His outstanding play in one game sparked my love for prep sports
Ben Coleman played in the first high school basketball game I ever attended. It was that game that sparked in me a passion for high school basketball and led to my career as a prep sports columnist.
Coleman was a former Minneapolis North basketball standout who went on to star at the University of Minnesota and the University of Maryland before embarking on a seven-year NBA career. He passed away last week at the age of 57.
It was his presence in the 1979 Twin City Boys’ Basketball game between Minneapolis North and St. Paul Central, held at Macalester College in St. Paul, that changed my life and, unknowingly at the time, changed history.
Here’s the story.
As an eighth-grader at Highland Park Jr. High School in St. Paul, I was relatively new to the Twin Cities, having moved here two years prior from New Brunswick, NJ. Attending athletic events at the high school level was not on my radar at the time. Gophers, Vikings, Twins? Yes! High school? No!
My father, Kwame McDonald, a sports columnist and community activist at the time, was all in the mix.
He would leave the house every Tuesday and Friday — this was before Saturday games, weekend and holiday tournaments, and jamborees became the norm — to watch St. Paul Central. Each time, he would invite me to go with him. Each time I would decline his invitation.
Then came the day all that changed. It was Saturday, February 17.
“Come on, we’re going to the Twin City game,” my father said with authority during breakfast. “We’re going to see Central go up against Big Ben.”
Living in St. Paul, I was aware of the Central players as Brian Dungey, Davey Givens, Stacy Robinson, Rickey Suggs, John Williams and Farron Henderson. They were all heroes in our neighborhood, so I was confused.
“Who’s Big Ben?” I asked.
“You’ll find out,” he replied with a smile.
We arrived at Macalester College in St. Paul to find the place packed with people. (The crowd was later announced at 2,500).
The teams came out to warm up and I got my first glimpse of Coleman — all 6’9” of him — and was immediately in awe of him, having never seen anyone in high school that tall before.
Though Central was the team I was rooting for, I found myself secretly cheering for Coleman. My newfound hero didn’t disappoint, scoring a team-leading 15 points before fouling out in a 65-55 loss to their St. Paul counterparts. Mike Esaw had 12, Pat Burston 11, and Damond Dickson 10 for the Polars.
Suggs led Central — who would finish runner-up in the Class AA state tournament — with 19, and Williams added 12.
I was happy that Central won but was also glad I got to see Coleman. He ended up being the first African American Minneapolis City Conference player to earn a scholarship at the U of M.
The Twin City game he starred in on that cool February afternoon also ushered in a historical rivalry during the 1980s in which North and Central met in the annual inner city classic in 1980, ’81,’82, ’83, ’85, ’86, ’87 and ’88.
Whenever I would run into him as an adult, I would mention that game and the rivalry that followed. In our last conversation, he told me how much he admired my father. I thanked him and responded by telling him how much he had inspired me.
Rest easy, Big Ben.
Ben Coleman’s funeral service will be held at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, 3355 4th Street in Minneapolis, on Saturday, January 26, 2019