In the most recent installment of his "Forgotten Legends" interview series, CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with Joe Behling, who played just one year of high school basketball before going on to become the all-time leading scorer in Belmont history. Behling, who finished his career with 2,823 points, is best remembered by fans in the Nashville area for his 58 points scored in a win over city rival Lipscomb, which was ranked number one in the nation (NAIA) at the time. Behling is now an elementary school teacher in Nashville.
Jon Teitel: You played only one year of basketball as a walk-on at Hillwood High School, then redshirted your first year at Belmont (where your mother worked in the school's development office) with some academic troubles and only played in nine games as a freshman. Why were you such a late-bloomer, and did you ever doubt your ability to play college basketball?
Joe Behling: I was what you call a "late bloomer" because the mental aspect of the game had not clicked for me yet, along with certain skills that basketball requires. I can remember my first tryout with my first coach at Belmont, Don Purdy. He ran me through some drills and even though I was 6'6" he blurted out, "I think we will redshirt you." People are still amazed that I had only one year of high school ball, but I believe it kept my outlook on the sport fresh. When other teammates at Belmont were mentally and physically fatigued from the game after playing it for so many years, I was still excited and motivated to learn as much as I could about this beautiful game.
JT: You played for Coach Rick Byrd, who is still the Belmont coach two decades later. What did you learn from him, and why is he such a great coach?
JB: Not only did I learn almost everything about the sport I love most, Coach Byrd was a model for us of how to be a man of integrity. Everything I learned from him I still use to this day: honesty, compassion, responsibility, character, and so much more. The best gift he gave me, which I try to give to kids at school and to my own children at home, is simply living an honorable life and modeling those things in my own life, not just simply talking about them. Coach Byrd remains an inspiration to me and all his former players, even to this day.
JT: In 1988 you were a First Team All-American; how were you able to go from scrub to All-American in just one year?
JB: After my freshman year, which was not a great success, a former player from Vanderbilt named Brian Allsmiller (who became an award-winning country music songwriter) approached me and simply said that he saw something special in me that I do not even think I saw in myself at the time. He made a deal with me that if I committed to meeting him in the gym at 5:30AM every day that summer, I would see benefits. So everyday that summer he worked my tail off, but he turned out to be right.
Something just clicked that summer, and I started to reach my potential as a basketball player. To this day, I still wonder why he took so much time out of his busy schedule to work with me, but I now try to pass on that same kindness to other kids who seem a bit lost. Everyday I strive to make a difference in someone's life, and I think that seed was planted when Brian took time out to make a difference in my life.
JT: In 1989 you scored a school-record 58 points against archrival/neighbor Lipscomb, who had been ranked #1 for most of the regular season. Was it just one of those scenarios where every shot you put up seemed to go in because you were "in the zone", and was it extra-special to do it against a school that is located only one mile away from your campus?
JB: I think that I made 24 of 30 shots in that game (it is amazing the silly things you remember from 20 years ago), but you are right that it was extremely special for our team and for me personally. People still approach me to this day, even though they sometimes forget how many points I scored (one guy asked me how it felt to score 83 points; needless to say, I did not correct him!). Many people in Nashville still have not forgotten the performance even after 20 years.
Our rivalry against Lipscomb was probably the cause of that particular game being remembered. People also say to this day that those games against Lipscomb were some of the best basketball they had ever seen in their lives, which is a true testament to the players and coaches on both teams. It was truly a very special night, and I am very proud it is still remembered 20 years later. When people speak of athletes being "in the zone", my mind seems to drift back to how it felt for me that night: it was actually a very surreal feeling.
JT: What are your memories of the 1989 NAIA tourney (you lost to Hastings in Belmont's first-ever NAIA tourney appearance)?
JB: My memory of the actual game is mainly of frustration, because we had worked so hard to get there and we were known as the team that defeated Lipscomb (the #1 team in the nation), but we could not follow it up with the same kind of performance. I remember having a quick 20 points in the first 10 minutes of the game against Hastings, but then double and triple teams started coming at me at a voracious rate. Our outside shooting was not at its best that night, and unfortunately, we fell short. Playing in Kemper Arena was still tremendously exciting for us, and being the first Belmont team to go to the national tournament was a real honor. The former players on that team and Coach Byrd still attribute Belmont's recent success to that time in Belmont athletics.
JT: In 1989 you were named the school's first-ever NAIA player of the year after scoring 1,071 points that season. Did you just feel unstoppable every time you walked onto the court that year?
