New Mexico State fans can’t wait to see if William Benjamin Jr. — the player known as “Deuce” — can lead the Aggies back to March Madness, and maybe even the Sweet 16 like his father did back in the day.
But the best high school player in the state, and the most popular recruit during the college years where his father was a star, never got on the court for the Aggies. Now, she says a year of violence at her dream school has left her feeling angry, distrustful and isolated.
Benjamin and former teammate Shak Odunewu spoke to The Associated Press on Wednesday about the aftermath of their time at New Mexico State, which led them to file the lawsuit claiming they were ganged up on and sexually assaulted by their teammates.
Odunewu said the coaches did nothing to confront the perpetrators when he offered them a witness account.
“I used to have respect for people,” Benjamin told the AP in an interview that came hours after an emotional news conference held on the side of campus to discuss the lawsuit. “I’ve lost all of that now. Just a little too much anger. I can’t put my trust in people, and I’ve just come to despise people, really.”
Odunewu recalled seeing Benjamin being attacked shortly before a game. He went to an assistant coach to ask him to address it.
“I would go back to the locker room and all I could see was one of my teammates being sexually assaulted,” Odunewu said. “Coach was standing there, so I said to him, like, ‘Yo, can you tell them to stop?’ He just laughed at her and was like, ‘What do you want me to do?’ And I just let him go, because it really blew my mind.”
Odunewu said he experienced both teammates, though he was hesitant to advance his case.
“I don’t want to go out and disrupt their future. But it just got to the point where I couldn’t take it anymore,” he said.
It wasn’t until about three months after Odunewu was laughed at by the coach that Benjamin, with prodding from his father, went to the campus police with details from another episode where he said he was assaulted. In between, the relationship between father and son became strained.
“I smoke a lot, I’m just trying to deal with the pain and start to forget,” Benjamin said. “Trying to find an escape route. It got to the point where I didn’t want to live with my pops anymore,” who remains a prominent figure in the community as coach of the Las Cruces High hoops team.
The police report led to the school chancellor canceling the season and firing coach Greg Heiar for what were then called “hazing” allegations.
Before that, the season continued, mostly business as usual, despite a fatal shooting of an Aggies player acting in self-defense when he confronted a University of New Mexico student he had gotten into a fight with in Las Cruces about a month earlier.
The shooting happened during an Aggies road trip to Albuquerque. The player has not been charged with a crime.
“Let’s not lose sight: New Mexico State has (that shot) on the resume,” Benjamin’s father said in an earlier news conference. “As a parent, I wasn’t even called on that, just to reassure me that my child was going to be OK.”
The shooting and the assault allegations led to multiple investigations, which have been intensified since the lawsuit was filed. In addition to looking into several aspects of the attacks, the state education department has requested that the State of New Mexico review the entire athletic program.
That could include a review of the five-year contract extension signed by athletic director Mario Moccia on April 7, Chancellor Dan Arvizu’s last day in office.
Arvizu himself was heavily scrutinized for his leadership during the basketball crisis. The faculty senate will vote later this week on the release of a letter, a copy of which was obtained by the AP, calling the extension “both remarkable and deeply disappointing.”
State regulators also want to review a specific interaction between Benjamin and the new coach, Jason Hooten. Benjamin said Hooten told him, in so many words, that he better not play for the Aggies. Benjamin’s father and the lawyers feel that the whole situation was handled inappropriately.
“I don’t think you should hit the reset button and lump victims with everything you’re taking away,” said William Benjamin. “Deuce will be an Aggie if he’s good.”
New Mexico State spokesman Justin Bannister released a statement saying the school “continues to treat this matter as very important.”
“The type of behavior described in those allegations has no place on our campus,” Bannister said.
Both Benjamin and Odunewu are unsure of what to do next. They both figured basketball would be part of that plan, in part because it offered something of an escape from the realities of where that sport had left them after their troubled stay at New Mexico State.
“I have days where I don’t feel like talking to anyone,” Benjamin said. “And days when I hate myself. I’m really just an isolated person now. I feel like the only way I can improve is if I play somewhere and only where I want to. I haven’t been in the right mind space for I don’t know how long. I am not happy.”
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