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Ben Smith

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By keeping past alive, Bennett will never die

Bennett

– So they come to me now and they tell me Carl Bennett has gone to his reward, and what I think about that, what is the easy and entirely proper segue, is this: It better be a hell of a reward.

The man was a sweetheart, not to gild any lilies. He was kind. He was accommodating. He was generous with his memories – and they were thick beyond measure, the memories, right up into his 90s – and impeccably mannered in a way not much seen in the world anymore.

Carl Bennett was a gentleman. In the sense of the word that’s also not much seen anymore.

What he mainly was, of course, was the living, breathing institutional memory of professional basketball in its infancy, and we were all the richer for it. Go the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., and there Carl is on video, talking about the time a Pistons fan named Ma Collins clocked Syracuse coach Les Harrison in the melon with her purse. Go out to eat with him, and he’d lean his conversation-piece cane against the side of the booth – the cane was actually a commemorative putter from the Bob Hope Classic – and tell stories about Bobby McDermott and George Yardley and Andy Phillip, and of course about his old boss, Fred Zollner.

Carl Bennett put 15 years of his life when he didn’t have a pile of years left trying to get Zollner into the Hall of Fame, and when he finally did it in 1999, he invited me to tag along with the Fort Wayne contingent. And when they called Fred Zollner’s name, Carl leaned on the putter and made his way to the podium, and reminded us all that the NBA didn’t begin with Magic or Larry or MJ or LeBron, or even Oscar or Kareem or Wilt or Russell.

It began with men like Fred Zollner, and Yardley, and Phillip, and George Mikan. And, yes, Carl Bennett.

The NBA, or at least the first steps toward it, began in his home. The 24-second clock happened in part because Bennett’s Pistons stalled their way to a 19-18 win over Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers, and the NBA decided that was enough of that. And when the NBA decided to widen the lane from six to 12 feet, there was Carl Bennett, marking out the new dimensions with tape.

He talked Zollner into buying a team plane in 1952, the first professional sports owner ever to do so. He was a founding member of the Mad Anthonys. And when he died Thursday, he did so as the last surviving member of the original NBA executive board.

The man did a few things, in other words.

Mostly he made the past, or at least a vital piece of it, breathe for all of us. And no one was more loyal to his hometown, nor a more fierce advocate of its place in basketball history.

And so the legacy will live on, out there in Springfield. Fred Zollner’s plaque. A display mentioning Fort Wayne’s role in the birth of the NBA. Carl Bennett via video, talking about Ma Collins and her purse.

And the man himself?

What comes to me, now that he’s gone at 97, is the day Carl called to tell me George Yardley was in a bad way. That was nine years ago this month. Yardley had ALS. And he didn’t have long to live, which you could hardly conceive given what an effervescent personality he was.

“He’s a people guy,” is how Bennett put it.

And now I think this: Right back at ya, Carl.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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