Gene Banks is a busy man. The onetime Duke star, who spent six
seasons in the NBA, is the first-year women's basketball coach at
Bluefield (W.Va.) State. He is also the head of intramurals,
director of facilities and NCAA compliance officer--all while
continuing to be a dedicated single father to his five kids.
Banks's coaching debut has been much quieter than the splash he
made 21 years ago when he arrived at Duke. He was considered the
top recruit to come out of Philadelphia since Wilt Chamberlain, a
bluer blue chip than a Michigan State freshman guard named Earvin
Johnson. Banks quickly ignited the Blue Devils, helping spark
them to the NCAA finals in his freshman season.
Although he earned a berth on the all-ACC team as a senior in
1981, the 6'7" Banks was not drafted until the second round, by
the San Antonio Spurs. He played four solid seasons for the Spurs
before being traded to the Chicago Bulls, for whom he played two
seasons. His NBA career effectively ended when he ruptured his
right Achilles tendon playing in an all-star game in a Philly
summer league before the 1987-88 season. After the tendon healed,
Banks became a basketball vagabond, often visited overseas by his
wife, Isabelle, and their two sons and three daughters, who now
range in age from 10 to 21. There was a year in France, four
years in Israel and two in Argentina. "What an education," says
Gene. "My kids got to see things that I never dreamed about
growing up in Philly."
In January 1996 Isabelle was found to have multiple sclerosis.
Gene returned to their home in North Carolina, but over the next
year Isabelle's condition worsened. She died in January '97 at
age 41. "The kids handled it better than I did," says Gene. "She
was my best friend. Losing her is the toughest thing I have ever
had to endure."
In September Banks, 39, agreed just weeks before fall practice
began to take over the Bluefield State women's coaching job. The
adjustment to his new role has been difficult: He inherited a
team with seven freshmen and has had to spend a lot of practice
time on fundamentals. "Coach has brought a lot of fun to the
team," says junior point guard Angie Webb. "Everyone has a chance
to prove herself at every practice."
Banks remains upbeat despite the Lady Blues' 4-9 start. "The
whole experience has been enlightening," he says. "It really
takes time to build a program." As for the challenge of
rebuilding his life after the loss of Isabelle, he says, "All I
can do is take it one year at a time."
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN [Cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED magazine featuring Gene Banks]
COLOR PHOTO: PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY [Gene Banks]
Banks says his wife's death "is the toughest thing I have ever
had to endure."