Far from Ghana, Providence’s Ben Bentil has found a home

Ben Bentil picked up basketball late, but that hasn't stopped him from leading the Big East in scoring.

Mark L. Baer/Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

The moment Providence sophomore big man Ben Bentil realized he had a new family – a second family, really – came during a basketball game in high school.

This was a few years ago, before Bentil would become the Robin to Kris Dunn’s Batman in college basketball’s best one-two punch for the Providence Friars. But at the time Bentil was just a big kid with a promising athletic future who was living on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean from home.

Bentil had left his family in Ghana at age 15 and come to the United States. It wasn’t for a basketball career; he just wanted a better education, a better opportunity for his family in Ghana, where his single mother raised four children by herself while working as a cook. Bentil was attending an elite boarding school in Delaware — St. Andrew’s School, the place where “Dead Poet’s Society” had been filmed — and was playing on the soccer and basketball teams. He’d become so close to a player on the team who was also a future Division I basketball player – Austin Tilghman, who ended up at Monmouth – that he’d spent weekends and summers at the Tilghmans’ home, sleeping on their living room couch near the big-screen television.

High school teammate Austin Tilghman (left) and Bentil became fast friends — and eventually family members.

In this particular high school game, Bentil was going up for a rebound. Ursula Tilghman, Austin’s boisterous mother and the person who had pushed for Bentil to move into their home, was watching intensely. Ursula is the ultimate mother hen. She had grown up as an only child and always wanted a big family. Some years ago, Ursula upset her husband by adopting a pregnant feral cat in the middle of winter; that’s just who she is. “I’m the type of mom who every kid in Delaware calls ‘mom,’ ” Ursula Tilghman said.

Ursula watched as Bentil went up for a rebound. She saw an opponent give him a shove. She shrieked as Bentil fell to the floor.

And then Ursula lost her mind.

She screamed at the kid. She screamed at the refs. People in the stands were trying to calm her down.

“That’s my kid!” she shouted. “You can’t do that!”

Most high school kids would have been mortified. But Bentil was ecstatic. This was the moment he realized that sleeping on the couch at his best friend’s family’s house wasn’t just a living arrangement, wasn’t just some act of charity for the kid whose family was thousands of miles away. He had become their kid – part of them, an American family that didn’t replace his African family but instead complemented them. Ursula had become “Mom,” Aaron Sr. had become “Dad,” and Aaron Jr. and Austin had become Bentil’s brothers.

“I felt like anything that happens, my mom has got my back,” Bentil says today, when he is averaging 7.5 rebounds and a Big East-best 19.7 points. “I wasn’t embarrassed at all. That’s my mother. She had the right to do that. It was a big moment. I felt like anything that happens, my mom has got my back.”

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“She’d do anything for me, just like she’d do for her own kids,” he said. “This is my own family.”

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It was not an easy decision, leaving Ghana at age 15, leaving his mother, his three older brothers and one older sister behind in search of something more.

But in Africa, Bentil knew that people must mature at a young age. At 12, you’re considered old enough to strike out on your own. By 15, having moved from a small town in western Ghana to the capital, Accra, one of the largest cities in Africa, he felt ready to try the United States. His sister, a middle-school teacher, had already taught him English.

“In Africa you have to bring something to the house – you can’t just wake up, eat and then play around,” Bentil said. “You have to do something. By the age of 15 I felt like I was a grown man.”

He had grown up wanting to play professional volleyball, the second-most popular sport in Ghana next to soccer, but a chance encounter changed things. He was playing volleyball, and, by chance, Meme Falconer, who Bentil calls “the Kobe of Ghana” – a basketball player who played for the national team, who starred in television commercials – happened to be in the stands.

“‘You know you can learn to play basketball too, right?’” Bentil recalls the star basketball player telling him. “He said if I wanted to learn, he’d teach me.”

And he did. Bentil rebounded four hours on end for the Ghanaian legend, and he picked up on things. He decided to come to America for school, and Falconer helped him find a scholarship. He moved to the boarding school, with his mother calling at 6:30 a.m. every day, his Ghanaian alarm clock.

At the end of the day I was trying to better my education. Basketball just came in the way.

Ben Bentil

“At the end of the day I was trying to better my education,” Bentil said. “Basketball just came in the way.”

