Had he spent four years at Maryland rather than just two, Ben Coleman’s name might appear on the school’s list of all-time scorers and rebounders; instead he is in the record books as the player with the second-highest shooting percentage behind Buck Williams.
Had Coleman spent his entire college career as a Terp rather than transferring in as a junior following two seasons with his hometown Minnesota Gophers, Lefty Driesell might have won another ACC tournament title — maybe an NCAA title — with the 6-9 forward’s help.
As it was, Driesell’s only ACC tournament championship in his 17 seasons came during Coleman’s senior year in 1983-84 when he and rising sophomore star Len Bias shared team-high scoring honors at 15.3 points. Coleman led the Terps in rebounding (8.4).
“One of the greatest compliments was what [former Maryland player and assistant coach] Dave Dickerson just told me, ‘Ben was there for just two years but he’s a true Terrapin,’” said former Maryland star Adrian Branch, who played three years with Coleman and later was a teammate of his and Williams with the New Jersey Nets.
The first inkling about Len Bias came the summer before his freshman year at Maryland when he played in the well-respected Urban Coalition league in Washington. The league was made up mostly of college players, local NBA players and a few older playground legends.
Though he finished his career in College Park playing in the shadows of Bias, who was named the ACC tournament MVP as a sophomore in 1983-84 and led the Terps to the Sweet 16, Coleman had a significant impact on the Terps.
“Him and Herman Veal were the main reasons why we won the ACC championship,” Keith Gatlin, who was then a freshman point guard and is now in his first year as an assistant under Tubby Smith at High Point, said Wednesday.
“They were our captains, they were great leaders and we looked up to those guys,” Gatlin added. “They were very instrumental in being coaches on the floor, no-nonsense, made everyone accountable in preseason workouts.”
Said Branch, who was the team’s leading scorer when Coleman arrived, “That’s a fair assessment that he was the missing piece. If you talk about 6-5, 6-6, 6-7, 6-8, we got that with Len Bias, myself, Speedy Jones, Keith Gatlin and Jeff Adkins. But Ben got us over the hump.”
Coleman was the first African-American player from Minnesota’s City Conference to play for the Gophers.
“I wanted to break the ice and make a statement for the community,” Coleman said about the reason for signing with Minnesota prior to the 1979-80 season. “But at the same time there was a lot of pressure on me.”
There was a lot less pressure on Coleman in College Park, where Branch had led the Terps in scoring as a freshman and would soon be joined by Bias, who would become the school’s all-time scorer before being passed by Juan Dixon and Greivis Vasquez.
After sitting out the 1981-82 season in accordance with NCAA transfer rules, Coleman gave the Terps a physical inside presence that Driesell was missing after Williams left for the NBA after his junior year in 1980-81.
Coleman finished his first season at Maryland averaging 15.1 points, second behind then-sophomore guard Branch, while pulling down 8.1 rebounds. He was second-team all-ACC with Branch that year, and second-team by himself in 1983-84.
“He was just a rugged, physical guy, had a nice jump hook,” Gatlin recalled. “He could really play, man. He was our missing piece [to winning an ACC title]. He and Herman allowed Lenny to roam and not get so get beat up down there.”
Off the court, Coleman was a “big teddy bear,” Gatlin said.
Said Branch, “He was a good dude. He was a pro.”
After being drafted in the second round of the 1984 draft and 37th overall by the Chicago Bulls — the same draft that saw the Bulls famously take North Carolina’s Michael Jordan at No. 3 — Coleman wound up playing in Italy for two seasons.
Coleman eventually made it to the NBA in 1986 with the New Jersey Nets, and played five of his 13 professional seasons in the NBA with four teams. After leaving the Nets in 1988, he played for the Philadelphia 76ers (1988-89), Milwaukee Bucks (1989-90) and after going back to Europe, the Detroit Pistons (1993).
He finished his professional career with the Omaha Racers of the Continental Basketball Association before returning to the Twin Cities to coach and sell real estate. A cause of death has not been made public.