Years ago, a collector friend of mine gave me an authentic I.U. jersey that eventually my wife had framed. As was Bob Knight’s coaching philosophy back then, there was no individual player’s name on the jersey just INDIANA 54. It was this concept of team that earned his team the last undefeated season in college basketball history and the 1976 NCAA Championship. The “Gentle Giant,” Kent Benson wore that jersey at a time when players were not allowed to keep their uniforms so they could be passed along to the next season. There were two versions – a white with red letters for home games and a red with white trim road jersey. I was given the latter, proudly displayed in my office and home.
I often felt that Kent Benson should have “The Jersey.” After all, he earned it – not me. It was crudely pinned to my office wall gathering dust. A mutual friend tried to orchestrate an exchange, but it never happened. I once met Kent at an I.U. game against Illinois, but by then “The Jersey” was in a huge, elaborate $1000 frame. After all, he was a big guy that required “Omar the Tent-maker” to cover his 6’11” frame. He autographed my ticket stub and we briefly talked about the mutual friend. The frame was ultimately damaged in an Illinois home flood, and was next moved to Austin, Texas and hung in a stairwell where the damage was not noticeable. When we next moved to Portland, Oregon, I finally had a room dedicated to my sports memorabilia. “The Jersey” was displayed on the wall next to a rival #30 Purdue practice jersey signed by coach Gene Keady.
Bob Knight and Gene Keady had a fierce relationship. In fact, Knight threw “The Chair” on what now is Keady Court in West Lafayette, Indiana. I ran the television station that produced and aired Keady’s weekly coaches show. It was obviously not appropriate to display the Kent Benson jersey in my office, so I bought the Black & Gold Purdue pull-over at a local fundraiser to show my support for the local team. It was tough to be an I.U. grad in enemy territory, trying to act like Purdue was my favorite. I attended many Old Oaken Bucket football games and basketball clashes biting my tongue. However, Coach Keady was such a classy guy that he earned my respect. I certainly knew him much better than “The General,” Bob Knight, who I only met at the Maui Classic as part of an alumni rally.
My wife and I recently moved out of our Portland condo and into a downtown apartment. It required some major downsizing and there was certainly no space for “The Jersey.” I was honestly thinking of dismantling the cumbersome frame and retaining just the #54. Instead, the glass broke during the move, making the decision easy. I then put “The Jersey” in storage. It was just last week that I read an article about Kent Benson and his family struggles with cancer. Several fundraisers were being organized in his honor. I’ve decided to reunite him with #54 after all these years and wrote this letter to accompany my package:
Enclosed you will find your Indiana jersey #54 that I have had in my possession for many years. I’m an I.U. grad, Class of ’73, now living in Portland, Oregon. A friend of mine had access to all the jerseys once the school decided to buy new ones. They were apparently recycled from year-to-year and no one got to keep them. On a couple of occasions I tried to get this to you, but I kept moving further away. Also, my wife had it framed as a gift, making it more difficult to give up. You probably haven’t seen it for about 43 years, but just recently the pricey frame was damaged in our move.
I’ve been reading about some of the fundraisers on your behalf, and thought this might cheer you up a bit through the Holidays. I also want to thank you for those great years of championship basketball. I didn’t realize at the time what a rare accomplishment I was experiencing. You’ve have always been a Hoosier Hero and “The Jersey” was proudly the centerpiece of my sports memorabilia collection. Whether you decide to keep it or offer it as part of a fundraiser, it’s now back in your hands where it should be.