NEWBERRY — “Be like Mike” once was the mantra of aspiring basketball players around the country when Michael Jordan was in his heyday leading the Chicago Bulls to NBA titles.
But for senior Newberry High School point guard Bennett Wilson, “Be Like Mike” takes on a deeper meaning.
After the state championship game, Wilson tossed a bloody, sweaty headband into the stands to his mentor in basketball, Uncle Mike Keith Allen Sr.
That headband belonged to Michael Allen Jr., Wilson’s older cousin who died when Bennett was 10 years old.
Allen Jr. had a degenerative disease that took away his ability to walk and shortened his life expectancy to 18 years. Despite the grim prognosis, the two young men lived as normal a life together as the circumstances allowed.
“I spent around two weeks with Michael each summer,” Bennett said, “and we were close, like brothers.”
The pair still did shoot around and played video games. They attended Columbia Blowfish and Charlotte Bobcats games together.
Before he died, Allen Jr. told his father: “I can see Bennett has the body of an athlete. Give everything to him that you couldn’t give to me.”
Give he did, as Allen Sr. became Wilson’s personal trainer and coach.
“When I first started high school and made the varsity team, I knew Mike (Jr.) was looking down and proud of me and I worked hard to keep making him proud,” Wilson said.
Interestingly, the elder Allen did not tell Wilson about the conversation until this year in the weeks leading up to the state championship game.
When he told him, Wilson said he broke down and then looked up to see Allen Sr. with a gift for him.
Allen Sr. gave Wilson his son’s headband to keep with him during the state championship game. Bennett could not wear the headband in the game, so he asked NHS Assistant Coach Mike Hughes to hold it for him.
Every timeout and at halftime, Wilson had the headband in his hands.
Once he came out of the game because he was bleeding and did not realize until after the game that his blood was on the headband along with sweat and tears.
That piece of Mike is what drove Wilson to win the starting point guard position at Newberry High School his senior year and, if he had his way, to will his team to a championship.
He worked hard in the weightroom and played pickup basketball at the YMCA. He played AAU ball and went on three-mile runs that were the brainchild of Allen. Wilson did them while wearing a 20-pound vest and dribbling a basketball.
When it came time for tip off in the championship, the senior said he felt some butterflies.
“In the beginning of the game we got together and prayed and asked God to help loosen up our muscles so we could play to the best of our ability. We came together and were focused and settled. Win or lose, we’d do it as a family,” he said.
Wilson said by the time the first shots fell through, he was in the flow of the game and playing at his best.
A different drummer
Wilson has a few other ways to play his best. He is an accomplished musician who picked up his first drum sticks at age 4. By the time he was 8, he played drums to accompany music at church.
Then, the summer of his seventh grade year, as he and many of his teammates were practicing for AAU ball, Wilson said he received a special gift from God: He sat down at the keyboard and plunked around and before he realized it, he had taught himself to play piano.
The youngest of five children, Wilson comes from a musical family. His mother plays piano and violin and his father sings.
Once he showed his parents that he could tickle the ivories, they showed him gospel songs.
“My parents taught me gospel songs and I played at church because we had no musician,” he said. He plays piano at Belmont Baptist in Silverstreet and at Mt. Alexander Baptist in Woodruff.
Wilson kept that routine despite a busy sports schedule, though it required creativity to do so.
“If I knew basketball made me late for choir practice, I would get a CD and record music for them so they could work with the director,” he said.
Wilson said the gifts of piano and basketball bring him closer to God.
“The gifts and my faith keep me motivated yet humble because I know the strength does not come from me. Instead I know I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” he said.
Two years ago Wilson received a Yamaha motif XF-7 keyboard he uses to create his own music and lay down tracks.
He hopes to play college basketball. S.C. State, Winston Salem State, Johnson C. Smith and Francis Marion are among the schools recruiting him. He plays to major in sports management and has dreams of being a musical producer some day.
He started a few games here and there in the 1oth and 11th grades but finally found a permanent starting gig in his final season. As point guard, he was like a coach on the floor, making all the offensive set calls unless the coaches yelled in signals to him at half court.
“Me and the team talk a lot. If I was going through a slump or the offense was (a bit sluggish), I’d ask them what I needed to do to get back right,” he said. “Maybe I needed to drive more or maybe I needed to dish the ball off more often.”
As a freshman, Wilson said Coach Chad Cary took him aside and told him he had faith in him.
“He predicted I’d win a championship before I graduated and said he didn’t have to teach me a lot because I knew how to lead the team,” Wilson said.
Wilson said he helped work with the younger players on both sides of the ball but especially on defense and he stayed on the players to be intense in practice like he was.
“If we practice like this every day, well other teams out there don’t, so that gives us an edge,” he said.
Now he is the first Bulldog to play in a North Carolina-South Carolina All-Star game.
Though there is less weight on his shoulders now that he and his teammates have earned those elusive rings, Wilson wants to make his community proud as he and the best players in South Carolina square off in the basketball version of the Shrine Bowl.
He’d like nothing more than to show Michael how much he has learned by helping lead the South Carolina team to a win in his final high school game.
Win or lose, he promised to play hard and show the coaches and players there what Newberry High School Bulldog basketball is all about.