‘The Total Package’
From the time he entered high school, Gene Banks was the biggest story in West Philly.
Fellow Blue Devil Mike Gminski raves about Banks’ athleticism.
“Physically speaking, Gene was a man already as a freshman,” said Gminski, the 1979 ACC POY and 14-year NBA veteran whose jersey hangs from the rafters of Cameron Indoor Stadium. “We’d run a timed quarter-mile, then mile every Monday during the preseason. The first time Gene stepped on the track, he asked, ‘How long is the quarter-mile?’ We told him it was just one lap, and he shrugged his shoulders like it was no big deal. Then, he ran it in 60 seconds and change with basketball sneakers on. And it blew us all away.
“He had such charisma and bravado. It wasn’t cockiness so much as it was confidence.”
Four years after arriving in Durham, Banks, who would’ve been a casualty of Prop 48 had the legislation been in effect back then, delivered the commencement speech at graduation.
“No one gave me a degree,” the history major said. “I could’ve eased up at the end and said, ‘After I’m in the pros, I can come back and finish up.’ No way. It was a pride thing. I had to have it then.”
The Spurs picked Banks 28th overall in the 1981 Draft, and before long, he entered a starting lineup that included marquee names like Hall of Famers George Gervin and Artis Gilmore and the late Mike Mitchell. In ’82-83, his second season in the League, Banks shot 55 percent from the field and averaged an NBA career high 14.9 points and 7.6 boards per game for the back-to-back Midwest division champions. (San Antonio waged epic battles against the Lakers of Magic and Kareem before succumbing both years in the Western Conference Finals.)
“Gene was the ultimate professional in terms of following details and preparation,” said Gilmore. “He was more of a power forward trapped inside a small forward’s body, and he always drew the toughest defensive assignment. He took that responsibility seriously, and he focused on that objective, and usually executed it with precision.”
After four seasons in the Alamo City, Banks was dealt to Chicago, where he shared the floor with Michael Jordan when, in ’86-87, His Airness exploded for 37.1 points per outing, the League’s highest scoring average in the last 49 years.
“MJ had such a strong personality, even at the onset of his career,” said Charles Oakley, Banks’ teammate on the Bulls who generated more than 12,000 points and rebounds in 17 seasons in the League. “He had his mind made up about the type of player he was going to be, so everyone else’s role was to try to fit in and work hard.
“Gene was great at that. Besides his skill, he had such a big heart and good sense of humor. He was always the kind of guy you’d want to eat with and spend time with on the road.”
Chicago released Banks after two years when he tore an Achilles’ tendon during a summer-league event in Philadelphia in what the Bulls described as “a non-sanctioned exhibition.”
He never played another minute in the NBA.
“What upset me the most was the season before, when I suffered a hairline fracture of a bone in my right foot, (general manager) Jerry Krause said it was because I was out of shape and didn’t play enough in the offseason,” Banks said. “So I wanted to come to camp that next year in the best shape of my life, but I got hurt in the Baker League.”
Once rehabilitated, Banks concluded his career with the CBA’s La Crosse (WI) Catbirds and overseas, where he reunited with Gilmore in Italy.
“Gene and I became even closer as we experienced a different culture together,” Gilmore said. “We were in Bologna, and the city had two teams then. Michael Ray Richardson and Clemon Johnson were the Americans on the other team, so it became a natural rivalry that the citizens and the media hyped up.”
Upon his retirement, Banks, a father of five whose wife Isabelle died from multiple sclerosis in 1997 at the age of 41, entered the coaching ranks. After short stints coaching the women at Bluefield State (WV) and Bennett College (Greensboro, NC), he landed with the Washington Wizards, where he now sits on the bench as an assistant to head coach Randy Wittman.
“There’s a lot of knuckleheads in the League right now who can benefit from Gene’s knowledge and understanding of the game,” said Oakley. “The NBA needs more players like him.”
Mark Hostutler is a former award-winning journalist at the Delaware County Daily Times and the author of Heads of State: Pennsylvania’s Greatest High School Basketball Players of the Modern Era. He currently teaches English and coaches hoops at Coatesville High School, his alma mater in suburban Philadelphia. To contact him, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.