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In his NBA debut, IU’s Kent Benson was punched by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar


INDIANAPOLIS — Kent Benson’s NBA debut lasted two minutes and nine seconds. Basketball took up the primary 120 seconds. A two-man brawl that began with an elbow to the stomach and ended with a punch to the face played out in the ultimate nine.

Fans sat in shock inside MECCA Arena on Oct. 18, 1977, as Benson, playing his first pro basketball game with the Milwaukee Bucks, shoved his right elbow into the lower stomach of Los Angeles Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to ward him off.

Abdul-Jabbar didn’t like that. He bent over in pain. After which Abdul-Jabbar stood up. He lunged toward Benson, pulled back his right arm and punched Benson square within the face.

Abdul-Jabbar was ejected from the sport, went back to his hotel room and watched the Los Angeles Dodgers lose to the Recent York Yankees in Game 6 of the World Series.

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Bucks center Kent Benson needs help walking off the MECCA floor in 1977 after getting punched by the Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Benson needed the assistance of a trainer to walk off the ground. Hewas sidelined with a light concussion, swollen eye, bruises and cuts that required stitches. He watched the Los Angeles Lakers lose to his Bucks 117-112.

The victory was sweet, however it didn’t soothe the pain. Neither did the bandages and ice packs.

The No. 1 pick within the 1977 NBA draft, a 6-10 star center at IU and NCAA champion affectionately often known as the “gentle giant,” had taken a unique form of hit.

In his NBA debut, the rookie all eyes were watching had taken a significant blow — to his ego.

Benson: ‘Why bring that up now?’

Benson shouldn’t be interested by talking about that night 45 years ago. He returned IndyStar’s call for an interview request but to not relive that punch.

“Why would you write an article about that,” Benson said of something that happened greater than 4 many years ago. “Why bring that up now?”

But Benson has talked about that night persistently before, including the day after the sport.

“I feel funny throughout,” Benson told the Indianapolis Star in 1977 as he missed the team’s trip to Denver for a game against the Nuggets. “It’s type of hard to see out of my eye. My jaw is hurting.”

IU's Kent Benson was punched in the face in his NBA debut by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Benson said that he elbowed Abdul-Jabbar after the Lakers’ center had “jostled him on an earlier play.” Benson said it was not a “vicious shot” on his part.

“I turned away to play defense,” Benson said in 1977, the Star describing him as a “puffy-eyed rookie.” “(Abdul-Jabbar) must’ve lost his composure and I got hit.” 

Video footage of the fight shows Abdul-Jabbar coming up behind Benson who pivots and offers Abdul-Jabbar a right elbow to his lower stomach.

“Nothing malicious,” Benson said of the hit in a YouTube video posted in 2014, titled “Undefeated with Kent Benson.”

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But that elbow should have felt malicious to Abdul-Jabbar who immediately bent over in pain, who then turned around to face Benson and bent once more. The referees hadn’t seen it. No foul was called, so Abdul-Jabbar took matters into his own hands.

He took one step toward Benson after which a second step after which a 3rd and, on his fourth, inches from Benson, Abdul-Jabbar smashed a fist into Benson’s face.

Benson flailed backward from the force of the hit and fell to the bottom.

He knew as he laid there, this wasn’t nearly that elbow. Abdul-Jabbar didn’t like an NBA rookie coming in and wreaking havoc on his Lakers game in only two minutes.

Abdul-Jabbar: ‘An affordable shot’

“I out-jumped him on the tip,” Benson said in 2014 of that 1977 game. “Kareem’s 7-2 (with those) long arms. And I outjump him at 6-10. So we control the tip, come down and (Bucks’) Brian Winters takes a shot from outside, misses it. I am going up over Kareem, rebound and put the ball back in.”

On the best way back down the court, Benson said, Abdul-Jabbar elbowed him several times.

“And I beat him right down to his spot on the block where he could shoot his famous hook shot. And as he got here barreling down, he takes and drives his elbow right into my chest,” Benson said. “And so we’re jostling for position and I just elbow him back. Nothing malicious, but elbow him back.”

Benson said that Abdul-Jabbar “placed on an enormous act like he was hurting. He bent over and type of fell back 10 feet. You’ll be able to see he looks to see if the officials are looking.”

