Tony Bennett talks dad, NBA and succeeding at WSU

<b>PULLMAN -- Tony Bennett, the likely successor at the helm of Cougar basketball whenever father Dick decides to retire, recently sat down with CF.C for a wide-ranging Q&A covering everything from what it's like to go one-on-one with Michael Jordan to living and working with a Hall of Fame coach. Here's Part II of our conversation with the 35-year-old associate head coach and one-time NBA point guard.

Second of a two-part series

Q. Do you think there will ever come a time when, as a coach, you're not just seen as Dick Bennett's son?

A. To me, it's a great compliment. One thing I know we're going to have to do is recruit better players, because I'm not gonna be half the coach he is. I mean, that's a Hall of Fame coach we're talking about. I'm not coaching to make a name for Tony Bennett, I just want to enjoy working with the kids and turning the program into a contender; that's what I'd love to do.

Q. Now that you've been a coach, what do you admire most about your father as a coach?

A. He is one of the most genuine, humble guys I've been around. All he cares about is taking a team and getting them to come together as a unit and do things they couldn't normally do. He's not about fluff. He shares so many things with these kids that will stay with them -- they don't even know it right now -- things that will stay with them when they're married, when they have careers, in the business world, wherever they are. Another thing I admire -- and not a lot of coaches will do this, especially coaches with egos -- is if he feels he's stepped over the line and been too harsh, he's the first one to say "Forgive me, I apologize." I really respect that, when a coach says "I was wrong, I shouldn't have said that." I think that brings instant credibility. He's real with the guys. He'll tell you what he's thinking and he doesn't try to sugar-coat stuff. He'll tell you when you're doing good and when you're not. I think more people need that. There is so much phoniness that goes on in this world and in this business that real genuine people are pretty valuable.

Q. You're a smaller guy (6-0, 170) who played at a small school. How did you get to the NBA and how did you stay in the NBA for as long as you did?

A: One of the reasons is that I played for a great coach. (Points toward Dick Bennett's office) When you play for him he teaches you how to be so tough-minded and complete as a player. But to play at the highest level you'd better be athletic enough or you don't have a prayer. I had a weapon in my shot, I was real solid in every other area and I was athletic enough to compete with those guys. In college I played all four years and developed my game. I had to fight to make it, but I made it for three years. No one ever said I was gonna be a lottery pick, but as I got better and better in my junior and senior years, some of the teams said I was one of the better point guards in the country. And I played well in the pre-draft camps, which is huge for so many guys. They can make or break your future, especially guys that don't come from major conferences, because they want to see you against those guys that do.

Q. Which was a more rewarding experience; college or pro basketball?

A: There's nothing like the school spirit, the camaraderie, the unity and the purity of the college game. You get to the NBA, and I got to play in the playoffs and I played against Michael Jordan and all of's amazing, but it's a business. It's a cut-throat business. I remember Terry Porter (who played for Dick Bennett as Wisconsin-Stevens Point and then for 18 years in the NBA) would always come back and workout with us in the preseason. We're sitting there one time and he told all of us, he said, "Guys, the best years of your playing careers will be in college. You just can't beat 'em." And this is a guy who played in two All-Star games, played in two world championship series with the Trail Blazers, and he said nothing will touch the experience that you'll have in college. And at the time I was like, "Come on, this guy's making beaucoup bank, and he's saying that?" But my taste of the NBA did not compare to what you experience in college.

Q. What was your favorite thing about the NBA?

A. Well, the salary wasn't too bad (laughing). One of my favorite things was the opportunity, night in and night out, to play against what I think are the greatest athletes in the world. I got to play against Michael Jordan about 15 times in my career, and to play against Isiah Thomas and Shaquille O'Neal, just to be on the floor going against them or watching them. It would blow you away just to see the ability and athleticism. We played in the playoffs two of my three years, and seeing those world-class players when all of a sudden it meant more and went up a level...that was great.

Q. Without naming names, do you have any off-the-wall NBA stories?

A. How long do you have? I'll put it this way -- when you play in the NBA, whatever you're looking for -- if you're looking for fame, the party scene -- anything you want, it's right at your fingertips. Some of the guys' lifestyles that they choose to live, I'm amazed that they can play as well as they do and last as long as they do. You're also dealing with some huge egos at that level, and some of the interactions between players and coaches that you don't see at the college level were mind-boggling. Just a lack of respect for coaches. Some of that stuff was hard to see, coming from the background I came from.

Q. Who was the best player you've ever been around, be it in your playing days or as a coach?

A. Michael Jordan, hands down. I had Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson as teammates, and those were two prominent name guys, but you talk about Jordan, and man...Isiah was at the end of his career when I played, but he was tremendous. I didn't get to play against Bird or Magic; I missed them by a year or two. Before they got hurt, Kevin Johnson and Tim Hardaway. Before Tim got hurt, I'm telling you what, he had some stuff. There were so many good players.

Q. Who is the best athlete you've been around?

A: A guy who played in the Pac-10, Robert Pack. He went to USC. You talk about a smaller guy who can take off and dunk on you. Kevin Johnson's quickness before he got hurt...Muggsy Bogues was 5-foot-2 and his nickname was "Pocket Hercules." He was one of the fastest, strongest, quickest guys you'll ever see. Obviously Jordan's up there. People don't understand how athletic everyone is in the NBA. And some of them are 6-10, 260 pounds, like the size of defensive linemen, but you see how quick they are. Karl Malone, man, his upper body, and Anthony Mason. Those guys are just so strong.

Q. Did you ever go 1-on-1 with Jordan?

A: One game -- and I have no idea why -- but he guarded me for like two or three minutes. I was in late in the game. I remember catching the ball, squaring up and he was on me, and I was like, "Oh my." I remember I took one dribble and I felt his hand, so I passed it. I chickened out every time; I'd get rid of it as soon as I got it. It was cool, though, because all my boys called me after the game like, "Yeah, Jordan was on you!" One thing I regret to this Day -- in my rookie year, I played against MJ in Chicago and a photographer came up to me and said, "You're gonna want this," and it was a great action shot of me going against MJ. I said "Oh, that was nice" and I put it in my locker but I left and I forgot it. But I was thinking, "I'm gonna play against him so many times, I don't need it." But I never got another picture like that. That'd be something to show your kids one day.
Part I of the Tony Bennett Q&A was posted Jan. 23.

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