Georgia Tech guard Jose Alvarado (left) and forward James Banks III look to rebound against Notre Dame during the second half of a NCAA college basketball game on Wednesday, January 15, 2020, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton/Curtis Compton
Photo: Curtis Compton/Curtis Compton

As Georgia Tech career ends, James Banks leaves more than dunks, blocks

As James Banks’ two seasons with Georgia Tech wind down to their final few weeks, his place in Yellow Jackets history has begun to crystallize. He defends the post well, utilizing his agility and length. He has become an increasingly adept offensive weapon. And he boasts an elite hug rate.

“No player has ever hugged me more, that’s for sure,” Tech assistant coach Eric Reveno said.

Banks’ arsenal of affection isn’t limited to wrapping people up in his 7-foot-5 wingspan. Reveno attested that Banks also has expressed his gratitude for his coaching more than any player in his 23-year coaching career.

“Out of the blue,” Reveno said. “Just sort of, ‘Hey, coach, I appreciate you.’ And it’s really genuine.”

In two seasons since his transfer from Texas, the blocks, dunks and rebounds that James Banks III has amassed have placed him among the more effective Jackets post players in team history. But the precocious son of Sonja Banks and the late James Banks Jr. has carved out space in the collective memory of Tech basketball for far more than that.

Last summer, Banks spent time with a 11-year-old boy named Hunter Sheheane at one of the team’s youth camps. Hunter’s father, Gabe, a lifelong Tech fan, marveled at how engaged Banks was with his son and other campers, as well as their parents. Banks obliged Gabe by posing for a photo in which he assumed a game face and defensive stance against Hunter.

“(Hunter) could not believe that there’s this 6-11 guy that would take the time for him and take pictures and honestly like to talk to him on his level,” Gabe said.

The Sheheanes live in Quincy, Fla., not far from Tallahassee, and Gabe and Hunter went to Tech’s game at Florida State on New Year’s Eve. They made it to the arena in time to watch warmups, during which Banks recognized Hunter standing behind the bench and greeted him.

“I said, ‘Hunter, how cool is it that a 6-11 center playing in the ACC would come over before the game and check on you?’” Gabe said. “But that’s really the kind of guy he is.”

James Banks poses for a photo with Hunter Sheheane at a Georgia Tech basketball camp this past summer. (Courtesy Gabe Sheheane)

The basketball moments have been many. A vicious throwdown over Duke’s Zion Williamson in January 2019 at Cameron Indoor Stadium. A game-winning dunk in the final seconds to beat N.C. State in March. A 14-point, 15-rebound, seven-block performance against Duke last month. Most recently, stretching out his 6-foot-10 frame on the floor to win a loose ball and start a fast break for the Jackets in their upset of No. 5 Louisville on Wednesday.

But there’s more, and Banks recognizes as much.

“Basketball is fine and dandy, but there’s going to be a lot more people that are going to remember me for the type of person I am and what I did and how I carry myself,” he told the AJC. “They’re not going to remember every bucket.”

Raised by ‘the strongest woman I’ve ever met’

Banks, who grew up in Stone Mountain, has reached this point via a path that has not been the easy stroll that his carefree and outgoing personality might suggest. His life, in fact, has been marked particularly by two family traumas. When he was 4, his father was killed in a motorcycle accident, leaving his mother Sonja to raise James and his older sister Marissa. In February 2015, when he was a junior in high school at the Mount Vernon School in Sandy Springs, Sonja was paralyzed in a car accident.

But after the latter accident, he took his cues from his mother, whom he called “probably the strongest woman I’ve ever met, honestly.”

“There was never a second of ‘woe is me,’ there was never a second of dropoff,” Banks said. “She never has negative energy. She’s always giving to others, whether it’s her smiles or her charisma. She still exudes it. She exudes a light about her that draws people in.”

During James’ childhood, Sonja worked as a paralegal before going into business for herself in international product procurement, she said. Late in 2012, when James was 14, she gave up her career to answer a call to Christian ministry.

“The Lord told me to have a Bible study this one Wednesday,” she said. “I had this Bible study one Wednesday, and the next thing I know, my house was packed out.”

The position called for traveling for speaking engagements at Christian conferences. In February 2015, while en route to a church service in Alabama, her car hydroplaned and flipped several times, she said. She was hospitalized for four months at UAB.

