Ben Bentil, Panathinaikos: 'Basketball became my calling'

Feb 14, 2020 by Andy West, Print
Ben Bentil, Panathinaikos: 'Basketball became my calling'

Sometimes a sporting career follows a straight line, with everything planned out in advance and falling with a certain sense of inevitability.

Very often, though, the key moments of a player's development are freak events that could never have been predicted. Random chance. Pure luck. And that was the case with Panathinaikos OPAP Athens center Ben Bentil.

"We looked over to see what was going on and saw there was a basketball star called Meme Falconer."

Growing up in his native Ghana, the teenage Bentil did have ambitions for a sporting career – but not in basketball. Instead, he was a keen volleyball player, hoping that his talent for the sport would be his pathway into a college scholarship with the Ghanaian military. He also played a lot of football, but had never really played basketball. One day, when he was 14 years old, that all changed through a sheer fluke.

"Where I went to play volleyball, there was basketball court right next to it," Bentil explains. "One day, we were just playing our normal game of volleyball when we noticed a lot of noise and activity around the basketball court. We looked over to see what was going on and saw there was a basketball star called Meme Falconer, who had come to play on the court. He's a big name in Ghana, he was on TV a lot and everybody knew who he was. Big star. A real celebrity, and everybody respected him.

"We were all like: 'Wow, that's Meme over there!' So we stopped playing volleyball and went over to watch him. But then one of the players on his team got hurt and had to come off the court. They were playing five on five so they needed someone else. Meme looked around, pointed at me and said, 'Hey, come on, come and play.' I guess he picked me because I was tall!

"Meme looked around, pointed at me and said, 'Hey, come on, come and play.'"

"Then after the game he came and talked to me, asked me why I didn't start playing basketball and take it seriously. I said 'Firstly, I'm a volleyball player. I'm trying to use volleyball to get into the military team. And secondly, I don't know basketball and don't have anybody to coach me.' So he said, 'Well, I'm in town for a week. Tomorrow you should come to the court at three o'clock and work out with me.' So the following day I got to the court at 2.30 and he was already there. The whole week we worked together and he taught me the basics of basketball. When he left, I went back to volleyball! But that's when our relationship started."

After that initial week together, Bentil realized that being offered the personal help of a major personality was too good an opportunity not to pursue, so he maintained regular contact with Falconer.

"I made sure I stayed in touch!" he smiles. "When a big-time person like that is giving you his knowledge, you've got to do it.

"He called me regularly, making sure I was good. He came to visit my neighborhood and everybody was so surprised to see him walking around the streets! He came over to my house, met my parents and realized I was a really good student. He liked my work ethic and he became a mentor to me, like a big brother and a father figure at the same time. He said to me: 'All is hear is good things about you, kid. You could have a future somewhere.' After a while he got me a scholarship to the United States through a program called Hoops Care, and basketball became my calling."

Ben Bentil in Ghana

Falconer's interest in Bentil's development was largely motivated by a wish to see the teenager take opportunities that hadn't been available to himself personally, as Bentil explains:

"When Meme was younger he had a scholarship to play basketball in the States, but he got hurt so he couldn't take it and he spent his career in Ghana.

"He always told me straight: I was living the dream that he couldn't. He was living that dream through me. He told me not many people from Ghana get opportunities like that, so I should just make sure I take advantage of it, playing basketball and getting paid for it. That's something a lot of people would love to do. And that's why I wanted to go to the highest possible level and achieve as much as possible, just to make him proud."

Falconer recently returned to Ghana after spending two years studying in the United States and he is now attempting to develop the Ghanaian national team, which has a dismal history and only plays exhibition games. Naturally, Bentil wants to be a part of that process.

"He always told me straight: I was living the dream that he couldn't. He was living that dream through me."

"Meme has gone back home to put the national team together. He wants to put the guys together because we've got a lot of guys who play professionally, and lots of good college kids. We could have a strong team, but it needs someone to make it happen because we've never had a senior basketball team in Ghana. So it's a battle for Meme, and I want to do whatever I can to help."

If Ghana ever does becomes a force in African basketball, you will know who to thank – the same person who Ben Bentil has to thank for his professional career.