A guiding hand for Tigers
Streets Ministries founder's mission grows from van to Tiger locker room
By Jim Masilak
February 16, 2007
The seats aren't actually seats, per se.
They don't show up on any FedExForum floor plans or price charts, and there's a good reason why: The handful of chairs set up behind the University of Memphis' bench for Tiger home games aren't for sale -- not even to the high-dollar donors who sit immediately behind them.
Sometimes, upon taking his place in one of these makeshift seats, Ken Bennett experiences a slight sense of unease.
A man known to those in the community he serves as "Father Ken" or "Rev. Ken" -- the founder of Streets Ministries in the Foote and Cleaborn Homes communities is not actually an ordained minister -- Bennett occasionally worries about the public perception of his privileged place within the Tigers' basketball program.
A longtime mentor and father figure to former Memphis star Antonio Burks and current point guard Andre Allen, both of whom went to the UofM on Streets-funded scholarships, Bennett has served as the basketball team's chaplain since 2004 -- hence the primo seats -- and has also developed a close friendship with coach John Calipari.
But as a man who has spent the past 20 years ministering to at-risk youth in south Memphis through Streets, the Christian outreach program he founded out of a van, Bennett can't help but wonder what the people who pay for their seats might be thinking.
Then he recalls some of the trials and tribulations of the past six years -- the late-night phone calls from Calipari following yet another falling out with Burks, Cadillac-gate, Allen's arrest on solicitation charges -- and flashes a wry smile.
"There are people in the greater Memphis community who probably think I (get) something behind this," Bennett said. "I'm the chaplain and I get a front-row seat, but I don't get anything behind it. What I get behind it, believe me, the tradeoff isn't worth it."
It wasn't the first time Ken Bennett found himself in the back of a squad car, and it wouldn't be the last.
Back in 1987, when Bennett was just beginning to lay the groundwork for Streets, he and the van in which he launched the ministry made for a conspicuous pair as far as the Memphis Police Dept. was concerned.
"As a white brother down here, they assumed I was buying or selling drugs," said Bennett, a 49-year-old father of three and lifelong Memphian. "I'd say I was doing Bible studies and they'd say, 'Sure.'''
It wasn't long, though, before Bennett had established himself in the largely African-American neighborhood, one of the poorest in the city. A place where, as Bennett says, "there's a lot of gunfire, a lot of kids living on the edge."
A graduate of Messick High and the UofM, Bennett began coaching basketball at Presbyterian Day School (PDS) while he was still in college.
He later spent three years as athletic director at PDS before enrolling in graduate school at the UofM, where he became involved with Young Life and "realized I wanted to do ministry work full-time."
For starters, Bennett spent a year working at the St. Patrick's Center at 4th and Linden. "That," he said, "is how I got to know the neighborhood" where Streets would be hatched.
After striking out on his own, Bennett quickly outgrew the van and moved Streets into the Mt. Olive Cathedral CME Church for a time. Bennett, however, "felt like we needed to plant a flag."
Eventually, thanks to contributions from churches, foundations and individuals -- including former Saks Inc. chairman R. Brad Martin -- Bennett bought an old turntable factory at 769 Vance.
Streets was finally off the streets.
As the operation grew, with kids from Georgia Ave. Elementary, Vance Middle and Booker T. Washington High flocking there to take part in its after-school programs, Streets annexed a nearby body shop and park to accommodate its growth.
The ministry grew from its modest beginnings into an operation with 10 full-time and six part-time staffers, about 80 volunteers and an $864,000 budget. (It was $20,000 in '87).
In June, Streets took its biggest step yet when it opened the Streets Center, a $4.1-million, 34,500-square foot outreach and recreation facility at 430 Vance. The building was paid for in full thanks to a capital campaign that included a $2 million gift from two unnamed donors.
Every afternoon, some 250-300 kids pack the place to study, exercise and, er, play video games.
