Hawks draft pick Benson to feel at home in Atlanta

Keith Benson’s family and friends gathered at his home Thursday to find out his fortunes in the NBA draft.

They put together a pool: Pay $1 and pick the team that would draft Benson, winner take all.

“Nobody put down, ‘Atlanta,’” said Benson’s mother, Janice Hale.

The Hawks would have paid off as the perfect hunch play.

Benson, the Hawks’ second-round draft pick, grew up in the Detroit area, but his family’s ties to Atlanta run deep.

“When we heard ‘Atlanta,’ you should have been here,” Hale said. “Nobody in America knew how deep our roots went to Atlanta.”

Hale holds degrees from Spelman College, the Interdenominational Theological Center and Georgia State. Early in her career Hale was a professor of early childhood education at Clark College, which now is part of Clark Atlanta University.

She took a similar academic path as her parents, the late Rev. Phale D. Hale and Cleo Ingram Hale. Her father was a graduate of Morehouse and what became part of ITC. Her mother is an Atlanta native and Spelman College graduate.

Benson has lots of cousins who live in Atlanta, too. And his godmother is Monica Pearson, the Channel 2 Action News anchor. His mom and dad (since divorced) were married at Pearson’s home.

Benson is from Farmington Hills, Mich., a short drive from Oakland University in Rochester. That means Benson is, in effect, leaving home for the first time.

But he should feel at home with so much family in Atlanta.

“That’s outstanding,” said Benson’s uncle, Hilton Hale. “To have so much family there it will be helpful. Living in an NBA city with some of the challenges and with the travel, it will help him adjust and get settled and make a good transition.”

Judging by Benson’s path to NBA, there’s a good chance he will beat the odds and stick in the NBA as a second-round draft pick.

Benson played at Detroit Country Day School, which produced former NBA All-Star Chris Webber and current players Shane Battier and JaVale McGee. But Benson’s production and build were both modest, so he was lightly recruited by Division I schools.

Benson eventually signed with Oakland, where he blossomed into a two-time Summit League player of the year. He said he started to believe he could make it to the NBA during his sophomore season, after he had a big game against then-No. 11 Michigan.

Janice Hale credits her brother for helping to guide Benson’s basketball development since her son was a child. Hilton Hale played point guard for Northwestern and San Diego State.

“The main thing I tried to instill in him early on was work ethic,” Hilton Hale said. “He had the ultimate responsibility to develop himself. At any point in your career there will be people that don’t necessarily see the potential in him, and he has to first sense it and believe in himself.”

Those lessons proved to be beneficial for Benson when he faced some trying times at Oakland.

Coach Greg Kampe said Benson arrived there as a skinny, quiet kid. Kampe issued a redshirt for Benson in his first year and rode him hard, as did incumbent center Shawn Hopes.

Benson stuck it out and was the starting center to begin his first season. He needed one blocked shot to tie the school record when Kampe benched him for the postseason because he wasn’t satisfied with his defense.

Instead of sulking, Benson used the episode as motivation to work harder that summer.

“The reason I respect him is because of his work ethic,” Kampe said. “He worked so hard to get where he is. He had a dream and a goal.

“This kid is going to be a very good NBA player. I know people might say, ‘Oh, that’s his college coach, and he’s biased,’ but I’ve been around a long time.”

Kampe has coached at Oakland since the 1984-85 season, when the school still played in Division II. Oakland moved to Division I in 1997-98, and Benson is the school’s first NBA draft pick.

“It’s a big accomplishment for me,” Benson said. “Judging it from where I came from, where not many schools were after me, I proved that you can make it from everywhere.”

There’s still work to do for Benson. Second-round picks face a tough climb in the NBA. Benson will have to add weight and prove his toughness and tenacity in a league where players have plenty of both in addition to superlative talent.

Hale hears the doubts about her son’s NBA prospects and likens them to those he’s faced at every step.

“In our family we say, ‘Start where you are, use what you have and do the best you can do,’” Hale said. “We know how to start from nowhere and defy negative predictions. [The Hawks] are getting a person who believes in himself and doesn’t back down.”

Hale, who is a professor of early childhood education at Wayne State University, said her goal is to move back to Atlanta eventually.

She didn’t bet on her son getting it here first.

“God put this together; we did not,” Janice Hale said.