About three years ago, a Ghanaian made history in football. His name is not Muntari, Essien or Ayew. This is also not the same football millions if not billions of people all over the world crowd around TV sets every four years to cheer their respective nation on. This is the spherically shaped ball which is largely played with the hands and brutish sportsmanship, yet someway somehow is called football.
This Ghanaian goes by the name Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah. On April 25th 2013, Ziggy Ansah became the first Ghanaian born football player to be drafted onto an NFL team. What is more, he was drafted number 5. Drafts are common amongst most American sports leagues. They are ceremonies where the worst performing teams get to pick the best performing athletes entering the professional leagues from college.
In soccer dominated Ghana, Ziggy’s story did not get the buzz it deserved. Save for a few mentions on some sports talk shows and obscure corners of newspapers, Ziggy Ansah’s story was not given the hero’s reception it deserved. However, you cannot blame anyone for this. American football is not a sport even 1/10th of our population understands. There are virtually no American Football pitches and the only position most of those with traces of understanding of the game know is the quarterback position.
On June 23rd 2016, a Ghanaian would again be breaching into a space for the first time. He would be in a draft but this time around, in the game blessed with the memories of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Hakeem Olajuwon. He will be in the 2016 NBA Draft. This son of the land of Nkrumah goes by the name Ben Bentil.
On 25th May, the day declared as a statutory holiday by the government of Ghana, I met up with the man credited by Bentil for the genesis of his basketball career. Taking a break from a pickup game, Meme, the man in question talked me through the Bentil story. The pickup game was being played on the University of Ghana basketball courts, the same court where Bentil was drilled for hours by Meme. Running up and down, catching rebounds, dunking to cap off fast breaks, and going through series of the dreadful “suicide” drills, Bentil built the stamina and strength which have augmented his draft stock under the guidance Meme Falconer.
Just two months ago on this same court, the University of Ghana men’s basketball team was led by coach Meme to a national title. In the final, he faced off against coach Lawal Brimah who was also the coach of another Ghanaian making waves in college basketball in the USA, Amida Brimah.
Meme, affectionately known as Mr. Basketball, earned his name during his hey days playing basketball. His iconic “over the car” dunk, explosiveness, 3 point shooting and general greatness on the court in a non-basketball playing nation earned him that name. Meme Falconer was on the nation’s men’s basketball team, leading the team in points made and national team caps.
As coach of Bentil, he succeeded in teaching the current draft prospect, the exact same things which made him the biggest name in Ghana basketball. A product of Sekondi in the Western Region, Bentil grew up playing volleyball and the rite of passage of every Ghanaian male, soccer. The economy is generally not favorable in almost every part of the country. It is however exceedingly harsher on people in the hinterlands and every other part not named Accra. Bentil’s family found itself in one of such parts of the country.
Helping the family fend for itself, Bentil was robbed of a merry childhood. From spending time at the seashore in hopes of catching a fish or two to helping the fishermen drag back the nets for a little change, Bentil had to earn most meals of the day. Being raised by a single parent inadvertently brings the kind of hassle Bentil had to face early on in his life. But with his imposing stature, volleyball provided an escape from that life. It was during one of these volleyball games that the story between Meme Falconer and Ben Bentil was first penned.
After convincing Bentil to try out basketball, Meme brought him to Accra for intense training in preparation for the opportunities ahead. Meme has helped a couple of young people with dreams of playing basketball to land a scholarship overseas. “I had dreams of living out a basketball life. Playing in college and walking out of the tunnel into an NBA arena. If that could not happen for me, it better happen for someone else if I got anything to do about it”, Meme said of his inspiration in doing this.
On one of the courts adjacent to the one he was taking a break from his pickup game were three teenagers running around cones in preparation for an NBA Africa tournament he was training them for. This is what Meme does regularly. Not for the money or fame, but for the love of the game and the next passionate baller’s future!
Bentil’s work ethics were those of a hungry lion ready to feast on a gifted antelope. He reported to training on time and stayed behind after the sessions were over. His vertical leap got better and so did his jump shooting. It was time to bid Ghana goodbye and knock on the doors of the future.
Forget about what Hollywood told you, life in America is hard, especially for a 15 year old boarding school athlete. Ben attended St Andrew’s school for his high school education. At the time, making it to the NBA was not top priority. It probably was not even a reality to him. Here was a boy from a deprived background who only recently picked up a basketball and was yet to play in an indoor gymnasium. The realest hope was to get an education and ease his way into college for an undergraduate degree. But when you come from Ghana and know the expectations the entire village has of you, you cannot help but grab and maximize any opportunity at your disposal.
Bentil worked his way through high school, eventually becoming one of the standouts on that team. Soon enough, the colleges started knocking on the doors of his American host family. Providence College always seemed like the favorites to get his playing services but an interest from national powerhouse, Georgetown was too good to not consider. In the end, he was swayed by the prospects of having a bigger and better impact at Providence College.
Bentil’s freshman season was not a stellar one. Averaging 6.4 points and 4.9 rebounds a game, he contributed marginally in this regard to the team. With the departure of a couple of players from the team, an opportune opening was presented to him. Like the proverbial early bird, he got the worms. His playing time increased by more than ten minutes and his points per game leap frogged to 21 points a game. In doing so, his contribution to the team surpassed his highly touted teammate and reigning Big East Defensive player of the year, Kris Dunn. When Ben was off the court, the team struggled to find its rhythm offensively. Ben had virtually become the go to guy on offense with him bagging the Big East scoring title, the league’s Most Improved Player award and a unanimous selection to the All-Big East First Team.
In the basketball world, when a player chalks such success, the next step naturally is to start considering going pro and declaring for the NBA draft is the way to do that. At the time of writing this, Ben had already declared for the draft and signed on with an agent. This means he has made up his mind to stay on in the draft, effectively preventing him from returning to play college basketball should the draft not go so well. But the draft looks like it is going to go very well.
After scoring 15 points and 11 rebounds in 20 minutes of the first day, he followed it up with 17 points and 6 rebounds in 19 minutes the following day. These are the type of numbers NBA teams in search of the next “big thing” like to see on their scouting reports. He has also had private workouts with the Timberwolves and Nuggets with positive feedbacks from the coaches of these two teams.
From being placed somewhere in the 70s to crawling his way up into the first round of CBS’s mock draft, Bentil surely has arrived after a hard and long fought journey. On June 23rd 2016, the prayers of all basketball loving Ghanaians would be to have our own Hakeem Olajuwon or Dikembe Mutombo in the person of Benjamin Bentil. The ripple effects his successful drafting would have on basketball courts around the country cannot be quantified. Jerseys with “Bentil” emblazoned on the back would replace “James” and “Curry” jerseys. Kids would believe in their dreams of playing basketball and Ghana would finally be on the map when it comes to basketball.