Forty years later, Georgia basketball’s James Banks still in the game

Former Georgia basketball great James Banks (center), star of the Bulldogs' run to the Final Four in 1983, poses with the young attendees of his annual youth camp held this week at Beech Haven Baptist Church in Athens. (Photo provided to Chip Towers/ctowers@ajc.com)

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Former Georgia basketball great James Banks (center), star of the Bulldogs' run to the Final Four in 1983, poses with the young attendees of his annual youth camp held this week at Beech Haven Baptist Church in Athens. (Photo provided to Chip Towers/ctowers@ajc.com)

ATHENS – Forty years. That’s how long it has been.

It will be come April 2 of next year, anyway. Then, four decades will have come and gone since the Georgia Bulldogs last played in the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four.

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James Banks, one of the biggest stars in the historic NCAA Tournament win over North Carolina that punched the Bulldogs’ ticket to Albuquerque in 1983, was reminded Wednesday of that coming anniversary.

He laughed.

Surrounded by a bunch of preteen players in a steaming hot church gym, Banks could not have appeared further removed from one of the great moments in Georgia basketball history. Banks scored a team-high 20 points - and contributed significantly to the defensive effort that “held” Tar Heels’ star Michael Jordan to 26 points on 11-of-23 shooting - as Georgia defeated UNC 82-77 in the East Regional final. After back-to-back wins over St. John’s and UNC, Georgia would play its worst game of the tournament against a beatable N.C. State team.

Yet, most of Banks’ baby-faced pupils had no idea of the greatness in their presence.

“Some of them do,” Banks said with a chuckle. “If they don’t, their grandparents do. I’ve heard one of them say, ‘my grandfather said he was pretty good!’”

Pretty good, indeed. Still is, too, just in a different way. Teaching young kids the game has been a passion for Banks since he retired from professional basketball 24 years ago.

He was the head varsity coach of the boys’ team at Athens Academy for 11 years. Now he’s switched roles with his former assistant coach, Brian Olson, to serve as assistant coach for the girls team at the school. By day, he teaches physical education to grades 2-8.

All the while, Banks has held the same annual basketball camp that he was conducting this week at Beech Haven Baptist Church in Athens. Plainly called the “James Banks Basketball Camp,” it caters to boys and girls in grades 3-8 and is focused intently on teaching fundamentals.

“I like it,” Banks said of that particular age group. “I feel like you have a bigger impact as far as their fundamentals and really learning the nuances of the game. I really enjoy it and kind of immerse myself in it. If they learn it well as this age, then it will stick with them.”

Strong fundamentals were the cornerstone of Banks’ game when he played for the Bulldogs. A four-year starter for coach Hugh Durham from 1980-84, Banks averaged 11.4 points and 5.2 rebounds over four seasons. He was the No. 2 scorer behind Vern Fleming on that ‘83 team, with 14 points pre game.

Banks’ skills literally took him around the world. After he was drafted in the third round by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1984, Banks spent 14 years playing in the European leagues. While overseas, Banks and his wife, Melanie, were just days away from welcoming a child into the world, but were able to make it back to the United States before their daughter Jamella was born.

In an interesting twist, it was Jamella who provided Banks with a connection to Mike White, Georgia’s recently hired basketball coach. Banks did not meet White in person until his introductory press conference in March at Stegeman Coliseum, but Jamella had told her father all about him while attending the University of Florida. She worked in the Gators’ athletic department as an undergrad.

“She’s known (White) a while,” Banks said of his daughter, who’s now an academic adviser in Elon University’s athletics department. “She actually called me that Sunday and told me we were going to hire him.”

Banks remains a regular at Georgia basketball games and a staunch supporter of whoever happens to be coaching the Bulldogs. White is the seventh coach at the helm since Banks departed as a player.

No, Banks said, he’s never really been interested in coaching at that level or getting involved with intensely competitive AAU leagues that feed Georgia and programs like it.

He prefers to do what he was doing Wednesday: Sorting through donated prizes to bestow upon the winners of the ongoing shooting, layup, free-throw and knock-out contests.

“We work on fundamentals for about an hour-and-a-half a day, then I let them play games,” Banks said. “They get rewards. Everybody gets something.”

Whether the kids realize it, their greatest reward is the old guy coaching them.