By Everett Cook, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 18, 2013
COLUMBUS — Benji Burke peeks over his menu, trying to order his dinner and watch the television at the same time. There’s a waitress next to him, leaning in while waiting to take his order.
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Benji doesn’t order until, up on the screen, the basketball goes out of bounds, and even then, it’s a 10-second conversation without eye contact.
When the food arrives, Benji’s eyes still almost never leave the screen. He talks to friends without looking at them, occasionally glancing down at his phone during commercial breaks. Up on the TV is his only son, Trey, who is playing basketball for Michigan in State College, Pa.
The Wolverines are playing Penn State, a team that doesn’t have a conference win. This shouldn’t be much of a contest, yet Benji’s right leg doesn’t stop twitching and won’t stop twitching until the end of the game.
Benji’s got his support system here at a local bar in Columbus. It’s a group of 10 men, all of whom are former Ohio State fans and almost all of whom have known Trey since he was born. Most are still wearing red. One, Alonzo Shavers, even played football for the Buckeyes.
Yet none of them miss a Michigan basketball game. Even the women at the salon where Benji gets his hair cut plan their weeks around Michigan’s schedule.
At a venue full of Buckeye jerseys, posters and memorabilia, the majority of the TVs are tuned into the Michigan basketball game, which starts with an assist from Trey.
To everyone but Benji, Trey is Michigan’s star sophomore, the best point guard and one of the best overall players in the country. He’s the most important player on a Michigan squad that is widely considered to be a fringe top-20 team without him.
But to Benji, Trey is his project and his lineage, a lifeline to a game he loves more than just about anything and a growing reminder of what it means to raise a son and not his former player.
And for the first time since Benji coached Trey in basketball — which he did for most of his son’s life in AAU — their relationship has settled.
Penn State gets fouled on a made layup, and a waiter walking by lets out a first pump and an “and-1!” call. The entire group stands up, telling the waiter he needs to be somewhere else.
That waiter doesn’t return to the table.
Everything Trey does gets a reaction. If he has a nice assist, one of them shouts out that he taught the kid that move. If Trey has a turnover, the men blame Benji and his coaching. Nothing goes unnoticed, nothing goes without a comment.
The men yell out, “What’s the count” every couple minutes during the game, but the count isn’t the score of the game, or even Trey’s point total — they’re counting his assists.
At this point, Trey’s averaging 6.9 per game on the season, but they want him to get eight against Penn State. If he averages eight over the last four games of the season, it’ll put him in the same company as former Michigan State great Magic Johnson, who is the only Big Ten player to average 17 points and seven assists in a season.
They want to see his name next to Magic’s, even if it says Michigan and not Ohio State next to Burke.
Trey’s relationship with this raucous, competitive group of men started when Benji began bringing his son to the Nelson Recreational Center gym when Trey was just learning how to walk. Trey was dominating in his first organized league by the time he was 5.
Still, nothing compared to those weekends at Nelson.
Walking around the gym, he would dribble with both hands, focusing on his left, trying to impress the older guys playing the real games on the court. He can still vividly remember standing on the sidelines, dribbling with his off hand, waiting for his chance. Trey would beg to play with them, to no avail.
After the games, the group hung out in the parking lot, a once-a-week reunion of sorts. Trey would still be dribbling, still working on his off-hand, trying to get his dad’s friend O.J. to play a game of keep-away with him.
With no rims in sight, just the asphalt of the parking lot, O.J. would take the bait and try and take the ball. He would get the steal almost every time, but once or twice every weekend, Trey would get him to bite on a crossover and leave him behind.
The men would whoop and holler because while they might have owned the gym, for a couple of fleeting moments once a week, the kid owned the parking lot.