Tony Bennett spent short NBA career in Charlotte
Tony Bennett barely had an NBA career. It started here in Charlotte, in an old arena nicknamed The Hive, and three years later, it ended...
Seattle Times staff columnist
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Tony Bennett barely had an NBA career. It started here in Charlotte, in an old arena nicknamed The Hive, and three years later, it ended here, with Bennett hobbling away on a bad foot. He lasted long enough to have an espresso and a scone.
"Wish I could've played longer," Bennett lamented Thursday. "I wasn't healthy enough to go on."
That's all the regret you will get from Bennett, however, because in such a short time, he amassed enough memories to fill a buffet. He was on the court for the greatest shot in Charlotte's pro basketball history. He met his wife here. He found a second family here.
Now Bennett returns, as a coach, hoping to do the impossible: beat top-seeded North Carolina tonight in its home state. It is an incredible aspiration, but then again, his whole life has been about spurning long odds.
Tony Bennett, the NBA player, once roamed these streets with the modesty of a tobacco farmer. He came here right out of college, abandoning the slow life in Green Bay, Wis., and proceeded to change absolutely nothing about himself.
That was an upset in itself. The pro-sports lifestyle has altered some of the most genuine people. But for Bennett, the NBA was just his job, a gig, and though he played the game with great passion, his years with the Hornets were defined more by the lifelong connections he made.
He met his wife, Laurel, at church. Laurel was an assistant youth pastor at Forest Hill Church, and during Bennett's rookie season in 1993, he spoke to the group. When he saw Laurel, he thought to himself, "Now I know why the good Lord brought me here."
It took about 18 months until they started dating, which prompted David Chadwick, the Forest Hill pastor, to joke, "Why did it take you so long to notice her?"
Chadwick, who played college basketball at North Carolina, befriended Bennett early in his rookie season. They were introduced through the Hornets' team trainer, went to lunch, spent several hours talking and became instant friends.
Bennett spent much of his free time at Chadwick's church or at his home. The children loved him. Chadwick's daughter, who was 9 at the time, had a crush on Bennett.
"I think he was my daughter's first love," Chadwick said, laughing.
Even in his early 20s, Bennett showed a rare sincerity. Chadwick asked him about it one day, and Bennett revealed one of his father's greatest lessons.
"My dad told me long ago not to pay too much attention when people cheer or jeer," Bennett said of his father, Dick, a coaching great.
Chadwick started using the line with his children.
"Tony has always been just one of the people," Chadwick said. "He never, ever pretended to be a hotshot. He's one of the most humble, genuinely gracious people you'll ever meet."
Bennett was the Hornets' backup point guard, playing behind Muggsy Bogues. He averaged 3.5 points in 12.4 minutes, earning playing time because of his shooting ability and feistiness.
His finest pro moment came during the 1993 NBA playoffs, but it wasn't an individual accomplishment. Bennett teaches what his father called "servanthood" — essentially, being the ultimate team guy — to his players, and in this moment, he was a servant.
In Game 4 of a first-round series against Boston, with the Hornets trailing 103-102 in the closing seconds, coach Alan Bristow put Bennett in the game for his shooting. But the ball wound up swinging to center Alonzo Mourning, who sank a fallaway 20-footer from the top of the key to clinch the series for Charlotte. If the camera had focused on Bennett, it would've seen him under the basket, fighting Dee Brown for rebounding position.
"I had Dee Brown blocked out," Bennett said, laughing. "I was ready to get the tip."
Instead, after the shot fell, he was one of the first of many Hornets who jumped on Mourning "like schoolkids."
Those were the days. They were too short, however.
Fifteen years ago, a stranger approached Bennett with a photo in hand. It was an image of Bennett competing against Michael Jordan.
"You're going to want to save that some day," the stranger said.
And, of course, Bennett forgot the picture in his locker. Shoot, he thought. Then he relaxed. He figured he'd have plenty more opportunities.
He didn't. A foot injury shortened his career. After managing only three games in his third season, Bennett left the NBA. He went to New Zealand to become a player-coach, but Chadwick recalls an even greater motivation for Bennett giving up his NBA dreams.
Bennett told Chadwick he felt called to go to New Zealand and help build a church. And that is what he and Laurel did.
"Even though he could've tried to hang on in the NBA, he left to pursue another dream," Chadwick said. "I think that's pretty significant."
Wherever Bennett goes, for however long, he makes an impact. The Tar Heels should be wary tonight.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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