This feature story was filed before the last season of former NBA forward David Benoit’s playing career, when he suited up for the Saitama Broncos, and appeared in The Japan Times on Nov. 3, 2006.

Benoit happy to impart wisdom from NBA days to Broncos

By Ed Odeven
TOKOROZAWA, Saitama Pref. — He played in arenas with 20,000 people rooting against him and his teammates.

He stayed in big cities, played a game, hopped on a plane and traveled to another big city for the next one.

He lived the life of luxury, fulfilling a childhood dream by playing in the NBA.

David Benoit is still a basketball player.

But now, thousands of kilometers away, his adoring fans call him Ben-chan.

This term of endearment goes a long way in explaining how the Saitama Broncos’ rowdy supporters have embraced the 38-year-old Benoit and the bj-league.

After a recent evening practice at Mihara Junior High School, Benoit, a gregarious 203-cm forward, and his teammates shook hands with the 20-plus fans who sat in folding chairs to watch their team train for the 2006-07 season, which tips off Saturday.

Benoit smiled as he saw familiar faces. He asked little kids, teenagers, parents and grandmothers how they were doing.

They responded with cheerful replies and a few words Benoit didn’t understand.

But, hey, a smile translates into any language.

“I think that the fans are very enthusiastic,” Benoit said.

“It’s growing right now,” he added, discussing fan interest in the bj-league. “Especially in Tokorozawa, the fans have really been very responsive.”

“Because this is only the second season, they started to get used to saying this is our team and our city, and hopefully it will catch on to where they have that feeling that it is our team. And we are doing our best to represent our city, our prefecture.

“I think we got off to a pretty good start.”

He isn’t referring specifically to the team’s won-loss record — the Broncos went 7-33 in the league’s inaugural season to place last among six teams — but has observed that the squad created a buzz last year in Saitama Prefecture.

“Last season was a very tough year for us, but the team is looking very good right now early on,” Benoit said, adding the team’s goal is to qualify for the playoffs this season and put itself in a position to compete for the championship. (The Osaka Evessa won the bj-league’s first title last April.)

Benoit, the league’s oldest player, is one of four Americans on the squad, which is under the leadership of first-year coach Kenji Yamane, a former point guard for the Tokorozawa Broncos, this team’s predecessor.

The others are forwards Gordon James and Marcus Toney-El, a returning Bronco, and power forward/center Andrew Feeley.

For Benoit, whose pro basketball career began when many of the bj-league’s players had just finished mastering hiragana and katakana, his role on the Broncos is akin to what Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez provided for the New York Mets pitching staff last season — a valuable veteran mentor who can still help the team win games.

“My experience definitely helps,” Benoit said, “and for me, I’ve slowed down a lot the last couple of years so I’ve just been really motivating the younger guys, helping them with their skills.”

You watch Benoit practice and notice he still has the basic skill set of someone who toiled in the NBA in 492 regular-season games and 57 more playoff contests for the Utah Jazz, Orlando Magic and New Jersey Nets between 1991 and 2001.

Benoit played for Maccabi Tel Aviv of the Israeli League in 1998-99. He started his career in the Spanish League in 1990 after not being drafted out of the University of Alabama.

Those years of all-out competition, including major court time against Michael Jordan, have taught Benoit what it takes to be successful. And those are lessons he’s trying to pass on to his Bronco teammates.

“The biggest part about (excelling as) basketball players, especially young basketball players, is (learning) the skills of the game, the basic fundamentals,” said Benoit, who was limited to 10 games last season due to injuries.

“I try to always reinforce them to (the players). If you have skills and fundamentals, you have a chance to build yourself into a very good basketball team.”

Benoit’s wide array of inside moves, smooth outside shooting touch and interior presence could be key ingredients for the Broncos this season.

But he doesn’t expect to play major minutes right away. Instead, he’s been recovering from an Achilles injury, which, fortunately, hasn’t hindered him from practicing.

“I’m able to move again and get my lateral movement back,” he said.

He added: “The team is being real patient and allowing me to get myself not only 100 percent but 110 percent so I can be real strong, not just to be a force on the team but . . . (also) be able to help.

“If I’m on the floor, I want to be able to help, I want to be able to relate with what these young guys are trying to do.”

The Broncos open their season on Saturday against the visiting Toyama Grouses, one of the league’s two expansion teams, at 6:30 p.m.

Will Ben-chan, who wears Saitama’s No. 8 jersey, be on the court on Opening Day?

“Coach may play me sparingly . . . but I look forward to seeing how everything comes back,” Benoit said.

But if he’s relegated to being a cheerleader/bench sage, that’s OK, too, if only for a few days. Then Benoit will get a little antsy to be at least a part-time contributor during games.

At practice, he isn’t afraid to shout out advice to his teammates or take the clipboard from Yamane-san and draw up a few plays.

“I give a lot of credit to these guys,” he said without naming each teammate individually. “They’ve really been playing well. That makes it a lot easier for me. So at the same time I’m just helping them come along. If I can play 10 or 15 minutes and we are still winning games, that’s great.”

In his time with the Utah Jazz, during the John-Stockton-Karl Malone heyday in the 1990s, Benoit’s clubs routinely won 50-plus games a season.

Win after win had a profound impact on Benoit.

“Being around those guys with all the experience really helped me out even to this day,” he said. “That’s just something so valuable you can’t even put a price on it.”