B.J. Benning has long had his sights set on playing in a particular three-letter professional basketball league. For now, he said he's content playing in another.
Benning tried out for and made the roster of the St. Louis Phoenix, who are making their Premier Basketball League debut today. The Phoenix are hosting the Central Illinois Drive at the Soldan International Arena at 4 p.m. CST. Information about webcasts of PBL games is at www.atsportstv.com.
Benning played at Brainerd High School, albeit briefly because of a heart condition that he was eventually able to overcome. That limited his time with the Panthers, but he went on to play at Moberly Area Community College in Missouri and Lee University.
Basketball then took Benning globe hopping, starting with a stint playing professionally in Switzerland. Most recently he played this summer in China on a team from Brazil.
"That was the most English I'd heard since I'd been playing overseas," Benning said of his Brazilian teammates.
Now the 6-foot-8 Benning has an opportunity to play professionally stateside in a league that's a challenger to the NBA's developmental league.
"I feel good about it," Benning said. "I'm just ready to get out there. I miss playing ball."
Fans who remember Benning from his days at Brainerd or Lee remember a fierce rebounder. He pulled down 26 for the Panthers in a game against Howard; that remains a school record.
But now with two 6-10 teammates, Benning is being asked to play more on the perimeter.
"I've been playing shooting guard off and on in my pro career. This coach is going to put me down low some, but he wants me to work on my 3-point shooting," Benning said of Phoenix coach Floyd Irons.
Benning said his goal always has been to play in the NBA, and he feels this is the next step in his progression. He said NBA scouts routinely check out the PBL talent pool looking for opportunities to improve their franchises.
"Hopefully I can at least get a call-up," Benning said.
He still has fond memories of his time at Brainerd and recalled learning a lot about the game by hanging around practice in his early years when he was physically unable to play. Panthers coach Robert High said because Benning's prep career was limited to about a year and a half, he felt Benning would be "something to see" once he developed his game with more court time.
High said Benning always has been a hard worker and has paid his dues playing overseas.
"He's a class act," High said. "I couldn't be happier for that kid. He has some rebounding records around here that are going to be here for a while."
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.