"We want our kids to be kids," Bennett said. "Our kids usually don't have the opportunity to be kids."
The facility features a 1,000-seat gymnasium in which Crichton College plays its home basketball games and an education wing featuring a 14-station computer lab, among other amenities.
"Sometimes an organization gets big and they forget what they're all about," said Dr. R. Neal Aguillard, a volunteer at Streets since the early 1990s and a former board member. "They've never deviated from their central mission."
Helping kids, whether they can play basketball or not, is what it aims to do best.
Bennett said Streets provides between $20,000 and $30,000 in college scholarships for 20 or more BTW graduates each year.
While Allen and Burks are Streets' most high-profile scholarship recipients, they are hardly the most handsomely rewarded: Streets paid for one female student to attend Alabama State despite the expensive out-of-state tuition. She graduated and went on to earn a master's degree.
"Ken's been doing this long before I came along. He's helped many more people than me and Andre," Burks said via telephone from Serbia, where he's playing professional basketball for Red Star Belgrade. "We're just two people who made it to a bigger scene."
Calipari initially declined to offer either Burks or Allen one of the team's athletic scholarships. Because neither player met the NCAA's academic standards upon arrival at Memphis, they couldn't have accepted one anyway.
That's when Bennett stepped in.
If Calipari would agree to put the players on the team, Streets would cover whatever costs their need-based financial aid didn't.
In the case of first Burks and now Allen, that amounts to about $700 per semester.
Still, without his Streets scholarship, Allen doubts he'd be playing basketball at his hometown school now.
"I don't think so," said Allen, a junior point guard for the No. 8-ranked Tigers (22-3). "I think I would have ended up at Houston."
Bennett, meanwhile, said the value in supporting Burks and Allen is immeasurable in terms of what it means to the kids in their community.
"If Antonio gets a degree, we knew the impact here would be significant," said Bennett, adding that Burks must pass just three more classes to graduate. "But we would have helped Antonio had he not played ball."
John Wilfong, a former UofM basketball player whose involvement with Streets as both a donor and board member dates to the late 1980s, said Streets' track record proves as much.
"Two hundred kids come through that (Streets) building every day. Multiply that by 20 years," Wilfong said. "Only two of them ended up playing basketball at the UofM."
Bennett makes no apologies for giving kids in his program -- including Burks and Allen -- a little spending money every once in a while.
"I do that for all the kids in the neighborhood," Bennett said. "Every kid needs a folded up bill in his pocket."
Bennett realizes as much each time the Grizzlies or Tigers donate game tickets to Streets.
What good is a ticket, he reckons, if the kid can't afford to buy a drink and a hot dog?
Burks, however, says Bennett's generosity isn't limited to those who can play basketball at a high level.
"He helps a lot of people -- helps them get books for college, helps people pay their light bills. Just the small things," Burks said. "He still wants to take me out to get groceries. I say, 'I can get it now, Ken. Let me take care of it.'"
Bennett's relationship with Burks and Allen was honed through his long-standing involvement with BTW's basketball program.
Eager to bring his ministry to the community, and because of his enthusiasm for basketball, Bennett asked Warriors coach Fred Horton how he might be able to help. Bennett spent the next 15 years compiling stats and assisting in preseason conditioning drills.
In the process, he strengthened relationships with kids he had already been mentoring down the road at Streets.
Because Bennett had established relationships with Burks and Allen that predated their athletic careers, they can receive gifts, meals and other things from Bennett that might otherwise be considered an extra benefit and a breach of NCAA rules.
That includes their scholarships.
But that doesn't mean there hasn't been a controversial moment or two along the way.
One day in the spring of 2002, Bennett received a phone call from then-Memphis assistant Steve Roccaforte.
Burks, it transpired, was driving around in a Cadillac he didn't own.
"I said, 'I know. I sat on the hood,'" Bennett recalled. "I asked Antonio, 'Where did you get the car?' He said, 'It's a rental car.'"
