Legendary basketball coach Ben Jobe was a teacher, friend and coach
At six HBCUs, the Nuggets and the Knicks, his love for people and the game touched many lives, black and white
Ben Jobe was the 16th child of an illiterate Tennessee sharecropper. He grew up in the North Ward of post-World War II Nashville, Tennessee, an outsider looking in, taught to rely upon his wits amid growing restlessness. Basketball became the small-framed boy’s escape. As a youngster, hanging around the local “Ys,” he sat at the knee of the humble, ingenious, pathfinder coach John McLendon, who taught generations of black children the values of the game — “the only thing worse than losing, losing, losing is winning, winning, winning” — and the fast break, playing 94 feet, press, rebound, fill your lanes and shoot the ball every seven to eight seconds. White people called this “jungle ball.” McLendon’s late-1950s teams at Tennessee A&I won three consecutive national championships and defeated the Oscar Robinson-Jerry West Gold Medal Olympic team in a scrimmage before it left for Rome.
McLendon learned the game from James Naismith himself while he was a graduate student at the University of Kansas, and his door stayed open for all coaches. Even Adolph Rupp came calling wanting to know about “the break.” For that meeting, as young Jobe waited outside, the door remained closed. McLendon won 522 games as a college coach in the days when a season’s schedule was much more limited than now. His student, Jobe, won 524 at six historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and at the University of Denver.
Jobe matured at his beloved Fisk University, class of 1956, at the time one of the finest colleges in America. When he enrolled, he knew nothing about the proper way to dress, to speak, to look grown-ups in the eye, to study. When he graduated, he thirsted for more of Ellison, of Hughes, of DuBois, of Booker T. He never stopped reading and he never tired of talking and thinking about race. He knew people, to gain his trust said everything.
Three weeks of Gandhian-style training in passive resistance and nonviolence taught him, he thought, to take the abuse, the attacks, the threats, the scalding coffee and homogenized milk thrown in his face by redneck whites. So he sat-in at a lunch counter, next to a red-haired Northern white girl. The young man’s nostrils smelled something. Burning rubber? No. The stench grew worse. Feces in the cotton field during a rainstorm? No. The enemies were schooled in cruelty. They had lit the young girl’s hair on fire. “Hell,” he quipped, “if they’re going to do that to her and she’s the same color as them, I didn’t want to know what they would do to me.” Jobe left for Africa.
In Sierra Leone, during the early 1960s, Jobe, like his mentor McLendon before him, taught the game to local tribes. When he returned home, he started graduate school at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, one of six blacks on campus. Some white professors questioned the veracity of his A-plus grades. In November 1963, due to widespread celebrations upon hearing the news that America’s leader has been assassinated, Jobe was forced to lock himself in his own dorm. It was time to come back to ball and coaching. His first two stops were at Talladega and Alabama State, where he went 63-28.
In 1968, months after three students were shot dead by the National Guard during a peaceful civil rights protest in Orangeburg, South Carolina, Jobe took the head coaching position at South Carolina State. He won and won and won. The state — loyal to its caste system, in which white boys and girls were referred to as “Miss” and “Master” by older black workers, and where the daily newspapers were still filled with letters to the editor defending the Confederacy — was football country, but was on the verge of discovering “the game.” Black children liked basketball. They played the Southern style in segregated parks and schools. Long corner jumpers prevailed over taking it to the hoop, incessant arguments were held over every call and fancy dribbling was the norm. If, on the extremely rare occasion a white player or two ventured to play black kids, word spread quickly that something special was happening.
South Carolina ranked near the bottom of every social, educational, economic category in the nation. Cynics claimed the state motto to be, “Thank God for Mississippi,” meaning at least “we ain’t number 50.” It was here Jobe was to meet “the Irish,” and his view of white folks was to change … some. While his S.C. State teams won 20 games a year, a group of New Yorkers led by the charismatic coach Frank McGuire and his young, erudite assistant Donnie Walsh were in the midst of molding the University of South Carolina’s five into a top two or three team in the nation. They did it with a bunch of players from “Noo Yawk,” with names such as Roche, Walsh, Cremins, Owens, Riker, Joyce, Powell, Carver and Winters … mostly poor themselves, all with chips on their shoulders.
While it might seem natural for the two budding programs to compete, neither McGuire nor Jobe saw it that way. The former preferred his local pigeons to be white: Erskine, Newberry, Furman, the Citadel and Clemson. And Jobe understood the ramifications of awakening the white roar over a “silly game,” the homeowners and shopkeepers who could make black workers miserable for the next week.