For James, it was understandably confusing and devastating. He recalled a feeling of helplessness. He remembered holding his mother’s hand in the hospital room and making a pact with her to both work their hardest, she at walking again and he at basketball.

“The doctors say one thing, but the type of household we are, we believe in faith,” he said. “We believe that our God is a healer, he’s a miracle worker. That’s just where we’re at.”

Sonja, who remains in a wheelchair, lives in Alabama, working as a minister for a church based south of Anniston, she said.

“I’m just so grateful to be here,” Sonja said. “I’m just so grateful to be in the position I’m in. I’m able to tell people that God is still good and there’s nothing too hard for him.”

Banks remains rooted in his upbringing and faith. He and his mother pray over the phone every morning, asking for forgiveness for those they’ve hurt, offering thanks for Jesus Christ, seeking the blessings of teammates, coaches and their families and praying for an opportunity for James to be a light on Tech’s campus. If need be, there are prayers for homework assignments, also.

A late bloomer in basketball

His basketball journey is a story of its own. He played football through eighth grade, getting turned on to basketball by someone most familiar to Jackets fans – Tech great James Forrest. The coach of his own AAU team, Forrest was tipped off about an eighth grader who stood 6-foot-3 with size-14 shoes. Soon enough, Banks, who had not played organized basketball to that point, was learning the game from Forrest.

It began an unlikely odyssey in which Banks attended four high schools – Columbia High in DeKalb County, St. Francis High in Alpharetta, Mount Vernon and, finally, La Lumiere in Indiana – decisions mostly made in pursuit of better basketball opportunities. He left Mount Vernon for La Lumiere, he said, because he was ruled ineligible by the GHSA for using an incorrect address.

He went from a basketball neophyte as a rising ninth grader to a four-star recruit, signing with Texas in November 2015. At Texas, Banks played behind Jarrett Allen as a freshman and Mo Bamba as a sophomore, both first-round draft picks after each played one season with the Longhorns.

At the same time, his mother was faced with ongoing medical problems and there were other health matters in his extended family. He made the decision to transfer, choosing Tech in April 2018 at the end of his sophomore season. He has since been in the hands of Reveno, the Tech assistant who oversees the Jackets’ post players, including the huggy young man who favors Crocs sandals and socks. Banks calls him “my Sherpa.”

Georgia Tech center James Banks watches a Yellow Jackets women's basketball game with Mazie Ruth Thomas, 10, daughter of Tech assistant athletic director of Leah Thomas (to their right). (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

With Banks having started basketball late, bounced around schools and not had consistent playing time, Reveno likens him to someone who has learned a foreign language by living in that country as opposed to acquiring the language in school. As such, Banks has had to fill in gaps and learn fundamental work that might have been acquired earlier.

Reveno has seen Banks develop in his consistency of effort – a shortcoming that has aggravated coach Josh Pastner, particularly last season – and improve his skill and understanding. While the most obvious side of Banks is the extroverted goofball – as witnessed by his neon-green basketball shoes – Reveno also praises the player whose grit and focus have raised the level of team workouts.

“There’s something about him where I really just want to help him,” Reveno said. “It sort of feels like he brings out all the best desires in me as a coach. He’s just a good kid that I want him to be successful.”

From farther away, Forrest marvels at the development of a project who could scarcely dribble or make a layup as a rising high-school freshman into a player who ranks second in the ACC in blocked shots per game, eighth in rebounding and was named to the league’s all-defensive team last season – at his alma mater, no less.

“Do you know how crazy that is?” Forrest asked. “It’s refreshing, though. The big fella, he has a big, big opportunity. He’s going to play professionally. There’s no question about that.”

As Banks proceeds, he’ll always have a following at Tech. Leah Thomas, a Tech assistant athletic director, has three children that she often brings to games that Banks has gotten to know. Banks recently showed up to watch Thomas’ 10-year-old daughter Mazie Ruth play basketball, and then came back two days later to watch the school’s boys team play, speaking to the players afterwards and then going to dinner with the team.

“He plays down to their level, but he’s very affectionate,” Thomas said. “He’s like a big brother.”

As legacies go, it’s not a bad one.

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