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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

When Gene Banks Didn't Get the Headline

The passage of time can be cruel. Google "Gene Banks" and you get information about, well, banks for genes. I can understand that, as there have been significant advances in medicine, but what that signifies is how yesterday's headline grabber became yesterday's news and remained there.

I was getting ready to recycle a November issue of ESPN the Magazine when I happened upon a feature story of the first games of John Wall, the first pick overall in the NBA draft. Wall is a Wizard and a wizard, and the article featured different photos of Wall -- on the court and off. One of them struck me particularly -- Wall standing at attention for the national anthem, flanked by a teammate on one side and an assistant coach on the other. And the assistant coach looked very familiar.

So, I went to the website of the Wizards to figure out who their assistants are, and, yes, it was him. Gene Banks, one-time Duke all-American who, with Albert King from Brooklyn, was one of the two most highly sought after high school basketball prospects in 1977. Banks, out of West Philadelphia High School, was a boy among men, and his West Philadelphia teams were so good that several times his senior season they opened for the Philadelphia 76ers, themselves an elite team at the time. West's front line of Joe Garrett (who went to UTEP at least for a while), Clarence Tillman (a year younger, went to Kentucky and then transferred to Rutgers) and Banks was big and strong, and the guards (whose names escape me at the moment) were quick and adept at getting the ball to the big fellows. Banks could elevate and levitate, and he had a great basketball IQ. He excelled at Duke, got them to the NCAA title game against a big Kentucky team (with Rick Robey, Mike Phillips and swingman Jack "Goose" Givens) and then ended up in the NBA for a while, where the headlines faded because, well, Gene never grew and he had a big man's game in what today is a shooting-guard sized (at least height-wise) body. Today, around the age of 52, he's a single parent, having raised 5 kids (his wife passed away from MS a few years ago).

Rolling back the tape to 1977, the college hoops scene was all about Gene Banks. There wasn't cable TV back then, texting, the internet or anything like that, so there was intrigue and mystery about this kid from Philadelphia, a city with a great history of developing hoop stars, about this team from West Philly who had a great rivalry with neighboring Overbrook High School (Wilt Chamberlain's alma mater) and its star forward, Lewis Lloyd (who went to Drake and played in the NBA), and about Banks, a great kid with a great game. Today, there is so much information on the media few but the insiders know who the most sought after high-school basketball prospects are, if only because we can get English Premier League soccer on ESPN 2 and the NFL all the time. Back then, while the information wasn't as easy to access, the myths spread, and reputations were based not on what we saw on ESPN or on YouTube or on streaming video from a website, but what some lyrical writer saw at the Five-Star Basketball Camp in Honesdale, Pennsylvania the summer before (there wasn't AAU or "travel" basketball back then, and there weren't these specialized prep programs dedicated to developing high school basketball players for college; your high school team was everything). And, of course, there was the word of mouth. "Did you hear about this kid at West Philly? He's the real deal, the total package." And the raves and comparisons started.

He was the story in a city where the Eagles were recovering under Dick Vermeil after a decade and a half of mediocrity, where the Phillies were in the midst of winning NL East titles, where the 76ers had just gotten Dr. J from the Nets and were about to embark on a very solid run for the top, and where the Flyers were still among the NHL elite. Yet, amidst all that, I recall that Gene Banks rose to the top to become the story. Why? Because Philadelphia had a rich high school basketball tradition, and because most fans are totally intrigued about the "what might become of this great kid" story perhaps more than the present-day stories of excellence, which might be hard to believe today given what a golden age the Philadelphia pro sports scene was experiencing.

Dr. J.

Bobby Clarke.

Dick Vermeil's Eagles.

Mike Schmidt.

Steve Carlton.

Gene Banks -- for a window of the winter of 1976 (when he was a junior) through the spring of 1977 (after his senior season in high school and to the time he declared for Duke -- there weren't early signing periods then) -- eclipsed them all.

He was that good. His story and his future were that compelling.

The story wasn't going to last forever; stories like that never do. But, for that window in 1976-1977, the story was terrific, we couldn't wait for the next chapter, and we couldn't wait to hear the college selection.