JB: I knew that after making First Team All-American in 1988, teams would concentrate a lot more on me, but my development of a quick turn-around jumper before the double teams or triple teams could come allowed me to actually score more points in 1989. Also, my understanding of the game had increased exponentially: I did not feel so "green" and my confidence was very high. I remember having several 50-point games when it did not even feel like I had scored 30; ever hear of a quiet 50-point game?! I also have to attribute my success to the wonderful players that surrounded me. It got a bit more difficult for teams to double me when there were four great shooters around me, and I just feel like all the players on that team had a tremendously high basketball IQ. They were also great guys to be around: some of my best friends to this day were on those teams at Belmont.
JT: After graduation you played in Argentina and France. What did you learn from the experience, and how did it compare to college basketball?
JB: Those were wonderful times too, although the culture shock of being in another country where you do not speak the language was evident. I continued to play well and still enjoyed the game of basketball, but when you turn professional it also becomes a business (which means contracts, negotiations, etc.). It definitely expanded my perception of the world, and also made me realize just how lucky we are here in the U.S. I think back on those times with real fondness, and I also realize just how lucky I was to receive that opportunity to play professionally. I felt very blessed to get paid for something that I loved to do. I continue to feel that way to this day because I retain a passion for what I am doing, but with this passion I am making a difference in other peoples' lives; what is better than that?
JT: Later on you played in the CBA for Grand Rapids before a knee injury ended your career. What did you learn from the experience, and how did it compare to pro basketball outside the U.S.?
JB: I learned more of the business end of this game, which actually allowed me to ask myself "What is next for me?" This was the genesis for my motivation to go into education. I had been given so much by so many, and I felt it was time to give back to those that were not given the opportunities that I had. My knee injury, although unfortunate, actually helped to make me the person I am today. The CBA was a very good experience for me, and taught me many lessons that I still value to this day.
JT: In 2003 you were inducted into the NAIA Hall of Fame: what did it mean to you to receive such an outstanding individual honor?
JB: That truly was a great honor. What made it even more special was having Coach Byrd introduce me and having my friends and family there to enjoy it with me. I could not help but start to think of all the people that sacrificed so I could be up there accepting a prestigious honor. Your teammates, your family, your coaches, guys like Brian Allsmiller. Without all their support, being inducted into the Hall of Fame simply would not have happened. I am truly blessed to have such a great support system, and they all share a piece of that honor.
JT: You are currently one of the few male teachers at Park Avenue (an inner-city elementary school in Nashville). Do your co-workers and/or students know about your basketball career, and why did you go into teaching?
JB: I know a few talk about it because they are native to this city, and some students have had their parents talk about it so they ask me as well ("what is it like being Belmont's all-time leading scorer?" and stuff like that), but I hope the work I have done here has more of an influence on these kids than anything in my basketball career has done for them. I have to say that I am prouder of my last 10 years and what I have accomplished here at Park Avenue, because I can honestly say that every day I try to make a difference in someone's life. I feel like I am in the right place, and these kids do not really care if I played basketball well or not: I hope they are just glad that I am here telling them how special they are. Bottom line: I want to make a difference in other peoples' lives, just like so many people made a difference in mine.
Behling is also on Jon's list of best fantasy players in Atlantic Sun history:
Belmont: Joe Behling (1990) 2,823 PTS (#1), 947 REB (#4), 142 BLK (#2), three-time All American, national Player of the Year
Campbell: Joe Spinks (1994) 1,711 PTS (#4), 954 REB (#2), 220 STL (#2), 155 BLK (#2), conference Player of the Year
East Tennessee State: Keith Jennings (1991) 1,988 PTS (#4), 983 AST (#1), 334 STL (#1), 223 3PTM (#2), 49.3 3PT% (#1), 86.1 FT% (#2), All-American, two-time conference Player of the Year
Florida Gulf Coast: Bryan Crislip (2005) 985 PTS (#3), 373 REB (#2), 606 AST (#1), 194 STL (#1)
Jacksonville: Ben Smith (2010) 1,971 PTS (#2), 515 AST (#1), 230 STL (#1), 220 3PTM (#2)
Kennesaw State: Ronell Wooten (2008) 1,633 PTS (#2), 615 REB (#5), 262 3PTM (#1)
Lipscomb: John Pierce (1994) 4,230 PTS (#1), 1497 REB (#1), four-time All American, two-time national Player of the Year
Mercer: James Florence (2010) 2,287 PTS (#1), 436 AST (#2), 222 STL (#1), 242 3PTM (#1)
North Florida: Donny Lotz (2005) 1,412 PTS (#2), 660 REB (#2), 77 BLK (#2), 105 STL (#4)
South Carolina Upstate: Ulysses Hackett (1992) 2,688 PTS (#1), 908 REB (#2), 227 STL (#3), 67.1 FG% (#1), three-time All American, two-time conference Player of the Year
Stetson: Kerry Blackshear (1996) 1,826 PTS (#1), conference Player of the Year