Jobe was smart, a teacher, a technician, a storyteller. It was Jobe’s way on the court or no way. If he encountered a resister, then he would drive the player to the nearest Trailways station, buy the youngster a one-way bus ticket and wave goodbye. He’d smile, “They’d call me ‘the Exterminator.’ ” He loved the break, his teams would lead the nation in scoring. “Hell, all I need is a rebounder and a point guard,” he would brag. “Shooters … they’re all over the campus.”
In 1972, when freshmen were not eligible to play varsity ball, McGuire’s assistant, Walsh, took his highly recruited youngsters on a ride to Orangeburg for a preseason scrimmage. The Gamecocks were typically loaded: two all New York guards, Jimmy Walsh and George Felton manned the backcourt, 6-6 shooter Tommy Cox from Washington, D.C., was lights out from the corner, and the state’s “best Negro player” 6-7 Clyde Agnew was a horse underneath. Afterward, Walsh would explain, “They ran us out of the gym, we couldn’t wait to get back to Columbia.” One year later, McGuire lured Jobe out of his comfort zone to become his assistant. Lifelong friendships formed, breakthrough bonds for Jobe, Walsh, his younger brother Jimmy and soon-to-be coaching greats Felton and Cremins.
As “the first,” a term used to make white folks feel good about themselves, Jobe mostly observed. McGuire, older, a true legend, was in many ways similar to Jobe. Both grew up with the boxer’s rage to defend the underdog, and neither refrained from using racial and ethnic generalizations. Yet, while McGuire preserved his slower 2-1-2 zone, Jobe loved to run. He loved “those Irish” though. “They love the game, they love fun and they’ll fight ya day and night.” Jobe found a new temporary home and I found him. I was a graduate assistant at the university, beginning to write a book, Roundball Culture, on McGuire.
Outsiders instinctively learn how to maneuver. The black person, coach, player or fan down South in the 1960s through at least the early ’70s, with head and eyes down, heard the bands play Dixie, watched the audience stand and cheer, the chants of “Hey Leroy,” the heated pennies and even black cats thrown to the floor. Jobe would lie, “I’m a mercenary. If a school offers me more money, and it’s good for my family, I’m going.” As any assistant, especially one who had already served as a successful head coach, he was antsy, though. And when Walsh left McGuire to serve as Larry Brown’s right hand with Denver in the NBA, Jobe reluctantly sat at the older man’s side. One coach itching to run, the other used to walking.
The following season, Jobe came to the NBA, joining Walsh and Doug Moe on Denver’s staff. The league was confronting numerous problems, not the least of which was the rampant use of cocaine. The team’s star, David Thompson, from rural North Carolina, was destroying himself and his career. When Nuggets general manager Carl Scheer admonished Jobe for confronting the in-denial “Skywalker,” Jobe decided to quit. I told him, “You’re asking me to leave this boy alone. If he had a bad back, you wouldn’t say a word. Well, this kid has a bad brain.”
The false mercenary moved to Atlanta, much to the surprise of his former student, Bobby Cremins, who had just taken over the ACC’s worst program, Georgia Tech, to join him and Felton on the staff. The two young coaches couldn’t believe Jobe would even consider the position. Together they turned the Yellow Jackets around, recruiting Mark Price and John Salley. Jobe left the following season, to the comfort of a HBCU as the head coach at Alabama A&M, and in 1985, he arrived at Southern University in Baton Rouge. And that’s when the fun began.
In his cramped office, Jobe held one-on-one meetings with all of his new players. Avery Johnson, himself barely 6 feet tall, a left-handed point guard from Louisiana whom absolutely no Division I school would give a chance, impressed his suspicious new coach on day one. Behind the coach, stacked to the ceiling, were boxes filled with Converse shoes. At the meeting’s end, Jobe, the McLendon disciple, tested Johnson, the soon-to-be Jobe disciple. “Would you like a pair of sneakers?” Sure, said the lefty, whom Jobe would soon refer to as “my Rembrandt, my Mozart, my Booker T.” “Great,” replied the coach, “and would you like some for your friends, or daddy, or uncles?” “No,” responded Avery, “I can only wear one pair at a time.” The love affair had started. Johnson led the nation in assists and Southern dominated the conference. “I never had to call a timeout with Avery on the floor.”
