Before he could write his name, Casey Benson was dribbling a basketball. Just as he was beginning to talk, he was naming Michael Jordan.
The Tempe, Arizona native fell in love with the game of basketball at an early age and that passion has stuck with him ever since.
Benson, now the freshman starting point guard for the Oregon men’s basketball team, has made tremendous strides to get to where he is today. It’s primarily due to his drive and motivation for the game.
The road wasn’t easy, but the left-handed prospect from Corona Del Sol High School found a way to pursue his dream and continues to ride the basic principles that first got him to the University of Oregon.
“First day of practice as a freshman, we knew he belonged with us,” Corona Del Sol High School head coach Kevin Augustin said. “You could see the way he carried himself, his work ethic, his coachability, that you knew you had something special.”
Not like the other kids
Growing up, Casey was a gym rat. Even before he tapped into his own pool of potential, Benson first learned how the game was played by watching his older brother T.J. play. Following around his brother, who is a former player at Weber State and current coach at Grand Canyon University, Casey always sat with his parents in the stands.
Casey turned down opportunities to play with other kids his age, so he could watch T.J. play. He wasn’t even in middle school yet.
“With little kids, usually they’re running around the gym, hanging out with their friends, not even paying attention to the game and I always remember him just sitting there watching me play, observing me, learning from me,” T.J. said.
Now, the roles have reversed.
“I was his biggest fan and now he’s done playing so he’s become my biggest fan,” Casey said. “We’re just really close and have a lot of synergy.”
Casey separated himself early on. While his friends were running around the gym, Casey sat patiently and watched every game from beginning to end.
Through watching these countless games, he began to pick up the knowledge necessary to not only be a good point guard, but also a great team player.
“You look at him on the floor, so high IQ, doesn’t make mistakes, knows where everyone should be, and I think that started when he was a little kid,” T.J. said.
Later on, when Casey was a little older, he used these tools to take on T.J. and his much older friends. This set up a long, but useful, maturation process on and off the court.
“I do think being around his older siblings and their friends helped him to maybe mature a little bit faster,” Casey’s mother Judy said. “He just liked being around them. They went through the period of teasing when he was younger, but then as he has gotten older, they’ve been as supportive of him as dad and I.”
Today, Benson continues to exhibit this high basketball IQ , despite playing only his first year of Division I basketball.
The hard work paid off.
Keeping faith and remaining grounded
Before he takes the podium after the game and takes the time to talk with the media, Casey gives glory to God. Casey, who was first introduced to Christianity at the age of 14 when his parents decided to host Bible Study sessions at their Arizona home, considers himself a man of faith.
Said Casey: “My faith keeps me grounded. I always just want to remain in a place of humility, remain in a place of character and integrity. To have that platform, I don’t want to abuse that.”
Using these beliefs, Casey has been able to remain grounded and focused on what truly matters in his life. He also represents a group of student athletes that aren’t afraid to express their faith and religion.
“Casey, to me, is a one of a kind kid,” T.J. said. “Tim Tebow, Russell Wilson, Casey sits in that same mold. It’s just the way he was raised. I think he wants to show kids out there that you don’t have to be a certain way, you can be different.”
One of the first people Casey met when he arrived at Oregon was Kenny Smith, the head pastor at Life Bible Church in nearby Harrisburg. Judy had initially set up the meeting in hopes of making the transition away from home less stressful, but what would later come out of the relationship was something no one expected.
Casey, who has a knack for connecting with people of all ages, has basically become an older brother to Smith’s children. He has attended their flag football games and has been there for support as well. He quickly found his niche in the Harrisburg community.
“Being a great kid, you expect certain things, but he’s gone above expectations on just willing to be nice to every kid. Takes time for anybody that wants to talk. He’s just such a humble kid, it has been really impressive to see that aspect of his life,” Smith said.
Simply put, Casey’s faith has served as the basis for all his endeavors. Whether it is thriving in the locker room, classroom or out in the community, Casey’s faith has been a staple of the type of person he is.
“Family is incredibly important to him, friends are incredibly important to him and doing the right thing, but it all comes from his faith,” his father Tim said.
When the doors are closed and when no one is watching, that’s when Casey is doing his best work.
“You don’t see often guys that have nothing to gain, giving back for no reason, there’s no cameras rolling, there’s nobody there to make his name big,” Smith said. “He’s there simply because he loves people and wants to give back.”
A lost art
Quiet and receptive as a student of the game, Casey is a rarity in an age of basketball where AAU travel teams have deemphasized the importance of team play and have, instead, applauded flashy, individual play.
“Casey is almost kind of a dying breed. There really aren’t a whole lot of them (true point guards) out there,” T.J. said.
Casey has always valued winning as a team. He guided Corona del Sol to three Arizona state titles. He was also named the Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year his junior season. Now, he’s trying to translate that success at the collegiate level.
And it won’t be his athleticism or talent as for why he succeeds.
“I’ve always focused on trying to be the best role model I can be because I want to influence younger kids too,” Casey said. “To have the platform, it’s just an honor.”
Follow Hayden Kim on Twitter @HayDayKim