Loss of leg doesn't hold back basketball great

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CLARKSVILLE, Ind. (AP) — Phil Caldwell still thinks about the 1981 sectional final often, even in his sleep.

"I dream every now and then that we won, but then I wake up and we didn't," said Caldwell, a former Jeffersonville basketball standout, with a chuckle.

You can blame his nightmares on Dave Bennett.

"We were up seven and then Dave went nuts with that baseline jumper," Caldwell told the News and Tribune (http://bit.ly/1zI4hsK ) "We were favored by the AP (Associated Press) to win the sectional that year. As tall as he was, we couldn't stop him."

Very few could. The 6-foot-8 Bennett graduated from New Albany as the school's all-time leading scorer and one of the top players in the state. He was a 1981 Indiana All-Star, was recruited by some of the top colleges in the nation, and is regarded as one of the greatest basketball players in the long history of NAHS

While it has been 33 years since he last dribbled a ball in the New Albany Doghouse, Bennett is still hearing the cheers from fans who adored him along with former teammates and rivals. It's those cheers that now help him get through each day.

Life has changed in the past seven months for Bennett, who temporarily resides at River View Village nursing facility in Clarksville. Four years ago Bennett, 51, found out he was a diabetic, and he admits it was a challenge keeping up with his insulin and medicine.

Bennett said he regularly keeps in touch with former New Albany teammate Richie Johnson, who was an all-stater and also one of the stars of the 1980 state runner-up team. Johnson had not heard from his friend, and asked Kenny Booker, also a member of the '80 squad, to check on Bennett one day.

He found his former teammate passed out on the bathroom floor. Bennett's blood sugar reading was 900.

While he recovered, doctors later found an ulcer on his foot caused by diabetes, and told him the bacteria was spreading quickly. For Bennett to survive, he would need to have his right leg amputated at the knee.

It was the only way.

The surgery was in April and his prosthetic leg was fitted July 4. Bennett is rehabbing at River View, determined to win this game as well.

"You are an athlete your whole life, you play basketball, and then you look down and don't have a leg. I started thinking about how am I going to get along with a prosthetic leg," Bennett said. "You have to have the will to keep going and realize there are people worse off than you."

Bennett said his prosthetic leg comes from the same technology given to those U.S. solders who return home after losing a limb in combat.

"Louisville Prosthetic has been so great to work with," he said. " The people here in physical therapy have really been putting me through it. I am doing exercises I haven't done in 25 years and they have helped me so much."

So have the many visitors, cards and emails he has received since his surgery. He is hearing from former high school and college teammates, along with fans who remember cheering for No. 53 more than three decades ago.

He said that support is what has helped him through his ordeal. He also receives regular visits from his pastor at Eastside Christian, Dave Hastings, and his mother Barbara.

"The outreach has been phenomenal," Bennett said. "I have gotten cards and emails wishing me the best. Phil Caldwell and Frankie Baines — who were fierce rivals in high school — have reached out to me. It's been unbelievable. It's amazing."

Bennett not only had the height and inside presence at 6-8, but also the shooting touch of a guard. He led both the 1980 and 1981 New Albany teams in scoring. During his junior year when New Albany was undefeated before losing in the state championship game to Indianapolis Broad Ripple, it was Bennett and Johnson who led the way.

He scored 16 points in the 57-54 win over Jeffersonville in the sectional championship that year, and poured in 28 in the regional final against Floyd Central. He scored 41 points in the combined two semistate wins.

"We had so many big games that year, I can't believe we were undefeated," Bennett said. "We beat a really good Jeff team twice, Terre Haute South, Andrean with Dan Dakich."

In the state finals, Bennett led the Bulldogs in both games, scoring 20 against Andrean in the morning semifinals and added 30 more in the championship game against Broad Ripple.

"If they would have had the 3-pointer back then, he would have probably been the state's all-time leading scorer," Caldwell said. "He has been through a lot losing a leg, but he is strong mentally; he will persevere just like he did as a player."

After a solid senior year in which he broke the school's scoring record, Bennett was attracting college coaches from all over the country, including Indiana's Bobby Knight.

"I didn't know where to go. It's a tough decision for a 16, 17-year-old kid," he said. "I remember meeting with Bobby Knight. I told him I had another recruiting trip scheduled at LSU to meet with Coach (Dale) Brown. I remember he shook my hand, said thank you, and I never heard from him again.

"I don't think he liked Coach Brown. I mean, I was across the table talking to one of my idols gr

Bennett eventually signed with the University of Evansville, where the Aces qualified for the NCAA tournament his freshmen year, eventually losing to Marquette in the first game. Marquette was led by a guard named Glen "Doc" Rivers, now the head coach of the Los Angeles Clip

Bennett would eventually transfer to Kentucky Wesleyan, an NCAA Division II team. During his senior year, Wesleyan advanced to the NCAA Division II Final Four before losing. Bennett was named a second team All-American.

He also developed some lifelong friends while at Wesleyan.

"That is what got me through a lot of this. Hearing from my teammates and coaches," Bennett said.

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Information from: News and Tribune, Jeffersonville, Ind., http://www.newsandtribune.com

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