This David was Goliath for Bula
An untimely ankle injury may have been all that separated David Benton and his Ashtabula teammates from a date with destiny
By KARL PEARSON
Fourth of a series...
If anybody has an appreciation for what family is all about, it is David Benton. As one of 10 children of the late L.T. Benton and Ceola Benton, who still lives in the old family home on West 41st Street in Ashtabula, he developed a keen sense of what that concept is all about.
It has been developed to an even greater extent in raising three children of his own.
But along the way, Benton was part of one of Ashtabula County's most revered sports families, the 1977-78 Ashtabula High School basketball team. That team is arguably the greatest team to ever take the court in Ashtabula County. In the popular and acclaimed Hoop Dreams Tournament, a computer-generated tournament created by the Star Beacon and including 48 of the greatest teams submitted by readers, those Panthers came out on top.
David Benton shows off the shooting form that played a part in him becoming one of the top players on one of the best teams in Ashtabula County basketball history — coach Bob Walters' 1977-78 Ashtabula Panthers.
At the head of that family was coach Bob Walters, a great player in his own right who attained hall-of-fame stature. The team included some of the finest athletes ever to grace the basketball courts of the county, players like Tom Hill, another player of hall-of-fame standing, along with Deora Marsh, who still plays professional basketball in Europe, and Harrison "Scooby" Brown.
Other key players were Jewel Hanna, Tony Powell, Robin Thomas and Roger Ball. It also included players even more renowned for their exploits for Walters' outstanding tennis teams of the era — Perry Stofan, Lou Murphy, Hank Barchanowicz and Stanley Ball.
That family went toe-to-toe with some of the greatest teams in Ohio of that year. The pinnacle of that was its Class AAA district championship game at North High School against the St. Joseph Vikings featuring future Ohio State standout and eventual NBA player Clark Kellogg.
The 6-foot-4 Benton was right in the thick of that battle, outplaying Kellogg in the first half. But a severe ankle sprain early in the third quarter sent Benton to the bench for the rest of the game and allowed St. Joseph to claim an 84-80 victory. Many observers, at least from an Ashtabula County perspective, felt Ashtabula would have won that game had Benton stayed in the game.
Despite the bitter disappointment of that sudden ending, Benton still considers his basketball experiences at Ashtabula, and particularly with that team, one of the highlights of his life. One might say that 1977-78 Panther squad was a unique family, almost a band of brothers, even 32 years after that special season.
The years tend to melt away whenever the players encounter each other, even though the circumstances of life have scattered them.
"Coach Walters is a friend of mine," Benton said. "It's not just an old-coach, old-player relationship.
"Nothing is more important to me than family. Whenever we see each other, we end up talking for at least 15 minutes about what's going on in our lives. Many times, the conversation gets around to that season."
David Benton of Ashtabula follows through on a dunk as Ed Warner of Edgewood looks on during a Class AAA tournament game at North in the 1977-78 season.
Certainly, Benton's contributions to that team are without question. According to information supplied by Walters, Benton averaged 18.5 points per game in his senior year and was in double figures in all but two of the 20 games he played in helping the Panthers to an 18-3 record.
But his contributions were manifest even in the two seasons before that. In his sophomore season of 1975-76, a 10-10 year for the Panthers, he averaged 11.4 points per game and scored in double figures in 10 of the 19 games in which he played, even though he didn't start in all of them. In his junior season of 1976-77, when Ashtabula was 13-7, he averaged 14.1 points per game, including hitting double figures in 18 of the 20 games.
"David was consistent all the way," Walters said. "He was a huge guy and a very hard worker. He was a load.
"If we needed him to get a rebound, David got it. He had some skills. He was left-handed, too. The first game he played for us as a sophomore, he scored nine points and he just grew on me from there."
The mutual admiration of coach and player has only intensified over the years from the coach's perspective, too.
"Every time I see David, we don't just shake hands," Walters said. "He comes over and gives me a big hug. I'm blessed to have a great relationship with David."
Another family is growing from the roots of that 1977-78 team. For, on March 28, Benton will join Hill and Walters in the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame in ceremonies at the Conneaut Human Resources Center.
Despite his credentials, Benton expressed surprise at his selection.
"You made my day," he said of being informed of his new distinction. "I always felt I was a decent player, but this is great. It ties in with all the hard work and the aches and pains you have now. It makes it all worth it now."
Benton is pleased to be joining Walters and Hill, along with Jim Hood, who grew up across West 29th Street from the Benton home, and Gene Gephart, who was the Ashtabula High School principal during his high school days, in the ACBF Hall of Fame.
