02-20-2010 | 04:00 PM
Recently I was fortunate enough to have a few phone conversations with a player named Benson Callier who plays semi-professionally in Vermont. I thought it would be interesting for two reasons. First, he crossed paths with LeBron James back in 2002 when he blocked him a few times and led his team to an OT victory over St V St Mary's, winning MVP honors that game.
I also thought it would be interesting to see what the lifestyle is like for someone who depends on the basketball court to support his family. Every interview with a basketball player seems to be about the glamorous lifestyle of the NBA. I figured it'd be interesting to look at a Bull Durham situation in basketball, trying to climb the minor league rungs.
Anyway, just as a brief background, Callier played college ball at Florida State and then Western Kentucky with Courtney Lee before playing for several semi-pro teams in the PBL, IBL, CBA, and Swedish league. He was named one of the top 25 players not in the NBA (eligible players drawn from pools in the DLeague, PBL, IBL, and other leagues).
So here's the resulting interview... Click on the title to see the full text with embedded links, pictures, and more.
From Blocking LeBron James to Playing in Vermont and Everything in Between.
Benson Callier started out his basketball career in western Pennsylvania at George Junior Republic High School. After playing organized basketball for only one year, Callier graduated from George Junior and accepted a scholarship at Florida State University. Callier decided to transfer to Western Kentucky University after two seasons with the Seminoles. As a Hilltopper, he averaged 8.4 points and 3.6 rebounds per game in 18.5 minutes per game over two seasons.
Since graduating from Western Kentucky, Benson Callier has played professionally for several teams. He started out in the CBA with the Butte Daredevils, moved to the IBL with the Gary Steelheads, and traveled to Sweden to play for Gothia Basket before finding a home in the PBL with the Vermont Frostheaves, where he currently plays after leading the team in scoring last season with 16.4 points per game. After last season, Callier was listed as one of the top 25 basketball players not in the NBA by Pro Basketball News. He was invited to tryouts for the Bakersfield Jam of the NBA Developmental League this offseason, but was unable to participate due to injury.
I figured Benson Callier would be a great player to interview for Numbers Don’t as he crossed paths with LeBron James in high school. During Callier’s senior year, his high school team, George Junior Republic, defeated the Irish led by LeBron James. Callier recorded 14 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 steals, earning him MVP honors for the game.
I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to speak with Benson Callier regarding this game, his persistence, what he has learned, and what it’s like to play basketball for a living. Here is the resulting interview.
Mark Cameron: Okay, I’ve gotta bring it up. It was a while ago, but describe to our readers what it felt like blocking LeBron James and leading your George Junior Republic Tigers to victory over the nationally ranked Irish from St. Vincent-St. Mary’s back in 2002.
Benson Callier: I don’t want to be that guy, where I’m known because I played a game against the great LeBron James. Honestly, I didn’t know who he was at the time of the game since I had only played one year of organized basketball. Now knowing who he is today I’m happy looking back. I watched the film of that game about a year ago and I saw the greatness everyone talks about that I didn’t recognize then.
MC: You said a few days ago in a blog post that when you looked into the eyes of LeBron James before that game started that you saw a lion. Are you surprised at where he is today?
BC: No, not at all. When he looked at me I just saw a look I’ve never seen before. A lot of guys you can tell what they’re trying to do when they look at you, whether it’s intimidation or whatever. But you could tell there was no b.s. with him. He is the truth.
MC: I also noticed that this memory sparked some recent discussion, where you felt a blogger was disrespecting you by implying that this block may have been the peak of your career. What would you have to say to anyone who feels this way?
BC: I mean, of course [they think that] because he’s so great. Honestly, just talking about one block against a player makes me happy because that’s what I’m all about. Just going out and competing. I’ve never been the type to just talk about it, I let them do the talking. But I’m thankful for the opportunity and know I probably wouldn’t be where I’m at in my career today without that game.
MC: There’s a guy on the Cavaliers by the name of Jamario Moon who has played for 19 different basketball teams after college, making three separate D-League teams only to be released by all three. Do stories of players like Moon eventually breaking through and having success drive you to never give up?
BC: I actually played for a coach that coached Moon (author’s note: Callier played for the Gary Steelheads in 2008, one year after Moon played for them), so I was big on Moon when he first got into the league. Mo Williams is also a success story. You’ve got a lot of guys like that that make the most of an opportunity. So yeah, he is somebody I look at and want to be as successful as he has.