I'm sure that Gene Banks' life -- and the compelling aspects of it -- continued to be interesting even after a great career at Duke. It's just that you don't hear about the good and sad aspects of the lives of most people, especially ones you never knew except through press accounts that most likely didn't give us a total sense of the kid beyond his ability on the basketball court.

It's just that once you're star has faded from the bright lights of the court, you don't get the coverage you used to.

And you don't even draw a mention in a photo caption in a story about a current bright star in a magazine dedicated to people who weren't even born when you were drawing the headlines and the attention, even when you have something very much in common with the star kid standing next to you while the National Anthem is playing.

Because three decades ago, they talked about you the way they talk about him.

Different position, perhaps, but you, like him, propelled your college team to great heights.

Three decades ago.

You were that good.

And, coming out of high school, more talked about.

It's good to see you, Gene Banks.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was doing post-graduate studies at Duke during the Banks/Spanarkle/Gminski era. Great team, and really good solid players. Nice to read about Banks again.

1:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, he's currently an Assistant coach for the Wizards and does tons of charity work for the under privileged. He remains an impressive and outstanding achiever and all around good-guy.

9:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

November 3, 2011

Wow, he's currently an Assistant coach for the Wizards and does tons of charity work for the under privileged. He remains an impressive and outstanding achiever and all around good-guy.

9:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article. I played in Philly at Simon Gratz at the same time. The city also had Olympian Michael Brooks, who was the BEST player in the city. But just to add to this wonderful story, Gene is my friend on FB. It's amazing to see the vastness of his life through relationships from Philly throughout Europe and Canada. The 52 year old version of Gene is living such a well quality of life.
Gene's story only takes the cover off of the greatness that was Philly baketball in the 70's. Thank you for the article.

4:01 PM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Thanks for your comment. Michael Brooks was quite a player, too. Gene Banks' story is a heartening one, and it struck me as interesting/compelling that with all of the talk of John Wall, there was not even a mention of the assistant coach next to him. My guess is that the reporter probably was born after Banks starred at West Philly. At any rate, those were some times then, weren't they?

7:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the summer of 1974, I (age 18) was a counselor and my brother (age 12) a camper at Camp Twin Hills in Bucks County, PA, which was owned and operated by Joe Goldenberg, coach of West Philadelphia High. He gave many of his players summer jobs at the camp, mostly in the kitchen,m and this included Gene Banks. Gene was 15 that summer, and impressed all of us not only with his already amazing basketball skills, but with his intelligence, personality and poise. It is great to read about him here. He truly was a legend in Philadelphia, and later at Duke where he was part of the very beginning of the Krzyzewski era.

12:42 PM  
Blogger Drew Brown said...

Came across your great post after Googleing Gene Banks, to see what he was up to. I too was a camper at Camp Twin Hills that summer of '74, and still have very vivid memories of Gene. He came into my bunk one day, looking for a baseball... and I was all too anxious to lend him mine. When I returned to the bunk a few hours later, the ball was sitting on my bed - signed, "To Drew, Best Wishes Always, Gene Banks." I was equal parts thrilled that he knew my name - and had signed my ball, and disappointed that I could never use my favorite baseball again. Over time, thrilled won out, as I still treasure the ball some 40 years later. He was one of the biggest Philly sports stars of my youth. Great to be reminded of him in your post.

2:22 PM  
Blogger Brian Fields said...

I to was a Twin Hills allumni. I WAS THERE FROM 1965-1973. Bennett,Moby,Howie,Marc, and myself had great games over the years with Gene Banks,Andre Mcarter,Darnell Hillman< and many others. They were not only fine ball players but fine young men. One big reson for that was their coach Joe G, a great athlete himself. looking foward to another reunion one of these years. I remember that 78" championship game when Givens lit them up with 48. Always enjoy reminicing about those days. great article. Take care gentleman. Brian Fields.

2:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Darryl Warwick was the point guard for West Philly back on those teams.

12:57 PM  

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