"It's part of the legacy of Ashtabula," Benton said. "I talked with Tom about it (by phone to Hill's home in Tennessee). Thirty-two years later, it still means a lot."
Walters is equally pleased.
"It was a great privilege to be the coach of that team," he said. "Both of the guys who have gone in are certainly deserving. It's nice to see they're both in."
Walters would like a reunion.
"We're going to have to get that team together again," he said. "It would be quite a family thing."
Benton takes it a step farther.
"I truly think everybody from that team should be in (the hall of fame)," he said.Development
One of the other elements Benton has always appreciated is a sense of discipline. It was necessary to have it in a home where there were 10 children, so when he really got into his basketball career, he had an appreciation for Walters' approach with the Panthers.
"I was from a strict family, where there was a definite structure in our upbringing," he said. "I think that, and what we got on the court, made me what I am today. As I go along in life, I've come to appreciate discipline even more."
David is the seventh of the Benton children. There is a tradition of athletic excellence that preceded him, particularly with his oldest brother, Alvin, who was a standout athlete in the late 1960s in basketball for Gephart and in football for Ashtabula County Football Hall of Famer Tony Chiacchiero.
"My brother played with guys like Bill Kaydo and Jerry Lyons," he said. "We have a debate all the time about whether his Ashtabula teams or mine were better."
Oldest siblings Gloria and Alvin still live in Ashtabula, while youngest sibling Tony resides in Columbus as well as David. Ron is in Cleveland, Bobby in Colorado, Pat and Connie in Wisconsin, Maxine in Missouri and John in Michigan.
"I'd take living with all 10 of them over again," he said. "It was awesome and hasn't ended for 50 years. There's been a lot of happiness, sadness and joy. That all goes back to the stability and discipline we received."
That comes from his father, who died in 2006. L.T. Benton did all kinds of home repair jobs. David is involved in similar work now.
"My dad was Mr. Benton," he said. "He was a self-employed carpenter and plumber. Everybody in the neighborhood respected him. He'd go out and help people at all hours of the day and night. He was my father, but he was my friend, too."
His early years in school were at old West Elementary School at the corner of West Avenue and West 47th Street. When he was in the fifth grade, he was transferred to old Station Avenue Elementary (later Thurgood Marshall), where he began to fall in love with basketball.
"They had the court right inside," Benton said. "I used to play in there all the time with (Hill), (Marsh) and Robin Thomas. I think that's where all our talents started to show."
That group played its junior-high basketball at West Junior High. They played for ACBF Hall of Famer Adam Holman in seventh grade, then moved up to Roby Potts for the eighth grade. They were still a bit of a work in progress.
"In seventh grade, I wasn't very good, in fact probably below average," Benton said. "Eighth grade was OK. I was probably about 5-10.
"In junior high, they taught me what I had to do in the post. I learned the fundamentals of basketball, things like boxing out."
Holman was always a good sounding board for youngsters like Benton.
"He was important to me because he always had time to listen," Benton said. "If you had a problem, he would try to find a way to work it out."
He also got some good, if somewhat tougher, input, from Alvin, who is 10 years his senior.
"He did give me lots of good advice," Benton said.
But between his eighth-grade season and his freshman year, Benton sprouted toward his current frame of 6-4. He also began working harder on his game.
"I remember playing a lot on the outdoor court at West," he said. "I grew to about 6-2 or 6-3. I played a lot against other players in town like (Harbor's Jim, also an ACBF Hall of Famer, and John) Bradley, who were my first cousins."
But he found making the move to Ashtabula High School challenging.
"High school was a whole different world," Benton said. "There was no comparison in the games. We learned a lot of plays and defenses. There was a lot of discipline. It was culture shock."
He split his freshman year between the Panther freshmen and the JV squad coached by Tom Carr.
"He let us get away with some things," Benton said. "He really knew and could play the game. He also taught us a lot about the traditions of being a Panther. That meant everything to us."
One more learning tool came on the outdoor court at West during the summer between his freshman and sophomore seasons.
"I was playing against Jim Gilbert (an Ashtabula standout of an earlier year who stood 6-11)," Benton said. "I slammed the ball over him."
The next level
But he entered his sophomore year with some uncertainty, especially with the prospect of playing for Walters, already a legend from his playing career at Ashtabula and Baldwin-Wallace College. The coach was still quite a player in his own right, even then.
"It took me four years to be able to beat him playing one-on-one," Benton said. "I had so much respect for him.
"I think he respected me, too, because he knew how hard I worked to make the team. He knew I was going out to do the best I could every night."
Many people might have been intimidated by Walters, but Benton understood what the expectations were.
