A Las Cruces player attempts to cross an Onate player.

The Las Cruces Bulldawgs boys basketball team is currently undefeated, heading into what looks to be a tightly contested playoff bracket in New Mexico state and– hey, wait, why is a Santa Monica newspaper reporting on a team a state away?

That’s due to the head coach responsible for the Bulldawgs’ years-long dominance, Santa Monica born and bred William Benjamin.

Benjamin’s been in New Mexico most of his life now, having been a college basketball player at New Mexico State and then transitioning to coach (assistant for 12 years then head) at Las Cruces High School for roughly 20 successful years.

However, his beginnings were here in the City by the Sea. He attended Samohi and won a state championship with the basketball team there, but it was at Memorial Park where he was molded into the man he is today.

That’s where I grew up,” Benjamin said.

While acknowledging the great role his mother, aunts and grandmother played in his life, Benjamin was missing a father figure, a strong male presence. This made Benjamin gravitate towards a male figure in life, the most important of who he found at Memorial.

“A lot of great, older people educated me on the game and on life,” he said. “Several individuals mentored me and made sure I always stayed on the right path, stayed chasing my dream– to play basketball and have success. Because of that environment, I wanted to stay around basketball and help the youth the same way [my mentors] helped me.

One of Benjamin’s mentor’s, John Hines, recalls seeing Benjamin constantly hanging around Memorial Park and the basketball gym, which Hines ran. Hines says Benjamin was practically living at the gym when he first stuck up a conversation with him.

“He was on the shy side when I first met him,” Hines said. “He was quiet but always slipped into the gym, every day. He was always the first one in, last one out. Sometimes I don’t even know if there was an out, I’m sure he slept there and woke up there. That boy had a will that wouldn’t stop, he had a No Quit attitude.”

Hines took Benjamin, eventually he and others at memorial mentoring Benjamin to develop him as a basketball player and as a person.

“After a while, you become family,” Hines said. “We see this kid every day and I wanted to pass the torch from guys who treated me the same. We fed [Benjamin] and a few other people, made sure he had shoes, made sure he stayed out of trouble, made sure he graduated. To see him where he’s at, what he’s doing today, it’s incredible.”

Benjamin now has the torch Hines once had passed to him — as Head Coach of the Bulldawgs, Benjamin wants to instill the lessons of basketball into life for his players.

Point guard Marcus Scott, senior at Las Cruces, says Benjamin has been invaluable in his life.

“Coach Ben is the best coach I’ve ever had in my life,” he says. “As a coach, he holds me accountable as a player to do my best. As a person, he’s made more open to things, made me use my head a little different. He preaches positivity. He taught me to think for myself. He taught me it’s okay to go a different way, even when facing adversity.”

Scott continues on, saying how much it would mean for the team to win a championship for coach. Benjamin wants to win, too (“We don’t practice to lose,” he said with a laugh), but for him, the most important victory is developing the young students the way the Memorial Park mentors developed him.

“I’m dealing with youth that was just like me, they have a dream and want to play basketball. I want to provide a good environment and give them an opportunity to not only excel at the high school level but have a good experience, an experience like I had.”

The Las Cruces Bulldawgs are 28-0 and ranked #2 in New Mexico, despite being the only unbeaten team. They’re set to face Onate in the NMAA basketball playoffs today, Saturday March 9. For the latest on Benjamin and his team, follow Coach Benjamin on Twitter at @CoachBenjamin21.

angel@smdp.com

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