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A lifetime ago, he was the greatest basketball player St. Pete ever knew

ST. PETERSBURG — Dreams die, and careers end. Before you know it, the heart gives out, too.

But the legends? Ah, the legends live on forever. They survive mistakes, injustice and bad luck. They endure beyond poor health, creeping years and humble beginnings.

That’s why a portrait of the life of Benny Clyde might look bittersweet to the naked eye, but the legend of Benny Clyde will always be something to keep.

He was a basketball star in an era when St. Petersburg was mostly bereft of athletic acclaim. An All-State pick as a junior at St. Petersburg High in 1969, one of the most sought-after junior college players in the nation in the spring of 1972, and an NBA rookie whom the Boston Globe described in 1974 as “the most physically gifted forward the Celtics have drafted since John Havlicek. “

So if there were no headlines when he died at age 70 in a St. Petersburg nursing home on Aug. 1, it’s only because the legend had some catching up to do.

“Benny’s basketball ability was certainly unmatched compared to anything around here at that time,” said John Amick, a teammate of Clyde’s at both St. Pete High and Florida State University. “He had more talent in his little finger than most of us had in our entire bodies.”

Money was tight, responsibilities were huge

Benny Clyde was second in Pinellas County in scoring and a first-team all-state selection during his junior season at St. Petersburg High. [Times files (1968]

If the heavens gifted him with size, strength and speed, they short-changed him in other ways. Clyde grew up in poverty in the Gas Plant district where Tropicana Field now sits, with eight children living in a two-bedroom house and a single mother walking to work daily at a laundry service.

He often played barefoot on playground courts around Campbell Park until former Negro Leagues baseball player James Oliver gave Clyde his first pair of Converse sneakers.

Newspaper stories from the early 1970s have described him as somewhat aloof, but those who knew Clyde say his heart was in the right place. He was usually the only victim in any trouble he found.

“He was like a father to me. He always made sure that I did the right things. Not staying out too late, being well-mannered, yes-sir, no-sir, and always do what you said you were going to do,” said Jimmy Clyde, Benny’s younger brother by six years.

“He wouldn’t let me be with the wrong fellas. The fellas I was hanging out with, he knew all of them. Anytime they were going to do something wrong, they’d drop me off at home first. I’d say to them, ‘What are you doing?’ and they’d tell me, ‘Your brother is too strict.’ They knew he wasn’t playing.”

Poor choices or bad circumstances?

Benny Clyde (54) led Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls to the National Junior College Athletic Association national championship in 1971. [Times files (1971)]
Benny Clyde (54) led Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls to the National Junior College Athletic Association national championship in 1971. [Times files (1971)]

Trouble was, Clyde didn’t always follow his own advice. He was expelled from St. Pete High after a fight in a bathroom led to an accusation that he was shaking down a student for money. Clyde acknowledged there was a confrontation but later told a Times reporter that the rest of the story was nonsense.

He enrolled at Gibbs High, which was coming off a state championship season, but was not permitted to play basketball. Even while missing his senior season, Clyde was still getting scholarship offers and eventually decided to go to Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls.

Clyde immediately became a star and led the Panthers to the National Junior College Athletic Association national championship. Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Fitch told the Boston Globe in 1974 that Clyde “was the greatest junior college player I ever saw.”

He was recruited by John Wooden and UCLA among other schools but opted for Florida State to be closer to his mother, who was in failing health. Unfortunately, there was another incident and another dismissal. Clyde clashed with FSU coach Hugh Durham and, after being ejected for a flagrant foul against Southern Illinois, was suspended indefinitely despite averaging 14.1 points and 6.6 rebounds a game.

“When he wants to be,” Durham told Sports Illustrated at the time, “he’s fantastic.”

Despite not finishing the season with FSU, the Celtics grabbed Clyde in the draft and raved about the potential of the 6-foot-7 forward during his first few months with the organization.

And yet, there was another incident near the end of his rookie season. The Globe reported that Celtics coach Tom Heinsohn wanted Clyde to enter the last few minutes of a blowout game and he refused. Two days later, the team released him.

Clyde claimed it was a misunderstanding, but the damage was done. Newspapers stopped writing about his potential, and tryouts with the Knicks and Bucks never went anywhere.

Back to a life he thought he’d left behind

Benny Clyde was one of the top junior college recruits in the nation when he signed with Florida State in 1972. [Times files (1972)]
Benny Clyde was one of the top junior college recruits in the nation when he signed with Florida State in 1972. [Times files (1972)]

Just a few years after leaving St. Petersburg as one of the most electric athletes the city had ever known, Clyde was back in town. He worked for a while at the printing plant of the then-St. Petersburg Times and spent a lot of years doing fiberglass work in various boatyards.

If there were lessons to be learned in his youth, they were not lost on Clyde as he became a parent to two sons and a daughter.

“We weren’t allowed to sit around and mope or complain or throw a pity party,” said his daughter Mercedes Marion, who is a nurse in Georgia. “He instilled in me that life will beat you up and life will beat you down, but if you have an ounce of strength in you, then you get back up and go to work. He always told me, ‘You do what you can until you can do what you want.’

“He had big dreams and plans, and things didn’t work out the way he wanted. And there was probably a little bitterness there if I’m being honest. But one thing I do know is my daddy loved me, and he was a great provider and protector.”

The later years were not always easy for Clyde. He had a stroke in his early 50s and spent the last 17 years of his life in various nursing homes and rehab facilities. Diabetes claimed his right leg several years ago, and he lost the left leg in January.

He remained a huge basketball fan, particularly of the Celtics.

“Even with all he went through, there was nothing but pure, genuine love for basketball,” Mercedes said. “You know, when you’re in the middle of things you don’t always see what you’re doing, the choices you’re making. But when you get a little older you look back and think, ‘Damn, if I could have done things just a little different, look where I could have been.'”

Back in the day, the basketball courts around Campbell Park had no lights and so games ended when the sun went down. Yet long after everyone else left, Benny Clyde would stick around as late as 11 pm, dribbling, jumping and shooting to his heart’s content.

More than once, the cops would pick him up at the courts and drive him home to make sure he got there safely.

His brother Jimmy once asked, as dark as it was outside, how did Benny even know when he made a basket. When there’s no one around, he would say, all you have to do is listen for the sound of the ball hitting the bottom of the net.

There’s your legend. Remember that.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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