"Mr. Walters really had a funny side to him," he said. "You could always see him laughing. But you also knew when he meant business. When he said it, it was etched in stone. He had his principles and he stuck to them."
Walters came to appreciate Benton quickly. That appreciation grew with each game.
"David began to having double-figures games in scoring by the middle of his sophomore year," he said. "There was one stretch of five games when he was a sophomore where he had double figures every night. That made me a believer.
"David was a pretty mature kid. He was so coachable. He was a wonderful individual. He was very intense. In fact, he was kind of a scary-looking guy. Defensively, he was very quick and intimidating. He didn't smile a whole lot. He was a force as a rebounder."
In his sophomore year, Benton's biggest games were 22-point nights against Conneaut and Geneva.
But Benton didn't rest on his laurels. He kept working feverishly to hone his skills, particularly in the offseason.
"I knew I had skills, but I also knew I could always be better," he said. "I played every day and every chance I could play. I used to go and play at the Y a lot, too."
That work ethic also motivated him to do whatever it took to stay on the court.
"One of the big things for me was to always make sure I kept my grades up so I could play," Benton said. "My parents emphasized that, too."
That hard work between seasons continued to pay off in Benton's junior year. He put up even better numbers on a steady basis. His high game of his junior year was 20 points against Geneva.
"(Hill) and I came up to the varsity together," Benton said. "We had Tim Bowler on our team when I was a junior. I think we had a good year."
That special season
But the level of dedication of the Panthers as they headed into Benton's senior year was at a fever pitch. It didn't even take coaxing from Walters.
"I hoped we would be very good," Walters said. "In the fall of their senior year, (Hill) told me they had all been working hard all summer. The first open gym we had, I had an epiphany. I have to give those kids all the credit.
"I was always really into conditioning. I encouraged them to play a lot during the summer, and they took it to heart.
"They were a very homespun group," Walters said. "Boy, did they reach the stars."
Benton knew something special was in the works, but he and his teammates weren't going to sit around and just assume it was going to happen.
"I knew we could do it," he said. "One of the biggest problems Mr. Walters had was getting the West Street ball out of us. In my senior year, we had the idea that everybody must go down."
But Benton also knew the Panthers possessed a secret weapon in Marsh, who had been somewhat of a factor at the varsity level earlier in his career, but had never completely blossomed. That all changed for the rail-thin Marsh in his senior year, where he unleashed a soaring aerial act nearly every night.
"I knew we were going to be good that summer," Benton said. "We had a missing element, and Deora was that element.
"A bunch of our senior year was all about layups and dunks. What Deora gave us was a sense of electricity, a spark. He could take the ball to the rafters."
There was no question Benton did his part, though. His regular-season high was 26 points against Geneva.
There is a game during the season both he and Walters remember better. It was the regular-season finale at Brookfield.
"We went down there and we were up by 20 at halftime," he said. "Mr. Walters said to slow it down, and we slowed it down. We beat them bad."
Walters remembers some of the pregame conversation.
"When we went down to Brookfield, before the game we had some of their fans behind the bench," he said. "I heard them talking about all the jumpers and dunkers they had. One of them tapped me on the shoulder and asked if we had anyone that could dunk. I said we had a few that could probably do it.
"When the game started, three or four of our first 10 baskets were dunks. I remember hearing a bunch of oohs and aahs. I walked off the floor with a big smile on my face (and a 95-82 win). I didn't hear from their fans again."
The big game
Benton continued to play like a man possessed once the tournament at North began. In fact, he had his highest scoring game of his career at a very opportune time, hitting for 27 points in Ashtabula's 71-63 district-semifinal win over Mayfield.
He developed a deeper appreciation for Walters as the season progressed.
"He gave me the freedom to express myself," Benton said. "I had so much fun. My senior year was one of the best years of my life.
"We knew we could run almost any team into the ground. If a team was still with us going into the third quarter, we had them out of gas by the fourth quarter."
Ahead loomed the game against St. Joseph and the 6-8 Kellogg, already a highly sought college commodity. But the Ashtabula community rallied around the Panthers, and they weren't intimidated.
"I think that year, we had good student support, good boosters, good fans and a good athletic director (Holman)," Benton said. "It couldn't have come at a better time. (Alvin Benton) even flew in from Colorado for the game.
"We had a sense we couldn't be beat. St. Joe was like any other game to us. I was quite sure I could outplay Kellogg. He had the bigger reputation, so he had more to prove."
Walters had a plan for the game, too.
"We noticed they had a tendency to play Kellogg on the baseline," he said. "I also knew David relished the opportunity to defend him. David wasn't as big as Kellogg, but he was very strong."
