At 5:16 on a Tuesday morning, the roosters haven’t yet sounded their alarms and the sun is still hiding behind the Organ Mountains . . . but the 2021 New Mexico Gatorade Player of the Year, William “Deuce” Benjamin, Jr., has already been working on his pull-up jump shot for a while. Deuce is entering his senior year at Las Cruces High School, where he and his Bulldawg teammates have gone to the last two NMAA State Championship games, winning in the 2019 – 2020 season. There is no question for the upcoming season what the focus and motivation will be for Deuce, his teammates, and their head coach, who is also Deuce’s father and former New Mexico State University (NMSU) Aggie, William Benjamin, Sr.
There is an entire generation of Las Cruces hoopsters and fans who watched the 1991 – 1992 NMSU men’s basketball team and were given hope and inspiration when they saw a small-town university make it to the Sweet 16 at the NCAA tournament. William was a smooth-moving, hard-working senior guard from California for whom NMSU fans cheered every time he scored.
The Mesilla Valley air was electric that whole season — something about this particular group of NMSU ballers had fans talking about the Aggies before the season started and long after the season ended. The Pan American Center would erupt with noise after every basket, and there was no need for seats in the stands, because every fan was on their feet throughout the game. From a young fan’s perspective, they were all superstars who together made a solid team that moved the ball efficiently and produced win after win deep into the season. The kids of Las Cruces looked up to those young men. I remember how all my school friends and I knew the name of every player, and we would try to imitate their shots and moves on the short rims at Jornada Middle School or the “green courts” at the Mesilla Community Center.
It wasn’t long after that Cinderella run during the 1991 – 1992 Aggies men’s basketball season that William began his coaching career at Las Cruces High School. He started as the freshmen team coach and assistant to the varsity coach. The now-Coach Benjamin transferred his on-the-court knowledge and insight from his own playing career to the kids who had watched him make it to the Sweet 16. His words carried a lot of weight with the young Bulldawgs. Former Las Cruces High standout Josh Ybarvo recalled, “He was always a legend here. Telling me I was one of the best players in the state gave me such confidence, coming from him.” Josh smiled from ear to ear and said, “Whether he was right or not is a different story, but hearing it from him meant a lot.”
Eventually, Coach Benjamin took over the reins as the head coach at Las Cruces High and led the Bulldawgs to a state championship in 2013, beating the Clovis Wildcats in the final game. Las Cruces High School had not held up the New Mexico Activities Association (NMAA) Blue Trophy in boys’ basketball since 1976. It was official: Coach Benjamin had created a tradition of basketball excellence at Las Cruces High School that was here to stay, and Deuce, a young child at the time, was standing right alongside his dad celebrating after that 2013 championship game.
When Deuce matriculated at Las Cruces High School, he began his own legacy. Deuce was talented enough to play varsity as a freshman and hold his own against boys older and physically stronger than he was. “Nobody took it easy on him in practice,” Coach Benjamin remarked with regard to players getting physical with Deuce, “and I’m glad they didn’t. It really helped him prepare. He earned the respect of his teammates from the beginning.”
The 2019 – 2020 school year started like any other, and the Las Cruces High basketball program had high expectations with Coach Benjamin at the helm, the sophomore sensation Deuce, and talented teammates such as Isaiah Carr and Gonzalo Carbalan. The Bulldawgs lost only three games all season and were touted as one of the top teams in New Mexico. COVID-19 changed the world, and the school year ended in anything but a normal way. The Las Cruces Bulldawgs beat the Capital Jaguars in an NMAA state final that had no fans in the stands. Again there were a father and son celebrating on the court together: this time, however as coach and player.
As a junior, Deuce averaged 27 points per game in the 2020 – 2021 season and was named New Mexico Gatorade Player of the Year. His accomplishments on the basketball court were phenomenal, but what inspired me when talking to Deuce and his father was their bond. Coach Benjamin has always been someone who preaches discipline and hard work — that’s how he played when he was an Aggie. His tone and demeanor are usually business-like. When he is speaking to his son, or about his son as his father and not his coach, Coach Benjamin beams with pride. “My favorite thing is when other coaches talk to me about him,” he says. “How he acts off the court is more important than anything he does on the court.”
“I love being coached by my dad,” Deuce tells me with a bashful half-smile, “He’s tough on me, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Neither father nor son knows what the future holds past this season, but Coach Benjamin is looking forward to watching his son progress to the next level. Getting the opportunity to just sit back and enjoy his son playing instead of being “in the mix” himself is something that Coach Benjamin says he is going to relish. Both Benjamins are just focusing on accomplishing the goal they set out after the end of last season: to win one more championship before Deuce graduates from Las Cruces High. Coach Benjamin encourages everyone to come watch the Bulldawgs this year, especially since the core players from last year’s team are returning.
Looking back at that team that made that Sweet 16 run in the 1991 – 1992, I remember how as a kid I looked up to all of them as basketball players. Two decades later, Coach Benjamin remains a positive figure in this community, a leader of young men, and an example of a father grown men can respect.
Written by Daniel Gonzales
Photos courtesy and by Amanda Gonzales
Originally published in Neighbors magazine.
Posted by LasCruces.com