March 13, 1978
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 NCAA finals in his freshman season.
Although he earned a berth on the all-ACC earn as a senior in 1981, he 6'7" Banks was not drafted until the second round, by the San Antonio Spurs. He played our solid seasons for he 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."