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North Hall's Bennett inspires Trojans with devotion to program, love for basketball
North Hall High School sophomore Nicholas Bennett, left, participates in practice warm-ups with Thomas Marchman. - photo by Tom Reed | The Times

No matter where he goes, Nicholas Bennett is sure to have a basketball in his hand.

He’s often spotted in the North Hall High gym, firing shots long beyond the 3-point line. If he’s not there, it’s almost certain he’s shooting around on one of his numerous goals at his home.

He proudly wears the green and white warm-up gear worn by the North Hall boys basketball team at every practice and every game. He’s not in the Trojans’ lineup, but he’s equally as important. If not more.

Bennett has become a staple of the North Hall basketball program the past two seasons, motivating the players and coaches who interact with him on a regular basis. The sophomore leads the Trojans out on the court before every game, takes the first warm-up shot, then proceeds to support the Trojans as vocally as possible from the sidelines.

Although his duties include the typical managerial responsibilities — grabbing rebounds at warm-ups and passing them back out, fetching water and cleaning the court, Trojans coach Benjie Wood doesn’t entitle Bennett a manager.

“He’s one of the guys now,” Wood said. “Wherever the team goes, Nick goes. He’s part of the program and part of the team.”

His involvement with North Hall has helped Bennett develop an undying love for basketball that has kept him attempting shots for his entire high school career.

Because he has a goal: make 1,000 of them from beyond half-court before he graduates high school. As of today, when North Hall hosts St. Pius X in the Class AAA state quarterfinals, he has 512.

“Once I started hitting them, I just became good at them,” Bennett said.

Bennett’s early life would have never indicated that he would develop an interest in basketball. Born with autism, fetal alcohol syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, he was adopted from Russia when he was nine months old. His adoptive father, Tim Bennett, introduced him to basketball in elementary school, but it wasn’t until his freshman year at North Hall High that it became impossible to get the ball away from him.

That’s when he began shooting around in North Hall’s old gym in the morning with teacher Bruce King before classes began. His interest in basketball quickly began to blossom.

“(King) had gotten a basketball from the other gym and had it there every morning for him when he came in,” Tim said. “He started doing that, and you couldn’t get a basketball away from him.”

It carried over to the Bennett household, where Nicholas has shooting spots wherever he could find them. From his main goal on the driveway, to a goal beside the swimming pool, to a smaller net in the living room. He even built his own goals out of cardboard and had them mounted on his bedroom walls. They can be raised and lowered, just like the goals found in typical gyms.

Nicholas was a regular at North Hall games before joining the team. A diehard Trojans fan, he received a ball signed by the entire team as a gift for his support.

“He told me it was the best gift ever given to him,” Wood said.

Wood had an even bigger present in store for him.

Shortly after Christmas during Nicholas’ freshman year, Wood asked Tim Bennett if his son could join the team. With permission granted, the North Hall players presented Nicholas with a jersey prior to a home game. They then invited him into pre-game huddle, and he became an official member of the Trojans.

“We won the game, he came up to me and asked, ‘Coach, you got an away jersey?,” Wood said.

Nicholas has loyally served North Hall ever since, leading the Trojans out of the locker room and laying up the first shot before every warm-up. He has built a pre-game routine along the way, a handshake ritual with Wood before each opening tip. The only time they didn’t perform it this year was before a game against Lakeview Academy on Dec. 4. It ended up being one of only three losses for the Trojans this season.

The two haven’t skipped the ritual since.

“Benjie said, ‘I’ll never forget again,’” Tim Bennett said.

Now in his second season with North Hall, Nicholas splits his time between two endeavors: supporting the Trojans in any way he can, and his personal goal of 1,000 half-court shots.

Declared “North Hall’s H.O.R.S.E. champion” by Wood, he commonly challenges North Hall players and coaches in the popular one-on-one shooting game. He’s developed quite a winning edge, often beating his opponent.

“He can beat anybody in H.O.R.S.E.,” Trojans senior Ebo Smith said. “I played him Monday and he beat me.”

No shot location is beyond Nicholas’ range. He made an attempt from full-court last month, landing the ball in the perfect spot for a ricochet off the court and into the net.

But he’s all business once practice begins, from team shootarounds to post-practice duties.

“We have the cleanest backboards in Georgia because Nick cleans them on game day,” Wood said.

Nicholas keeps North Hall players motivated and upbeat during drills. Should they lose focus, he’s the first to call them out.

“If we’re not focused at practice, he’s the one telling us to get focused and get ready for the game,” Smith said. “He’s always encouraging, and it helps us a lot.”

To show their appreciation, Nicholas is always included in post-game celebrations. When the Trojans defeated Johnson in the Lanierland Tournament championship game on Dec. 22, their seniors received the trophy and immediately presented it to him, giving him an opportunity to proudly share his team’s accomplishment in front of a home crowd.

“We all look up to Nick,” Smith said. “I love Nick, he’s an awesome kid. He’s in the gym every morning and at practice cheering us on.”

Now that North Hall is in the state semifinals, Nicholas can barely contain his excitement for the team.

With Saturday’s 50-46 win over Morgan County, the Trojans are one round beyond last year’s second-round elimination, a loss that Tim Bennett said was a tough one for his son to endure.

He’s well aware of the challenges that await his team tonight, as visiting St. Pius X knocked off a tough Cartersville team that had lost just one game on the season entering the second round. A North Hall win sends the Trojans to the state semifinals Saturday at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah.

“I hope we can win more than anything, because I’ve never been to Savannah and I want to go there,” Nicholas said. “We have to try our hardest, that’s for sure.”

What’s certain about tonight’s game is that it will be North Hall’s last at home. Should the Trojans reach the finals, they’ll play for the championship at the Macon Centreplex in Macon.

But North Hall doesn’t need any more home games to know who spent time and time again firing shots from half-court in that very gym, then serving as a source of inspiration for the Trojans during an not-soon-forgotten campaign.

“This is Nick’s gym, and everybody knows it,” Wood said. “He’ll lead us out. He’ll be vocal on the bench, and he’ll be excited to be into the game just like everybody else on the team.”

Watching from the bleachers, Tim Bennett can’t help but be thankful for the introduction of basketball into his son’s life.

Not only has the sport provided Nicholas with a goal to chase as 1,000 half-court shots draw closer and closer, it has made a world of improvement in his social development as his high school career nears its halfway point.

“It’s really made a difference — he came out of his shell,” Tim said. “It just shows that there a still good educators in these schools, and there are also good kids in these schools. We couldn’t have asked for anything more.”

For Nicholas himself, a signed ball and more than 500 half-court shots have led him in the direction of his ultimate prize — a state championship for North Hall.

“That would be like winning the lottery, basically,” he said.

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