It turned out Burks' Grand Marquis was in the shop, and he had somehow obtained a rental car from Avis without providing a credit card and despite being just 22 at the time, three years below the minimum rental age.
Bennett, who denies having provided Burks with the Cadillac, ended up paying the bill to prevent Burks from losing his eligibility.
"The NCAA said, 'You can pay (the bill), so I paid it.' But it looked like I went out and rented him a stupid car," Bennett said. "People are gonna believe what they're gonna believe. People who don't like Cal or Ken Bennett are gonna think I rented him a Cadillac because I was looking for a payoff. I didn't sleep for two days thinking people might feel ill toward me."
Allen, who received his mentor's support following his 2005 arrest on charges of patronizing prostitution, said Bennett retains trust by never asking for anything in return.
"Even when you make mistakes and do something wrong, he's in your corner no matter what. He understands people make mistakes," Allen said. "Streets did a lot for me. It was like my second home. Ken just wants to see you be successful in life. He doesn't ask for nothing."
'Little corner of the world'
During four frantic days last April, Bennett ministered to someone outside his usual demographic: a white millionaire.
Torn over whether to accept an offer from North Carolina State or remain at Memphis, Calipari called upon Bennett.
"We'd be walking around Galloway golf course at midnight, just talking," Calipari said. "With Ken, you know he's going to look at what's best for you."
Bennett and Calipari, and their respective families, have grown close over the years.
"Being around him makes you feel like you're not worthy, like you're not doing anything," Calipari said. "I've seen the impact on two players. Where would they be without Streets? They had to have something in them that drove them to the right door. Ken made sure it was the right door."
Calipari's trust in Bennett is a big reason Burks lasted long enough to win Conference USA Player of the Year honors in 2004, for coach and player often butted heads.
"I probably had three midnight calls where I said, 'I'm done with Antonio. I'm not dealing with it anymore,'" Calipari said. "Ken would say, 'Why don't you sleep on it and we'll talk. Every time, I'd cool off. He'd tell me, 'Don't be emotional with that kid's life.'
"Ken is a ray of hope that's trying to create a chance and opportunity for those kids. He's trying to save that little corner of the world."
Bennett, however, knows not everyone can be saved.
The many disappointments he's experienced have only made him more determined to see the likes of Burks and Allen succeed.
"We had a kid in our program who stole a car, drove 90 mph down Florida Street, crashed and was decapitated," Bennett said. "We had not invested more in a kid than we had in him."
Those who know Bennett doubt he'd ever attempt to profit materially from his relationships with Allen and Burks, who played briefly for the Grizzlies before going to Europe.
When Burks signed his first pro contract, he invited Bennett to dinner at Houston's to celebrate. Burks wanted to treat his mentor, but Bennett insisted on paying for the meal.
"I think I've been able to keep relationships with these guys because I never ask them for anything," Bennett said. "We have two cars and a nice home -- but nothing Antonio bought."
As the Tigers' team chaplain, Bennett hosts optional prayer meetings after each pregame meal.
He rarely travels with the team during the regular season but does accompany the Tigers to the NCAA tournament, where one of his jobs is to locate a Catholic church for Calipari to attend Mass.
While Wilfong describes Bennett as "the No. 1 Tiger fan I know of," he doesn't think Bennett would take advantage of his relationship with Allen and Burks to get closer to the program.
"I think Ken sits behind the bench because he's a friend of John's, not because he's a Tiger fan. He sits there because John (asks him to)," Wilfong said. "I have never known Ken to ask for something like that."
Bennett, for his part, said he accepts his enviable spot near the bench in order not to be nearer to the program, but to the players.
"I certainly think about the perception. ... But I feel OK about sitting there because I render a service," Bennett said. "It's a good face place for me to be. Those kids can look at me and know that, in a crowd of 20,000 people, that guy there? He's for me."
-- Jim Masilak: 529-2311