Tulane Cadet leads on and off basketball court
April 11, 2013
As the nation saw in Monday's NCAA men's national basketball championship, a 3-point marksman can swing the fortunes of a season.
Ben Cherry knows all about the value of the 3-pointer and what it can mean for a team. After all, the ROTC Cadet and co-captain for Tulane University was among the nation's leaders this season in shooting percentage from behind the arc and helped lead the Green Wave to its most wins -- 20 -- in 15 years.
"It's a by-product of the hard work we have put in," Cherry said. "As long as we're winning, I'm happy."
Cherry, a guard, played in all 35 Tulane games this past season, scoring an average of 4.4 points per game. He was looked to at times for his outside prowess, managing to sink a whopping 50 percent of his 3-point attempts, including 11 in a row at one stretch during the season.
Arguably his greatest impact, however, couldn't be found in the box score. Instead, Cherry's most substantial contribution has come as a leader on and off the court.
"He is a co-captain because of his leadership traits, work ethic and the example he sets," said Ed Conroy, Tulane head coach and Cherry's coach the last four years. "He has worked so hard at it. These days, when somebody talks about someone developing, it's not always a compliment. With Ben, he came in as a super person. Between his experience and ROTC training, he has grown tremendously."
Though he was a high school standout in Charlotte, N.C., Cherry wasn't highly recruited by colleges. So he marketed himself to a variety of schools. The Citadel offered him a roster spot and an opportunity to play at the collegiate level.
He took it.
Besides, it gave him a chance to simultaneously pursue another desire: develop himself into a future military leader. His brother was already enrolled in Army ROTC at the time at the University of North Carolina.
But after a year at the school, and with a new coach taking over the program, Cherry, who had been taking ROTC classes but hadn't contracted, didn't feel the new system was the best fit for him. So he sought the counsel of his former coach, Conroy, who had moved on to become the head coach at Tulane.
Conroy said he didn't have a scholarship available to Cherry, who received a release from the Citadel too late to be considered for one. But knowing Cherry's desire to serve his country, Conroy helped him connect with the Tulane ROTC program, with which he eventually earned a three-year scholarship.
"My brother told me how good of an experience ROTC was for him," Cherry said. "At that point, I was interested in it because I saw the changes he had made in his life by being put in leadership positions. I thought it was a good route to go."
Nine games into his sophomore season, Cherry tore his ACL during the second half of a game. Recovery time after surgery was supposed to be eight to 10 months. He worked diligently with Tulane's training staff to strengthen his right knee, and ROTC modified his workouts in a way that didn't disrupt his recovery.
Even though he wasn't fully recovered, Cherry was back playing basketball after just five months. He went on to play his junior season, scoring 2.1 points per game. But by February, realizing his knee wasn't completely healed, Cherry chose to cut his season short so he could ready himself to attend the Leader Development and Assessment Course a few months later.
Cherry shined at LDAC, earning the highest rating of E and ranking as the top Tulane Cadet at the course last summer of the 16 who attended.
"He's a gifted Cadet who naturally picks up things," said Maj. Michael Leiva, executive officer and assistant professor of military science for the Orleans Battalion. He and the school's senior military instructor took time on weekends to teach Cherry activities like land navigation whenever a basketball trip forced him to miss the instruction.
"When you have the drive and the physical ability he has, you just need to see right once and you can replicate it," Leiva said.
Tulane ROTC has worked closely with the basketball program to ensure Cherry meets all of his Army requirements.
Lt. Col. Kam Gunther, the professor of military science at Tulane, considers Cherry among the program's top students, describing him as a "stellar Cadet." Though basketball prevents him from participating in some events and taking on a larger, more involved role with the battalion throughout the school year, Cherry has helped as much as he can, including mentoring and coaching other students.
"When he's here, they look up to him," she said. "He's got good military bearing, and he's well-respected."
Considering his skill and ability, Cherry has considerable potential as a leader, Gunther said.
"You put him in a role, and he'll do it," she said. "He has a smart way of dealing with people. He's going to go far."
Conroy saw the same character traits in Cherry and made him the Green Wave co-captain this season.
Cherry's not the top scorer, the top rebounder or the top assists handler. But what he brings is a drive and passion that motivates others, Conroy said.
"To become a leader, you need to know how to follow. To be a teacher, you need to know how to learn," Conroy said. "He has shown all those things. One of the things that gets lost is how he battled injury. Our guys saw him every day fight through that to just be able to play again. He's a great example for guys coming into the program."
Blossoming into a leader on the team is something Cherry attributes to his ROTC experience. He used to be the passive type, leading more through actions than words.
"Within any organization, there's one guy people look to," Cherry said. "I feel like I'm that guy. I know the coaches and the system well. Players look to me when they have questions. I can be someone who is informative and hold them accountable. They respect my decisions on and off the floor.
"Through playing basketball, I was always a leader and a captain. But I wasn't nearly as vocal. I feel that hurt me because people respect you more when you express how you feel and can direct and improve the situation by talking about your experiences. ROTC helped me find my voice as a leader."
Cherry, 23, admits the demands of academics, basketball and ROTC are tough. But ROTC has helped him manage the load by figuring how best to balance his time and prioritize.
"There's a lot of late nights and not always a lot of sleep," he said. "I'm just as motivated in the classroom as I am on the court and in ROTC. I don't like to lose. I want to be the best in whatever I do. A lot of times, you have to suck it up and chug along."
Cherry is scheduled to commission in May. But, due to his injury, the NCAA earlier this year granted him a fifth year of eligibility.
As a result, Gunther worked with Cadet Command personnel officials to obtain a Basic Officer Leadership Course date for the future activity duty armor lieutenant for April 2014. That enables him to take the court for one final run.
Cherry, who's knee is back to full strength, plans to spend his summer meeting his new teammates and getting them and himself ready physically and mentally for next season. He'll enroll in some classes in the fall and remain active with Tulane ROTC, assisting with and taking part in training to keep his skills fresh.
Cherry has aspirations of playing basketball professionally, but he isn't going to let that desire deter the commitment he has made to serving his country.
"The Army has been real good to me by paying for school and allowing me to play basketball at the same time and in preparing me to be an officer," he said. "It would be cool to play professionally, but my obligation is to fulfill my duty as an officer."