The plan worked like a charm in the first half. Ashtabula built a 48-43 halftime lead as Benton scored 14 points and held Kellogg to 10.
"After the first half, we had no doubt we could beat them," Benton said.
He scored another basket early in the third quarter. Then fate intervened.
"I went up for a rebound early in the third quarter and came down on top of someone's foot," he said. "I could feel it start to swell instantly. I didn't even let them take my shoe off."
He was helped into the locker room to have it treated, but when he came back to the court, Walters knew a comeback wasn't happening.
"Everybody just gasped when it happened," he said. "It took a period of time for the devastation to wear off. We were thinking that even if he could go back out there for 30 seconds, it would have helped, but he just couldn't."
Hill talked about the impact Benton's injury had on the Panthers in his own hall of fame story in 2007.
"When David went down, it took the wind out of our sails," he said. "I remember all of us looking over at the bench to see if he was coming back in. I know he would have if he could have, and what an emotional lift it would have been, so he was really hurt."
The Panthers tried to come back, but Kellogg, with the lighter Marsh on him, exploded for 24 second-half points and St. Joseph emerged with an 84-80 victory.
"The kids did regroup," Walters said. "They did put a last push on, but we couldn't quite do it."
Benton was perhaps the most devastated of all. The pain lingers even now.
"Talk about disappointment!" he said. "It was probably the most disappointing thing that's ever happened in my life. I knew we had that game.
"Even now, I sit back and think about what might have been. I'll always wonder. But I couldn't let it ruin my life. If I left the earth today, there would still be a lot more good than bad. I'm not disappointed with my life at all."
Walters still cherishes the memory of that team and not just for its successes.
"One of the most rewarding aspects of that team for me was getting to work with them every day in practices or games," he said. "They worked so hard. And they always demonstrated the values of sportsmanship. They were great representatives of our school. David would be at the forefront of that."
For a while after they graduated from Ashtabula, it looked like Benton, Hill and Marsh would be a package deal at Chattahoochee Valley Community College in Phoenix City, Ala. Indeed, the latter two went there and eventually ended up at four-year schools, Marsh at Southern Mississippi and Hill at Austin Peay.
But Benton wasn't comfortable there. He opted instead for the sunshine and sand at West Palm Beach Junior College in Florida.
"I stayed there for a year, then came back," he said. "Then I looked a little bit at Lakeland, but instead I went out to Colorado when I was 19 or 20. College just wasn't for me. Maybe I should have tried just being a student."
A road trip with friend Ken Williams on a visit to see his brother Al in Colorado cemented his next move.
"We stopped in Wisconsin, then Cheyenne, Wyo., then visited Al in Denver and then went to Tacoma, Wash.," Benton said. "I went out to Colorado in 1979-80. It's a great state and Denver's a great city. If you'd seen it, you'd understand."
David Benton is shown at his boyhood home on West 41st Street in Ashtabula with his daughter, Ashley Benson (left) and his great niece, Asia Patterson. The Ashtabula High School graduate will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame on March 28.
He spent 14 years in Colorado working in the wire and chemical industries before the pull of family brought him home to Ashtabula in 1993. He took up work very similar to his father's.
"I rehab homes and have a couple of maintenance contracts," Benton said.
As time has worn on, Benton has learned the value to a good education. That's why he has strongly encouraged his children, David and Ashley Benton and Cameron Bobb, to get their college educations. David and Cameron completed theirs at Kent State University, while Ashley is a freshman at Bowling Green. David and Cameron both played basketball at Lakeside High School. He also has a granddaughter, 6-year-old Destiny.
"I'm very big on getting your education," Benton said.
Recently, he has moved to Columbus, where he does similar work to what he had been doing in Ashtabula. With his mother and several of his siblings still here, he usually spends two or three days a week back in Ashtabula.
"It was time for me to leave Ashtabula," Benton said. "In Columbus, it's my time to live. I like Columbus, and my family is still pretty close."
Benton, now 50, remained active in basketball well into his 30s.
"I played basketball from my teenage years until I was 30-plus," he said. "I also did some coaching at McKinsey and Thurgood Marshall (elementary schools)."
The truths of the game still apply to Benton.
"The discipline it gives will always be a part of my life," he said. "It teaches you to stand on your own two feet, to make decisions and live with it. It teaches you how to get through it and live with it. Basketball helped me to learn to listen.
"I feel like I've given my kids a good, solid foundation. I hope they have it as good or better than I have, and mine's been pretty good.
"Basketball has been the catalyst of direction in my life," Benton said.