Soon after, Bobby Phills, the son of two university professors, joined the team. At 6-4, with a strong desire to improve, Phills asked the always direct Jobe, “Coach, what do I need to do to get off the bench?” He would become the shooter the Jaguars needed, keys to the gym, mission clearly defined, with his coach who blindfolded him, swish after swish, all the way to the NBA, to 20 points per game, to all-star status. “That boy could have saved the world, been the doctor or the scientist he was born to be,” mused Jobe. Instead, there was the vulgar crash of a car, a drag race. Phills was killed in the prime of his young life. It was a blow his college coach he never recovered from.
The great secret of the game to Jobe, the lesson he learned from “the Irish,” and countless others, was that a man had the ability and freedom to tell another man “I love you.” Jobe had grace and humor and depth. He joined me and my then-three young sons at the NBA All-Star weekend in New Orleans in 2008. He had always told me that one of the best men he had ever known was ex-LSU coach Dale Brown because Brown was unafraid to schedule his Tigers against Southern. As if on cue, there he was, sitting in front of us, and the two retired thinkers, talkers, fighters, children of poverty, were hugging one another as if it was Christmas. A few minutes later, Brown, a mercurial type, offered to give me his business card. Jobe said, “A business card! You have a business card? What does it say? ‘Please let this man out of the mental institution for weekends only.’ ”
When he returned from post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, Jobe mailed gifts to my three boys. To the younger two, he sent Booker T. Washington half-dollar coins minted in 1951 with handwritten notes predicting in future years they could sell them on eBay to pay for their college educations. To this day, I’d wager Jobe had no clue what eBay was. To the eldest, then 10, Jake, a smart left-handed point guard, a delicate child, he sent his lone out-of-print crumpled copy personally inscribed to him by McLendon of his 1965 book on the secrets of the fast break. Jobe wrote to my son, “Dear Jake … this book was my ‘coaching bible’ for over 30 years. I have been saving it for someone who was deserving. I met that young man in New Orleans. … YOU. I hope it inspires you as it did me. Love you, Coach Jobe.”
Five years later, in the midst of a personal crisis of my own, I needed to be calm and to talk, to be comforted, to be befriended, and my call was to Ben Jobe, and he delivered, and never forgot. We would talk every week from the day I reconnected with him in 2006, while directing Black Magic. There wasn’t one conversation, ever, when we didn’t discuss race or religion or politics, or family, hardly ever basketball.
Last October, Jobe came to New York to be honored by my not-for-profit organization The RENS, whose mission is to educate inner-city players, ages 7 to 17. He sat there next to a governor, a songwriter, an actor, a network TV head, a news anchor, and Pulitzer Prize-winning “Timesmen.” The crowd, 900 strong, was filled with anointed members of the Hall of Fame: Isiah Thomas, Earl Monroe, Gail Goodrich, Lenny Wilkens, Tiny Archibald, Spencer Haywood. They stood to applaud as we announced the creation of the Ben Jobe Scholarship Fund, monies to be raised through the generosity of the young Knicks star Kristaps Porzingis, which will pay the tuition for kids at private, parochial, and Catholic schools. Each RENS uniform for every grade school honors Jobe in a way the world doesn’t know. On the back of every jersey is a different word: “humility,” “education,” “honor,” “decency,” “diversity,” etc. This was Jobe’s idea. “Danny,” he told me, “I don’t understand why basketball teams print the last names of their players on each jersey. Isn’t there a bigger lesson to teach?” Yes, Ben, there is.
There is a true brotherhood and sisterhood to basketball. In 2008, Walsh got hired to run the New York Knicks. I told him that his then-77-year-old pal Jobe wasn’t feeling too well, wasn’t exactly thrilled in retirement, even though countless former players and coaches would seek his advice day and night. Walsh offered Jobe a full-time scouting job. So there he was, traveling from Montgomery, Alabama, two, three, four times a week watching college kids, writing reports, mentoring the younger scouts, challenging others. When Walsh left, four years later, the “brotherhood,” the bond, the roots and beauty of the game survived. “Decency” put on its championship belt.
The new administration, run by Allan Houston and Steve Mills, two sons of black coaches, kept Jobe employed and busy. This past year, before the RENS Gala, Mills called me. He wanted to discuss Jobe’s future. Approaching 84, it was time to make a change. Jobe was concerned. In an act of silent decency and respect for the values of the game, the imperfect ball bounced high. The Knicks called the teacher. They wanted him to work full time for one final season, and they gave him a hefty raise.
Diagnosed with cancer after initially being treated for pneumonia, Jobe was sent home, under hospice care and died one day later. He was brought home to be with children and wife. He was in Montgomery, a city that matters. The Hall of Fame awaits. God bless. I miss my friend.
Dan Klores is a Peabody Award-winning filmmaker and playwright.