Links: Rod Benson is McLovin

by April 21, 2008

by Lang Whitaker

Gotta keep things short today because we’re finishing off the next issue of SLAM, so things are a little harried around the Dome today. A few quick shots:

• Manu got my vote (and many others) for Sixth Man of the Year. Don’t know if Raja Bell voted for him or not.

• Looks like Scott Skiles is migrating to Milwaukee. Get ready for 18 months of promise followed by 6 months of guys complaining about Skiles followed by a new coach in Milwaukee. Also, here’s the latest on the Knicks situation (including the truth behind an ESPN error).

• And so we don’t leave you completely dry today, wanted to post some of Rod Benson’s feature in SLAM 118, on stands now.

Last fall, back when Rod was trying out for a spot on the Nets, I stumbled over one of his blog entries and immediately emailed him to see if he would be interested in writing a feature for us. He wrote back and said he was, and that started us on a seventh month odyssey toward publication. In the meantime, Rod went to the D-League, started writing a blog for Yahoo!!!!!!!! Sports and found himself face-to-face with a bunch of white guys from ESPN. Throughout all of that, Rod and I were working on his story, setting up a photo shoot and then finding space for the story in the mag. It all finally came together this month in SLAM, and Rod really did a great job with the story.

I’m going to run the first two-thirds of it here (and I’m cutting out the part where Rod riffs on McLovin). You want to read the whole thing, pony up the dough and buy a copy. I promise, it’s worth it…

I Am McLovin
Rod Benson is on the road to the NBA. He just didn’t know how hard it would be to find the right exit.

by Rod Benson

Historically, there are two ways to get where you want to go: the easy way and the hard way. There is the path and the path less traveled. In my case, the goal is simple: I want to be an NBA player. My path? It’s definitely not the easy one. Heck, it’s not even the less-traveled one. I would call it the very last road one can take into the NBA.

Draft picks get the highway. Undrafted free agents ride into town on a street with a few traffic lights and stop signs. Guys like me are basically blindfolded, taken to the middle of the woods and told the NBA is out there…somewhere. I’ve finally escaped the woods, but now I gotta deal with border patrol. With the NBA closer than ever, it has become apparent that the events leading up to this point were far from the ordinary.

On the evening of the 2006 NBA Draft, I was surrounded by friends at the draft party I’d been anticipating for what seemed like forever. Andrea Bargnani went No. 1. Awesome. Good for him. Aldridge was picked second, Morrison went third and Tyrus Thomas came in at four. What a great time I was having at this party.

Finally, the moment of truth came. David Stern had already retired from his first-round duties—this was the time of night when the names just popped up on the screen. The countdown seemed to take forever. The Nuggets were on the clock and the seconds felt like minutes. Then, my emotional Rubik’s Cube turned from jumbled colors to perfect sheets of greens, blues, yellows and reds and I jumped up with excitement as the name “Leon Powe” appeared. I mean, I had been at my Cal teammate’s draft party for over an hour, drinking his drinks and eating his food. It was about time we saw him take the next step.

Me, I had no intention of seeing my name come across the screen. Why not? Well, because I spent most of my senior year at Cal on the bench, injured. Sure, I played here and there, but for the most part I was forced to watch my teammates battle Pac-10 foes in agony, knowing I’d never be the same player I was the year before.

Leon went away to start doing whatever it is drafted guys do, while I sat around waiting to go to NBA Summer League with the Sacramento Kings. As it turned out, they didn’t want me. I can’t lie, this was a hard time for me. A year earlier I was averaging 15 and 8 in the Pac-10. Now I was a jobless bum with one class left to finish for my degree.

I told my agent, the terrific Bill Neff, that I just wanted to go to Europe. It seemed to be the safest career move at the time. I’d heard stories of guys making good money over there. I mean, guys I’d given buckets to—sorry Ryan Hollins and Matt Haryasz, we’re still friends, right?—were in the NBA or going to training camps, so why shouldn’t I be able to sign a lucrative deal somewhere like Italy or Spain? Right? Wrong. I had no idea that those places are not overly welcoming to a rookie without a passport or NCAA All-American status. I always pictured myself playing in Paris and dating a French supermodel or something. I never imagined myself playing in Kazakhstan and getting paid in goat’s milk, but the latter seemed like about all that was available to me.

