring Kevin Joyce, Brian Winters, Alex English, and Nate Davis, all future pros—would have been something “Special”—a team which matches up favorably with any of Coach McGuire’s’ greatest Carolina contingents. A lineup comparable to the 69/70 team that finished 25/3, led by All-American John Roche, Bobby Cremins, Tom Owens, Tom Riker and John Ribock.

Leon too, wonders what might have been—but has now come to grips with reality; focus on tomorrow—for the past cannot be mended—some things were simply not meant to be. “I feel blessed that so many individuals came into my life. Starting with my mother, Mrs. Louise Rivers Benbow—she was a gentle “Giant” in my life and my father , Leon Benbow, Senior; a hard working Man ; to my high school teachers and coaches, I owe everything— teaching me not only the game of basketball but the skills-of-survival—making me the “Man” I am today. I’ve had many ups and downs in my life but I’m still standing. I have not always been a perfect person: I’ve made mistakes. But I do feel that I’m in a good place right now. I had a wonderful career and now I’m married to a Beautiful Lady and a wonderful Woman (Anna Steele Hankerson Benbow) —who right now has gotten my life together.

She’s changed me in a lot of ways—I was headed in a downward spiral, losing my mother and father and a son, I just got discombobulated—it took me out of character. This lady is the “Rock” in my life—I know God had to do it; with her and God “Man”! I got my life back, and I’m having a wonderful time, she’s the “Apple-of-My-Eye”: and I want her to know how much she means to me and my family. To those of us who know you—and watched you play—thank you too, MR. LEON BENBOW, JUNIOR: FOR BLAZING THE TRAIL FOR ALL THE OTHERS TO FOLLOW!

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