The Arizona Republic
Mesa’s Benson making up for lost time on court
Kota Benson was a rising basketball star on the Tohono O’Odham reservation, before COVID-19 derailed his basketball journey.
COVID-19 shut down his sophomore season, a year in which Benson couldn’t even get inside the Baboquivari High gymnasium in Sells to shoot baskets.
It was partly why the family left the Southern Arizona reservation and moved to Mesa. The other part was to challenge Benson on the court by going from the smallest level in 1A to the biggest in 6A.
Now the senior point guard has settled into Mesa High School, surpassing 1,500 career points and giving the Jackrabbits a chance at a 6A state championship. He’ll lead them Wednesday night at Anthem Boulder Creek in the quarterfinals.
“There were a lot of restrictions (on the reservation),” Benson said about his sophomore year in 2020-21. “We weren’t allowed to do anything. It sucked. We had a good team. Most of the guys from my freshman year were going to be returning. We were looking forward to winning a state championship my sophomore year. It kind of derailed all of that.”
Benson caught up with his former teammates last Saturday in Prescott Valley, where Baboquivari took on Anthem North Valley Christian in the 1A state championship game. His former team lost 56-36, but Benson was happy to see his former teammates.
“I saw my boys,” Benson said. “I wish I could have been out there with them.”
Mesa (21-7) is glad to have Benson on its team. He leads the team with 16.4 points, 5.5 assists and 1.8 steals a game.
It was a seamless transition moving to the sprawling Phoenix area from the reservation, where he lived since he was in the fourth grade after moving there from Tucson. He enjoyed the Sells community and its culture, as well as the school and the tradition of the basketball program. But he knew midway through his high school career it was time to ramp up the competition.
One of his first summer games before his junior year came against Sunnyslope and All-Arizona guard Oakland Fort.
“Right away, I thought, this kid is smart, hard-working, gets it,” Mesa coach Scott Stansberry said. “That first
June he came over, those summer league games, you could tell the difference in competition was different. but it didn’t take him long to adjust.”
Even while on the reservation, he was playing on AAU teams against some of the best players in the state and in the nation. During his freshman year, he led Baboquivari to the 1A semfinals, averaging 21 points and seven assists.
He fine-tuned his shooting ability, his cross-over moves to the basket, his quick, pull-up shots in the last two years at Mesa.
“It was a big jump,” Benson said of moving from 1A to 6A basketball. “A lot more athletes. A lot of teams were really well-coached. From game to game, there was a lot more scouting, a lot more preparation. That was probably the biggest adjustment.”
Benson said basketball was his life on the reservation.
“There aren’t a whole lot of options for youth,” he said. “It’s the biggest outlet.”
Getting to 1,500 points in his last game, Benson wonders how many point he would be at now had Baboquivari not canceled basketball his sophomore year. Surely, more than 2,000.
“It goes through my head,” he said. “Whatever happened, happened, and I’m grateful to be here.”