Since we didn’t get the deal we were seeking overseas, Bill and I decided to stick it out in the D-League. I started out the 2006-07 season in Austin, TX. Never before had having so much fun been so much fun. You can basically call my month there a party that never ended. I loved it, but I wasn’t there for the nightlife, I was there to make a new name for myself and that just wasn’t happening. I came into camp a 4 man with call-up aspirations, and a month later I was converted into a wing. I asked to be released after spending a month behind BJ Elder and Kris Clack. Coach Dennis Johnson understood that I needed something more out of my D-League experience, so he wished me good luck and let me go.

I was picked up a couple of days later by the Dakota Wizards. Yep, that’s right: North Dakota. Socially, it was the opposite of Austin, but basketball-wise I finally got my opportunity to shine. Well, calling it the opposite of Austin is a bit of an understatement. I knew I was in for a culture shock when I stepped off the plane and it was 30 degrees below zero. I basically decided that leaving the team apartments during the day was a bad idea. I played something like 200 games of Madden online and watched all 240-something episodes of “Dragonball Z” in about three months.

My shock continued when I first hit the town with the team. Hitting the town consists of going to the one bar in town that plays hip-hop. Unfortunately, that “hip-hop” tends to be Justin Timberlake sandwiched between “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy” and “Billy’s Got His Beer Goggles On.” I literally started going to Wal-Mart at 2 a.m. for something to do rather than show up at this bar. I once went to Wal-Mart at 4 a.m. to buy a paintball gun, which I then used to shoot paint balls at my Guitar Hero II box. I definitely learned to live life at a different speed.

I averaged nearly 11 ppg and 9 rpg in 24 minutes off the bench during a long minor league season. There were eight-hour bus rides through the snow, and we’d sometimes have flights with three connections to go about 300 miles. I got to play with and against a ton of guys I had forgotten about. The first time I saw Mateen Cleaves I remember thinking he was like a ghost. I contributed to a D-League championship with 12 points, 7 boards and 6 blocks in the Championship Game and proceeded to celebrate with my teammates and all the D-League officials at the only bar in town that was open on a Sunday.

Since that championship game, things have taken a turn in a very positive direction for me. Last summer I had mini-camps with the Bucks, Warriors and Grizzlies. I played, and started in the Vegas Summer League for the Grizzlies. I played some pretty good basketball down there, too. For starters, I had Chris Kaman locked up! OK, he finished with like 22 points and 14 rebounds, so to the untrained eye it would appear that I was dominated. However, he only scored two points on me, while he attempted to score on me every time down the floor. This is not a knock on him whatsoever, but a guy like me who is just trying to come up has to take every small victory he can get. I bet he reads this and goes: “Who? No way.”

After the Summer League, I was invited to training camp with the New Jersey Nets. Bill and I accepted the invitation. We decided that I was way too close to the NBA to make that trip across the water. I won’t lie, the offers from Europe were much better this time around (a testament to the D-League, no doubt), but still, I had worked too hard to give up on it at this point.

When I got off the plane in Newark, which is probably the grimiest airport ever, there was a driver waiting for me. For real, like a guy with a sign that said “Benson” on it. It was pretty ridiculous, I’ll be honest with you. As we rode to the hotel, the driver asked me if I was planning to go out to New York. I told him that I was, especially given the fact that I had never even been to the East Coast. I asked him what buses or trains I would need to take from my hotel to get out there.

“No, no,” he said. “The players take a car service to the city. Much safer and easier.”

“Man,” I started, “I don’t think you realize, I made $10,000 total last year. I don’t think $70 taxi services are that feasible right now.”

Either way, the conversation reminded me that this was the big time. The NBA is a place where people are paid handsomely for providing entertainment to millions. It had just gotten real.