- The Washington Times - Friday, July 12, 2002

By now, almost a year after his release, Lee Benson has all but assumed that his name will never stand alone, unaccompanied by "ex-convict" or "who served 8 years in prison."

Benson's jail term has become that much a part of his life in the 11 months since he was released from Warren Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison in Lebanon, Ohio. He spent more than eight years walled off from freedom, which he forfeited when he was convicted on charges of drug trafficking and abduction with a firearm nine years ago in Dayton.

As Benson said, "It's been across every headline in the nation."

Now, after a year at a Kansas junior college where he averaged nearly 35 points, Benson is hoping to make headlines for a different reason reaching the NBA.

He's one of 15 players participating in a four-day minicamp that determines who makes the Wizards' 10- to 12-man roster that will play in next week's Pro Summer League in Boston.

Benson, 28, had workouts with several teams before going undrafted but chose to try to make the Wizards because coach Doug Collins assured him he would evaluate only his on-court abilities, not his past. For Benson to play next week, he'll have to beat out other post players in minicamp like Sylvere Bryan, Kris Lang and Mike Mardesich. More than likely, the Wizards won't take more than six big men total because they already have four power forwards and centers under contract in minicamp.

For Benson, even at a lean 6 feet 10 and 231 pounds, the NBA is a long leap from the competition he faced at Brown Mackie College and even farther from the games at Warren, where a "no-layup rule" and fouls resembling football tackles forced him to refine his perimeter game.

This week Benson is mostly facing players who have had at least a couple years in college, leaving him short on big-time experience. And that's something that could dim his long-term pro hopes especially for a player whose age already has convinced some teams to shy away from drafting him.

Francis Flax, coach at Brown Mackie, thinks Benson has an advantage because he has not taken the pounding in college games that many of his peers have. Flax calls him a 28-year-old with 20-year-old legs.

"The kid just needs a break. If you give him an opportunity, he'll make the most of it," Flax said. "If it weren't for his age, he'd have been a lottery pick."

The Wizards are giving Benson a shot.

"We wanted to give the guy every opportunity to make the summer league team and promised him nothing," said assistant coach Brian James, who will coach the team in Boston. "The guy's got some skill you don't average in the mid-30s in junior college for nothing."

Flax made the difference in getting Benson on track for the pros. He was recruiting Benson's cousin, Marcus Stewart, in 1998 when he found out about Benson, and corresponded with Benson by mail until finally visiting him in jail in July 2000. The two forged a solid relationship, and when Benson was released Aug.17, 2001, Flax was there waiting for him along with Benson's mother and father. By then, bigger schools had contacted Benson, who had averaged 22 points and 16 rebounds as a highly touted high school junior in 1991, but he stayed loyal to Flax.

"I gave him my word, he gave me his, and your word goes a long way in this world," Benson said. "Coach was honest with me, so I had to go there. I felt I owed him that much.

"He was there when I got released, and you don't know how that feeling is."

Through his trials, Benson possesses what nearly all of his peers lack a certain perspective and degree of maturity.

Of course, Benson's patience has been fused by enduring ridicule in public and from opposing fans. Even now, Benson said, he has read articles in Dayton newspapers saying he should not be a role model for children. Some things still sting, but Benson has grown accustomed to them.

"I can't erase that, I have to live with it," he said. "There's always negative people in the world saying, 'Lee shouldn't do this,' or 'Lee shouldn't be around this.' But like I said, you hear it and it's nothing. I don't let it discourage me."

Benson's life has become intriguing enough that film companies have approached him and Flax about securing the rights to a movie. So far, Benson has not signed anything; instead, he wants to keep his focus solely on basketball he said he appreciates the opportunity just to participate in an NBA minicamp. But no movie yet.

"It's not over," Benson said. "The story's not over."

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