Hiring Gene Banks a slam-dunk for Smith

by Ogi Overman

Gene Banks has never been one to shy away from a challenge. From the mean streets of Philadelphia to the halls of academia at Duke University, from All-American status and a six-year NBA career to losing his wife to multiple sclerosis and rearing two daughters as a single parent, he has faced the challenges, beaten the odds and turned tragedy into triumph. He has scaled the mountaintop and peered into the abyss. Yet, as incongruent as it may appear on the surface, the challenge Banks is about to face may well be the sternest test, the most daunting task of his life. But wait, you say. Banks is set to become the basketball coach at Smith High School. Given his accomplishments and tribulations, could he not do this job blindfolded and standing on one foot? And, yes, in as much as he excelled overseas for three years on one leg after a knee injury prematurely ended his NBA career, he probably could. But that’s not the job in question. He’ll do just fine teaching these kids the Xs and Os, prowling the sidelines, breathing new life into a rather beleaguered program. No, it’s not the beleaguered program he’s worried about – it’s the beleaguered school. Truth be known, it’s all the beleaguered schools. Except for Eastern Guilford and its genuinely unique set of hardships, Smith is not that much different from any other school in the county. While it, along with Dudley, seems to rank toward the low end on the achievement scale (according to the way the state calculates achievement scores), Smith is really no different from Page or Southwest or Grimsley or Northeast or Ragsdale or most any of the rest. Its dropout rate is too high and its SAT scores too low; it’s got underage drinking and casual drug use; it’s got girls getting pregnant and guys shirking responsibility for it; it’s got punks trying to be gangstas and some of them succeeding, if success in the gang world means heading to prison before you turn 18. And so do the rest of them. The kids under Banks’ tutelage on the hardwood will soon realize, if they don’t already, that they’re about to be given a special opportunity. By virtue of his contacts in the sports, academic and business worlds, they’re going to go places and do things and meet people they would never otherwise have the chance to. They’ll be fine; Gene will see to it. But, again, it’s those others. It’s the ones falling through the cracks; the ones from impoverished, uncaring, drug-addled or otherwise dysfunctional households. It’s the ones who turn to gangs for acceptance, just so they can belong somewhere, anywhere. It’s the ones whose role model is the rapper instead of the father, the gang leader instead of the teacher, the drug dealer instead of the coach. Banks’ other job title is assistant student intervention specialist. It is about as far removed from the spotlight to which he is accustomed and in which he thrives as the parquet floor of the old Boston Garden is from an asphalt blacktop on West 59th Street in Hell’s Kitchen; and he knows it. He knows what he’s up against. He sees the numbers and is acutely aware that the county commissioners just eliminated many of the very jobs that were most desperately needed. Resource officers, assistant principals, test facilitators all got whacked, which is only going to make the jobs of those who survived the ax that much tougher. Yet, he feels that his background has prepared him well for dealing with these at-risk kids. “All this stuff I’ve been doing the last several years has pretty much brought me to this stage where it’s most meaningful,” said my old and dear friend last Friday, a few days after the press conference announcing his hiring at Smith. “You know, I travel around the country doing motivational speaking and training guys and running my basketball camp and my foundation. I go down to Duke and get the respect there, I’ve coached at several different levels, I’ve done broadcasting, and all that’s great. But I can’t help but feel all that has been preparation for this.” Gene has some specific ideas on how he is going to approach and address the kids who need – whether they know it or not – his expertise and advice. “There are certain criteria in place,” he said, “and I also have some methods, such as bringing in speakers, that I’ll use. You have to use your own vision and imagination, too. You’ve got to get the parents involved, I do know that. And, if a kid has to be removed from school, as much as I hate to say it, you’ve got to get them out of there.” Think Morgan Freeman in Lean on Me. Gene Banks, ever the team guy, knows he can’t do it alone. But with time running out in too many kids’ lives, he’s the guy I want to have the ball.

Ogi may be reached at, heard Tuesdays at 9:30 a.m. on “The Dusty Dunn Show” on WGOS 1070 AM, and seen on “Triad Today” Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV 48.