It was just over 30 years ago when Steve Benton of Saratoga Central Catholic and Andre Cook of Watervliet were among the lead figures in two of the more memorable Section II Class CC championship basketball games ever played, both of them one-point affairs decided in the closing seconds at the Glens Falls Civic Center.
Their connection was renewed recently when Benton’s son, Nick, signed to play on scholarship for Cook, who is having a successful run as the head basketball coach at Division II St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, after previous stints at Hudson Falls High School and Hudson Valley Community College.
“The whole story, you couldn’t make it up,” said Steve Benton, a Niskayuna resident. “It’s the irony of all ironies. It really is a great story.”
It all started when Saratoga Catholic and Watervliet met four straight years in the Section II tournament, including the 1989 Class CC final that the Saints won 66-65 on a foul line jumper by Scott Cherry with two seconds left, and the 1990 Class CC title tilt that the Cannoneers won 75-74 on a baseline leaner by Cook with four seconds to play.
“There was a genuine dislike. We were not boys with those guys,” Cook said of the fierce rivalry between the teams. “It wasn’t, ‘Good to see you guys.’ ”
Time tends to change things, though, and when the Benton family visited the St. Edward’s campus last month, “They gave each other a hug,” Nick Benton said of the 1990 high school graduates, both of whom were members of The Daily Gazette All-Area team. “It wasn’t like 30 years ago. My dad likes to compare that to game seven of any NBA final.”
Cook almost turned a loss into a win after Cherry’s basket when his three-quarter-court heave nailed the back of the rim as time expired.
“I do remember that,” Steve Benton said. “[Cook teammate] Todd Birmingham lives two streets down from me in Niskayuna and has a tape of the game. We watched it. I made my wife [Michele] watch it. Last second and he hits iron. It wasn’t over ‘til it was over.”
That loss, Cook said, lit a fire in the Cannoneers, who in the following season didn’t lose a game until Rensselaer upended them 64-62 in the Class CC-C playoff.
“Senior year,” Cook said of his thoughts after Cherry took down a defensive rebound, dribbled the length of the court and nailed his game-winner. “We were not losing to those guys.”
Watervliet actually beat Saratoga Catholic twice in the 1989-90 season, first in a non-league game 90-74 when Cook scored 34 points.
“That was a wake up call. Maybe we were a little too cocky, and we got our clock cleaned,” said the 6-foot-8 Benton, who would later play at Colgate. “That set up another epic battle at the Civic Center.”
Cook played the late-game hero in that game before over 5,000 fans with a tie up that gave Watervliet possession just before the 6-foot guard’s 10-footer elevated the Cannoneers to their second Class CC title in four years. Cook finished with 28 points and was named the tournament MVP. Benton had his second title-game double-double in as many years with 18 points and 10 rebounds before fouling out early in the fourth quarter.
“Andre could play basketball,” Steve Benton said of the former Skidmore College star. “He was a tough kid who wouldn’t back down. I was like that, too.”
A mutual need brought the former rivals back together. Cook was looking for a student-athlete who could play the stretch 4 in his system, and Steve Benton’s 6-foot-7 son was in search of a place to play after spending two seasons honing his game at Millbrook School in Dutchess County.
Nick Benton’s opportunities to showcase his skills were reduced considerably due to the COVID-19 outbreak, which took away his AAU season after his first year at Millbrook, and left his prep school team with only nine games this past winter when he averaged 12.2 points, 5 rebounds and shot at the 41 percent clip from 3-point range.
“In December I had no offers,” Nick Benton said.
Steve Benton reached out to his basketball contacts — some of whom Cook also knows — and word of the promising 19-year-old from Niskayuna eventually found its way to the Capital District Basketball Hall of Fame inductee who in 12 seasons has guided St. Edward’s to a 204-140 record and three NCAA tournament appearances.
“The stars kind of lined up,” Steve Benton said. “Andre and I talked back around the holidays. I sent video and he liked what he saw. In March and April we had a couple of Zoom calls.”
“Scott [Cherry] and I stayed in touch because of our coaching, but Steve Benton was out of my life for 30 years,” Cook said. “When it was time to talk on the phone, there was a little bit of, ‘How is this going to go?’ ”
The animosity that was once there had disappeared with time.
“Once we talked about Nick and I gave Andre my spiel, the conversation spilled over to the old days, and we both laughed about a lot of the things that happened,” Steve Benton said. “I think we developed more of a mutual respect after we got out of high school.”
Cook made an offer to Nick Benton based on conversations with Millbrook coach Billy Thom and others in the basketball community, talks with the Bentons, and game film in which the teen displayed a scoring touch from all three levels, dug in on defense and showed a willingness to do the little things.
“My thought was, ‘Why not take a chance,’ ” Cook said of offering Nick Benton a scholarship before watching him live. “He comes from good stock. He’s built like he’s 24 and he’s tough. He’s the first guy in the gym and the last to leave. He has that Watervliet type of mentality. He plays for a guy [Thom] I trust. He’s a good student.”
“It was nice to get a call and have someone say, ‘We want you here,’” said Nick Benton, who, in mid-April, announced on Twitter his intention to attend St. Edward’s. “He’s [Cook] a local 518 guy. It’s a high Division II level. It’s a good opportunity.”
Nick Benton will major in business administration while joining a St. Edward’s team that has strung together seven straight winning seasons. Cook’s 2020-21 edition finished 12-8 after a loss in the Lone Star Conference title game.
“Andre is a tried and true coach, but as good as he is as a coach, he’s a better person,” Steve Benton said. “He cares about the well-being of the kids. It’s tough to send him that far away, but knowing it’s Andre Cook makes it a lot better. I think Nick is going to have a great four years.”