Ben Finney, Not just a number, by Melinda Waldrop of the Daily Press

January 21, 2009
By ODU Athletics
ODU Sports

Jan. 21, 2009 "Not just a number" Ben Finney honors his late brother on his jersey and cell phone. By Melinda Waldrop


January 18, 2009

The heart fills the screen of Ben Finney's cell phone. Vines pricked with thorns encircle it. And bullets are scattered nearby.

Eight of them, for the number of times his brother was shot.

Ra-Shawn Finney would have been 19 on Thursday. He died Sept. 19, six days after being shot at a party in Chesapeake.

Ben Finney, 20, an Old Dominion sophomore forward from Portsmouth, was watching TV with his teammates when he got a text message about the shooting.

"My first reaction was to go home and see how my little sisters and my little brothers were doing and see if everybody was OK," he said. "When I went home, nobody was there. Everybody was already on their way to the hospital."

Ben said his brother didn't know the person who shot him. Jarrel Dufore Eldridge, 23, was arrested Sept. 20 in connection with the shooting.

At first, Ben and his family, including his mother, Desiree Finney-Jones, and Ra-Shawn's twin brother, Da-Shawn, were optimistic, buoyed by news that the bullets hadn't hit any major arteries.

"He was never talking, because of the tubes, but if you would say his name, he would open his eyes and he would look," Ben said.

But the night before Ra-Shawn died, Ben stood by his brother's bed, fighting a bad feeling.

"I kind of figured that it wasn't going to be good," Ben said. "Because I know my brother, and I know the look in his face -- I just know."

Ben is listed as No. 2 on the Monarchs' roster. But he wears No. 35.

The numbers add up to 8, which is the jersey number Ra-Shawn wore on the football field at Portsmouth's I.C. Norcom High. (College basketball players can't wear single digits above 5, so referees can signal fouls using one hand.)

"It just felt like it was right," Ben said. " ... It felt like it should have been my number before then."

Ben averaged seven points and five rebounds as a freshman, which made him the second-leading returning scorer on a current team filled with young players. This year, he's averaging 10.3 points, second on the team, and leading ODU with 6.6 rebounds per game.

"What's happened in our program is we've had younger players take responsibility beyond their years," Monarchs coach Blaine Taylor said. "Ben as a freshman got some playing time and now as a sophomore is a captain, and so we're asking more leadership from him, given the fact that we have so few upperclassmen. And then he has those kinds of qualities to where he can affect others if he says the right thing, does the right thing."

Ben uses his 6-foot-5, 220-pound frame to bang with defenders in the post, but is also developing into a consistent 3-point shooter. He's started 15 of ODU's 17 games and is averaging 31 minutes, third-most on the team behind leading scorer Gerald Lee and point guard Darius James.

"I've been fussing with him to step up since last year," Desiree Finney-Jones said. "He's going to have to start talking. People look up to him."

It's been that way for as long as Ben can remember.

When he was in seventh grade, his father was killed. Benjamin Carothers was living in New York after separating from Ben's mom. By that time, Ben, the oldest of six children, was used to being the man of the house, making sure everyone was where they were supposed to be, doing what they were supposed to do.

"It's been like that all my life," Ben said. "I just try and lead by example and do the right things."

Ben was a two-sport athlete at Norcom, averaging 26.2 points and 13.2 rebounds as a senior in 2005-06 and catching 81 passes for 1,186 yards. His football skills drew interest from schools such as Virginia Tech, but he decided to play basketball at ODU after a year at Hargrave Military Academy for reasons that weren't just about the game.

"I have a big family, so I decided to come home and play basketball so they can watch me play, and it would make them want to go to college and play on a big stage," he said.

Ra-Shawn's scrawny size -- or maybe the shape of his head; family memories are a little fuzzy -- when he was born led to a nickname that stuck: "Peanut."

"He was real small," said James, who roomed with Ben and forward Kent Bazemore when the three were freshmen and got to know Ben's family through cookouts and hanging out. "We used to go to his football games. He played wide receiver, and when I went to his game, I think he had like three touchdowns. He was small like that, but they were throwing it up, and he was going to get it."