At the prestigious St. Andrews School, he played basketball with Tilghman. The two hit it off immediately as the best players on what used to be a struggling program. Bentil started spending weekends at the Tilghman home in Delaware since his host family was farther away in Philadelphia.

“One day he needed a place to stay, and I said, ‘I don’t even know why you’re bothering to ask, get your stuff and move in with us,’ ” Ursula Tilghman said.

One of Austin’s favorite memories was when the school held a get-to-know-you event on the first day. The school had the students square dance. Bentil had never even heard of square dancing.

“He was like, ‘What is this? This is stupid!’ ” Tilghman laughs. “It was hilarious, seeing this huge 6-8 guy try to square dance. He was bad. He was horrible.”

What he wasn’t bad at was sports. He was a great striker in soccer, and the soccer footwork led him to be a natural big man in basketball. Dribbling, shooting form – that stuff would come. But what caught the eye of Providence head coach Ed Cooley was that footwork.

“If you got good feet as a post player,” Cooley said, “you’re good.”

Before a recent road Big East game, Bentil sat in an elegant hotel lobby not far from O’Hare Airport in Chicago. His solid now 6-foot-9 frame was squeezed into a too-small chair, his Size 16 shoes placed awkwardly on the floor.

In the five years since he hopped on an airplane for the first time and flew to the United States, Bentil has discovered a new life. He’s had a big-time basketball career thrown in front of him and is now considered a serious NBA prospect. He’s discovered the struggles of adapting to a new country and has turned to literature to find inspiration from others who’ve done the same: Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” is his favorite, and he just finished Chinua Achebe’s Nigerian novel “Things Fall Apart.” He knows that basketball could bring him fame and riches that he never could have imagined growing up in Ghana, and he hopes to use the sport to lead a dual life, living in the States but traveling back to Ghana in the winter to work with kids in basketball and education.

“He can guard five different positions, and he has a great touch,” Cooley said. “Every night Ben has a mismatch with respect to his speed. He’s one of the best runners in the country, end line to end line really fast. I see greatness in him. His best is yet to come.”

Bentil averaged 6.4 points as a freshman before rising to 19.7 this year.

“I thought it would happen – I just didn’t think it would happen this fast,” said Georgetown head coach John Thompson III. “It’s not just about the points he’s scoring. It’s the defense he’s providing, the rebounding. You see him talking and taking a role on as a leader. Did I think it would happen this fast, his sophomore year? No. But I’m not surprised it did happen.”

The basketball part is great and all. So is the education. But those things could have been predicted. For someone with Bentil’s ambition, his success in sports and academics isn’t a surprise. What no one could have expected was the other thing he found in America: a new family.

A new mother who tried to make him feel at home by cooking a special Ghanaian fish-head soup. (“She tried her best,” Bentil said. “She had the right ingredients.”) A new brother in Austin who played basketball with just as much intensity as Bentil. (Someone always bleeds when the two play one-on-one.) A new family he feels comfortable to be silly with. (There are many, many dance parties.)

“It doesn’t take a last name, it doesn’t take DNA, it doesn’t take blood to be someone’s child, or someone’s mother, or someone’s father,” Ursula Tilghman said. “It’s how you take care of someone. I don’t call him anything different than my son. If I brought you into my home, you are my family.”

During his freshman year at Providence, Bentil spent his Christmas break at the Tilghmans’ house in Delaware. The Tilghmans had just moved into a new house. Their old three-bedroom house had just become too small. The family decided that even though money was tight – Aaron Sr. is a truck driver, Ursula works at Barclays Bank – they needed something bigger. Christmas was the first time Bentil saw the house. In the living room he saw the comfortable old pull-out sofa that was his bed.

They showed him around the house. One of the bedrooms was roped off with caution tape. Aaron Sr. told him it was asbestos work. He couldn’t go inside.

“When Christmas morning came, we all exchanged presents,” Aaron Sr. recalled. “We saved one for last. We said, ‘Ben, we have a surprise for you upstairs.’ ”

They all walked upstairs. Since he was born, Bentil had always had to share a room – with his brothers in Ghana, with the big-screen television in the living room in the United States.

“We said, ‘Ben, this is your room,’” Aaron Sr. said. “He was in tears. That was first time he had own room, with a bed and everything. He was shocked. He was happy, he was hugging us, he was surprised. He thought he was gonna be laying on the couch again.”

“And that,” Aaron Sr. said, “was one of the happiest moments of our lives.”

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.