Meanwhile, Benson said he was watching the ball come down the court. “And he takes a running start and he sucker punches me right within the temple. Didn’t knock me out however it knocked me silly,” he said. “I used to be seeing stars and birdies and every little thing else.”

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as Milwaukee Bucks star Lew Alcindor.

IndyStar reached out to Abdul-Jabbar for an interview but didn’t get a response. He did discuss that night in 1977 on a podcast with former Lakers’ teammate Byron Scott in 2021.

“The Kent Benson incident, where Kent Benson elbowed you, only a deliberate elbow,” Scott said on his Off the Dribble podcast. “He hit you in a terrific spot where you only bent over. Play goes on and also you type of gathered yourself, squared up, and just said, ‘POW’ and knocked him out.”

Abdul-Jabbar, whose hand was broken because of this of the punch and was out for 21 games, told Scott: “I’m so sorry I did that.”

But Benson’s elbow “was an inexpensive shot, a sneaky shot,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “He did that because his coach, Don Nelson, told him to love rough me up if he was going to achieve success. He just made himself an issue. Each time I saw him after that, I made sure he realized that I knew how one can play.”

NBA record superb

The night after the incident, the Lakers had a game at Market Square Arena to play the Indiana Pacers. Abdul-Jabbar traveled to Indianapolis with the team where Pacers’ physician Dr. Richard Hutson put a forged on his hand.

“The breaks of the sport or hand didn’t deter the Los Angeles Lakers,” the IndyStar wrote after the Pacers lost to the Lakers 133-120, even without their star center and reigning NBA MVP.

IndyStar described the explanation Abdul-Jabbar was absent from the Pacers game. “His well-publicized right cross to the pinnacle of Milwaukee’s rookie center Kent Benson within the previous evening’s loss to the Bucks left Abdul-Jabbar with a broken bone in his hand.”

The subsequent day, Abdul-Jabbar suffered one other setback when the NBA fined him a record $5,000.

“NBA Commissioner Lawrence F. O’Brien viewed videotapes of the sport and consulted reports from officials before rocking the league together with his decision,” the Indianapolis Star reported.

1977 first-round pick: Kent Benson from Indiana University. Hustling Kent Benson drove around Houston's Kevin Kunnert. Former Bucks center Kent Benson will be greeting old friends and dealing with not-always-pleasant memories when his new team, the Detroit Pistons, plays here tonight.

“The proven fact that a single swift act of violence resulted in injuries to 2 players points up the danger and recklessness of such motion,” O’Brien said in issuing the superb. “Conduct of this nature won’t be tolerated and will probably be punished accordingly. Every player within the NBA is on notice that I oppose fighting during games irrespective of what the provocation. I’ll use all of the powers of my office to stop violence inside the NBA.”

The NBA players union fought the superb.

“We’re unhappy with fighting on the court and we’ve talked about it at our meetings,” said Larry Fleisher, the association’s counsel, in 1977. “That’s not what the NBA is about. But fining a player $5,000 offends me just as much. I don’t care how much he’s making, that’s an incredible superb.”

Before 1977, the most important superb handed down by the NBA was $2,500 each to Maurice Lucas of the Portland Trailblazers and Darryl Dawkins of the Philadelphia 76ers for fighting throughout the 1976 championship playoffs.

O’Brien said his initial punishment for Abdul-Jabbar was going to be an “immediate suspension.”

“Until I received recent news late yesterday of (Abdul-Jabbar’s) injury,” O’Brien said. “That development limited my options and, consequently, I made a decision on this superb.”

In response to O’Brien, the videotape of the sport showed Benson elbowing Abdul-Jabbar several seconds before the Lakers center punched him.

“Unfortunately, the violation took place removed from the ball in the sport motion,” said O’Brien. “And, due to this fact, escaped detection by the referees. Whether or not Abdul-Jabbar was fouled, nonetheless, there is no excuse for a premeditated punch from the side.” 

Benson agreed in 2014 that there was no excuse for the hit. But, he added, he took the high road.

“I had lots of people saying, ‘You must sue him. You ought to do that, you ought to do this,'” Benson said. “That gave me a chance to study forgiveness. I even have forgiven him. It was hard to do, little question.”

Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via email: dbenbow@indystar.com.

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