Benny Valentine launched his basketball career when he was only 3 years old, playing point guard for the Mother Goose Magics. His mother coached the team as part of her duties at a crowded child care facility in Omaha, Neb., that was owned by his grandparents and operated by his aunts and uncles.
It was there that Valentine first fell in love with the game that has brought him – via Texas and Nebraska’s Lincoln County Jail – to the Pacific Northwest, where he leads the Big Sky Conference in scoring, while manning the point for Eastern Washington University.
“I can’t remember not playing basketball,” said Valentine, a junior transfer from Texas Tech, who is generously listed at 5-foot-7 on the Eagles’ roster. “It’s something I’ve always been around, and something I’ve always loved to do, day and night.”
Yet there was a time, shortly following his graduation from Omaha Central High School in spring 2005, when Valentine’s aspirations of playing college basketball were nearly short-circuited when the car in which he and some friends were riding was pulled over by police. Valentine was arrested for having a loaded gun in his possession.
A good student and outstanding basketball player, who averaged 21 points and six assists per game his senior year, Valentine claims to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time – and with the wrong group of people.
“I was a decent kid, but at the same time, I just picked the wrong people to hang out with and put myself in a situation for bad things to happen,” he said.
Prior to his arrest, Valentine had made an oral commitment to attend Saint Francis (Penn.) University on a basketball scholarship, but the school reneged on its offer after learning of his weapons charges.
With most of his other options also quashed by his legal problems, Valentine ended up a Howard College in Big Springs, Texas, where he averaged 17.6 points and 3.2 assists as a freshman, before returning to Omaha to serve a three-month jail sentence that was eventually shortened to eight weeks because of good behavior.
It helped, too, that Valentine had managed to steer clear of further trouble and earn a 3.75 grade-point average during his short stay at Howard – which apparently made him seem like a good-risk recruit for then-Texas Tech coach Bobby Knight, whose scholarship offer lured Valentine to Lubbock.
Valentine played in 20 games for Tech as a sophomore during the 2006-07 season, starting twice and averaging 3.5 points. But at year’s end, he decided the “fit” was wasn’t ideal and decided to transfer.
Kirk Earlywine, now in his second season as EWU’s head coach, was an assistant at UNC Wilmington at the time, and got involved in the recruitment of Valentine. But school officials there also found out about Valentine’s past and refused to let him enroll.
Shortly after that, Earlywine accepted the Eastern job, and one of his first phone calls was to Valentine, urging him to join him in Cheney. Valentine took him up on the invitation, signing a letter of intent without visiting EWU’s campus.
“We had been talking regularly for a month or so before he got the (Eastern) job,” Valentine said. “He didn’t bug me much, but he really stood by me that whole time – even though I wasn’t even a student-athlete of his – so I just kind of put my trust in him.”
Being familiar with Valentine’s legal baggage, Earlywine took a proactive approach in getting him enrolled, communicating directly with Eastern president Dr. Rodolfo Arevelo and soliciting personal recommendations from every coach Valentine had every played for – including Knight. He even had Valentine’s parole officer, and the judge who had sentenced him, write letters on Valentine’s behalf.”
“The officials here were aware of every detail of Benny’s case,” Earlywine said.
Their decision to allow Valentine to enroll at Eastern has worked out remarkable for all of those involved.
Earlywine said Valentine is carrying the highest GPA on the team while finishing up work on his general business degree, with a minor in international business. He has also become a big favorite on and off the court, averaging 16.7 points and 3.13 assists per game.
“Benny is a very gifted young man in terms of his personality and demeanor, and that has helped him fit in very well here,” Earlywine said. “He’s just as comfortable around non-athletes as he is athletes. He is just as comfortable around white people as he is black people.
“He has the ability to communicate across racial barriers and social-economic barriers, as well, and that’s an ability that will serve him well down the road as a community leader, a business leader, or whatever he chooses.”
Valentine claims to be content at Eastern, as he strives to help the Eagles return to postseason play while putting the legal problems of his past as far behind him as possible.
“I’m not proud of it, but, at the same time, it’s a part of me,” he said of his brush with the law. “All I can do is put it behind me, try to learn from it every day and make sure I don’t put myself in some of the bad situations I have before.”