Ra-Shawn caught four passes for 43 yards and two touchdowns as Norcom started last season, his senior year, 3-0. He planned to go to college, then join the Navy.

"He was the guy that makes sure everybody's OK when I'm not there, makes sure things get done," Ben said. "He was like the father figure when I wasn't there."

"He was the protector," Desiree said. "That was the one. The enforcer. Ben's quiet. (Ra-Shawn) was outspoken. He was more like me."

Desiree is easy to spot, and easier to hear, as she watches Ben play for ODU.

She cheers non-stop, standing to urge the Monarchs to get a rebound, applaud a steal or argue a foul.

She arrived a little late to a recent 9 p.m. game -- her fourth basketball game of the night. Her youngest daughter, Monnezja, plays junior varsity basketball at Wilson High, where her older daughter, Sha-Kilya, is on the varsity team. Son Dorian plays at Norcom.

"Once everybody leaves or goes to school, I'm really gonna be bored," she said. "(But) I've got four more varsity years. I tell the referees that. I'm gonna be here for four more years."

Sports help Desiree, who also manages a fast-food restaurant and cleans houses on the side, keep order in her household. It worked for Ben, who so respected his mother's rules growing up that the rare times she can remember him acting out -- like when he got his hands on a forbidden BB gun -- he told on himself.

"He's one of the scared kids, one of those 'Don't tell my mama, or my mama gonna be mad,' " Desiree Finney-Jones said. "So he never did a lot of stuff. I never had to worry about him. ... My punishment was, 'I'm not gonna let you play basketball,' or 'I'm not gonna let you go to football practice.'

"That was the purpose of the sports, to keep them from the streets, because the streets can get your kids."

As his mother exhorts ODU to play harder, Da-Shawn Finney sits quietly behind her, eyes focused straight ahead.

Da-Shawn, born five minutes after Ra-Shawn, was two days away from having to get through his first birthday alone.

"I'm gonna try," he said. "I'm gonna try."

Such occasions are now tinged with sadness for the whole family.

"It was a long Christmas," Desiree said. "I don't think it's gonna ever go away. I don't know. I just do, every day. We talk a lot. We have a lot of family discussions. We're always talking and laughing about stuff. We cry, we laugh, we talk. It's like he's still here, because we're going to say whatever he was going to say."

Late in the game, Ben Finney limps off the court with a twisted ankle, and Desiree is behind his chair on the bench nearly as soon as he sits down.

"That's my best friend," Desiree said.

Ben presses a towel to his face, wincing as the trainer works on his leg, but minutes later he's at the scorer's table, waiting to check back in.

His teammates are used to that toughness. They saw it first-hand in September, on the court and in the hospital.

"We were in preseason workouts, running and conditioning, and he was still the first one there and the last one to leave," Bazemore said. "Every now and then, we'll pass by a store, and he'll be like, 'My brother and I used to go there.' But he never really let it get to him."

Ben's teammates visited Ra-Shawn in the hospital, and guard Marsharee Neely created the drawing Ben has on his cell phone. Support from the community is obvious at Norfolk's Constant Center, where a banner with Ra-Shawn's No. 8 hangs in the tunnel outside the team locker room and Ben's introduction in his new number brings loud cheers.

"I think he would like to honor the memory of his brother by really getting the most out of the opportunities that he has -- education and sports and family and the stuff that Peanut will not have a chance to experience," Taylor said.

Such an ambition carries added responsibility, but that's nothing new to Ben.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm under pressure, but I'm used to it," Ben said. "I love it. It's just what I do. I've been playing sports all my life, (and) I just try to keep it simple."

While Ra-Shawn is never far from Ben's thoughts, he tries not to dwell on his death.

"The less I think about it, the better I feel," Ben said. "If I think about it too much, my mind's gonna be somewhere else. Early on in the season, my mind was somewhere else. I was thinking about it constantly. Now, I think about it before the game and after the game, and that's about it."

And every time he pulls out his phone.