MC: Moon tells a story of how his agent made several calls to NBA scouts and general managers to find out why he wasn’t in the league and the unanimous answer was “defense.” With this in mind, Moon recommitted himself to the defense end of the floor in order to get into the NBA. With a history of undrafted ballers carving out a niche on the defensive end such as Ben Wallace, Bruce Bowen, and Raja Bell, what do you feel your biggest defensive weakness is?
BC: I hate to say it… but I’d have to say none. As long as you go as hard as you can for as long as you can, I think you’re playing your best defense. I can’t put in what God didn’t add. I may not be as gifted as LeBron, but as long as I work as hard as I can, stay focused mentally, and stay in front of my man, I feel I’m doing the most I can on defense. I think it’s just important to cut out all the mental errors on the defensive end.
MC: One of the things I’ve never really liked about the D-League is it’s propensity to promote un-team-like behavior. With your journey, you never know what roster you’ll find yourself on next season. Does this make it hard to establish a close relationship with your teammates or develop chemistry with them?
BC: No, not really. As a basketball player who has played under great coaches like Leonard Hamilton (Florida State) and Coach [Darrin] Horn (WKU, now South Carolina), I’ve learned a lot about offense and playing off of teammates. I feel like now I can go into any experience and pick up quick. Under these coaches I’ve learned certain things and have grown into a great pro. Not a pro [laughs] like I’m a [NBA] professional, but I approach the game as a pro.
MC: Where do you think your most important stop as a player was? Where did you learn the most about basketball and what did you learn?
BC: Well… it would probably where my biggest downfall was, which was at Western Kentucky. I didn’t finish my final season there, because they said I chose not too, but I learned a lot from what happened there. At that point I took my future into my own hands. I had to become a man. Because of this I was thrown into the real world and made something out of it. I felt it made me a better person and a better man as a result.
MC: I think when most fans hear the words “professional basketball player” they think of stars making millions a year for seasonal work. As you said on your blog, “I’m just working to keep the lights on and provide for my family the best way I know how.” How do you think you view basketball, the work that helps you support yourself and your family, differently than someone in the NBA?
BC: Those guys get exposure on a serious level. Me? It’s a struggle… everyday. I understand it’s a struggle and an everyday grind for them, too, but they have assistance. And I’m not knocking them, they earn every penny they get. I’m not taking anything away from them, but they have the resources around them. And I love the NBA game and follow it on television as much as possible. That’s basketball at its highest level and I want to get there someday too. But here, I have to deal with stuff that they don’t have to on that level.
I just take what I’ve got and make the most of it. I like to do camps for the kids that can’t afford them, community service, and try and do as much as I can. My life is cool. It might not be as flashy as [the life of] someone in the NBA, but I like it.
MC: Prior to this season you had an invite to tryout for the Bakersfield Jam of the NBA’s D-League but could only participate briefly due to injuries. What was it like to be so close and have it all sidetracked because of injuries?
BC: Ah, man, it was a tough time. I’ve had a lot of adversity in my life, but never have I had my body let me down. And I couldn’t afford the treatment to get back and play, so once again I had to grab the bootstraps and do it myself. I’m better now and I feel like I could go back [to tryout], but at this point Vermont is what’s best for me. We have the chance to win a championship, which I haven’t had at any level in my career. That’s a big deal for me.
MC: You played at Florida State with Al Thornton and Von Wafer and then spent two seasons at Western Kentucky with Courtney Lee, all of whom are either currently in the NBA or have played in the league. Do you stay in contact with any of them?
BC: Those guys are in the NBA where it’s an everyday grind and I understand they’re busy. I don’t want to be the token guy just to stay in contact every day. I actually visited Courtney Lee before the Finals and it was a great time. It was unfortunate that he was traded, but he’s a great player. I love him to death and I’d do anything for him. I was never really that close with Von, but I still talk to guys like Al Thornton and Lee. But I don’t call them unless I have to.
MC: For anyone unfamiliar with the player, why would first time fans enjoy seeing Benson Callier play?
BC: Ah. Well, at this point I have a passion for the game that goes along with my work ethic to just try to win games. I go out to try and win, play hard, and every now and then, you’ll see a nice move from me… maybe a dunk or something. But I just try and do whatever my team needs to win. I’d say the thing to enjoy the most would be my leadership on and off the court.
MC: Anything else to add?
BC: Not really, I’d just like to thank you for the opportunity. I’m very grateful. I mentioned I host a basketball camp now every summer for the kids and I was trying to get an NBA player to come and talk with them for this upcoming summer. I’d like to have LeBron James come out but I don’t know if he can [laughs]. But yeah, nothing too time consuming, just someone to come out and talk to the kids. I think they’d like that.
You can follow Benson on his blog at http://bensoncallier.blogspot.com/