Benzegala persists in Algeria
Mounir Benzegala still can't believe how far the game of basketball has taken him.
The 2005 Worthington Kilbourne High School graduate wasn't recruited by any Division I or II college coaches, but the 5-foot-9 point guard has been a member of Algeria's national team the past four years and he leaves Aug. 18 for Algeria to prepare for the start of his fourth season as a professional.
Benzegala, who averaged 12.8 points and five assists as a senior to earn first-team all-OCC-Central Division honors and help lead the Wolves to their first winning season at 11-10, is entering his second season with the GS Petroliers.
"Nobody would have expected me to go on to do what I've done in the game of basketball," he said. "My senior year was my only decent year in high school and I never played AAU basketball to expose myself to NCAA college coaches, so I almost didn't get the opportunity to play college basketball.
"I would be more shocked than anyone else if you would have told me I'd be playing for the Algeria national team and playing professional basketball in the Middle East after high school. I've traveled a long and surprising road to get to where I am today, but looking back at it, I wouldn't change a thing."
Kilbourne coach Tom Souder said Benzegala's accomplishments are the result of hard work on and off the court.
During each offseason, Benzegala studies game videos, identifies his weaknesses and works to improve them. If he is unhappy with his shooting percentage, he has been known to take 1,000 shots a day during the offseason to improve his shot.
"Mo's a great success story for guys who love the game and have to work hard for everything they have," Souder said. "Mo isn't very big and he isn't a jet or a great shooter, but he's always found a way to make himself better and he's continued to build his game. Not many, if any, guys are going to outwork him. Mo is the first guy in the gym and the last to leave.
"Mo's a guy who has persevered and refused to take no for an answer, and now he's living the dream of getting paid to play."
Benzegala played two seasons at Edison Community College in Piqua, earning a starting position as a freshman and averaging 10.2 assists as a sophomore, before accepting a scholarship to play for the University of Tampa, a Division II program.
As a starter during his senior season at Tampa, he averaged 9.1 points, totaled 39 assists and 13 steals and had a team-high 41.9 shooting percentage from 3-point range. In two seasons with the Spartans, he totaled 207 points in 39 games.
During the summer of 2009, Benzegala was offered an opportunity to try out for the Algeria national team because his father, Pahar, was a native of the country who moved to the United States at age 18.
Benzegala averaged 20 points and eight assists while playing for the Algeria national team in a tournament that summer and was offered a permanent spot on the roster in 2010.
As a member of the team, he has competed against national teams from Africa, Asia and Europe.
"Most of my teammates speak French or Arabic, so I've been trying to become fluent in those languages," Benzegala said. "Luckily, I took French in high school and I've picked up enough Arabic to be able to communicate with my teammates on the court.
"We have a lot of work to do, but our long-term goal is to play well enough to qualify for the summer Olympics in 2016 (in Rio de Janeiro). That would be a dream-come-true for any athlete."
In January 2011, Benzegala signed a contract to play professionally for Al Ittihad Tripoli in Libya but played only four games before civil war broke out within the country and foreigners were advised to leave.
Benzegala heeded the warning but was detained by security at Tripoli International Airport and missed his flight.
More than a week later, he was able to leave Libya on a ferry that took him to Malta, an island in the Mediterranean Sea. From there, he flew to Stockholm, Sweden, before returning to the U.S.
"I wasn't allowed to fly out and one of my teammates was actually held up at gunpoint outside of the American embassy in Tripoli while he was trying to leave, so it was pretty scary," Benzegala said. "Every time we had to take a taxi, we were worried about getting stopped and murdered. While the protests were going on, we could hear gunshots and explosions every night, and we saw thousands of people marching in the streets. When we got to Malta, we were interviewed on television for Good Morning America, and I knew I was finally safe."
Benzegala played for CSMC Constantine in Algeria during the 2011-12 season before signing with GS Petroliers for the 2012-13 season.
"When I made it back from Libya, I worked a couple of jobs for a gym and a cable company, but I found that I still love the game and I wasn't ready to quit playing yet," he said.
However, Benzegala, 26, already is planning for life after basketball.
"I'd like to keep playing at least through 2016 since that's the next Olympic year, but I re-evaluate where I'm at after every season and decide whether I'm going to continue playing," he said. "I've considered getting into coaching and teaching when I return to Columbus. My dream is to come back and start up a youth camp so I can give something back to the game that has given me so many great opportunities."