POPLAR BLUFF, MO. • The old man won’t stop coaching.
He’s 82 now. Born the same year as Bob Gibson. And Elvis Presley. But he is still the coach of a basketball team, and he still loves the game the way he loved it as a boy, back in that barn loft with an “old leather basketball that was barely a basketball,” shooting hoops until the cows came home.
Today, his hair is as white as a referee’s stripe. His body is weathered like the old leather, his hearing has weakened over all those weekends. But he’ll be in St. Louis on Sunday, coaching basketball, because that’s what Gene Bess does.
“At one time I was too young — other times, I’ve gotten too old,” Bess said Friday from the Poplar Bluff campus, in a room next to the court that’s named after him. “Over the years, you have your ups and downs and lose a game or two, here or there. But they can look and see (1,263) wins and they can hardly dispute that. I’m just so thankful — there’s a lot of people that are better than I am at all aspects of this game, but no one has ever come into a community this size and stayed as long as I have and won as many games. And probably never will.”
The sweet man lightly laughed. It sure does seem difficult to duplicate. He became the head coach here at Three Rivers in 1971. He won the junior college national championship twice — in 1979 and 1992. He’s coached fathers and their sons. He’s now an octogenarian. Why does he still do it?
“My son has been coaching with me for 24 years, and that extended my career,” Bess said. “I think he’s afraid if I quit, I’ll dry up on a vine or something.
“ I went through some things the past two years where I had to get a new knee. And that really put me down, and I was ready to stop. And then after I started getting all right again, I got a renewed vigor. And I think I can still do as much, or more, than I ever did.”
He’s an institution at this institution. And in this community of southeast Missouri. His intense summer basketball camps are famous around these parts. College hoops legend Tyler Hansbrough went there. So did the Washington Wizards’ Otto Porter Jr., who last summer signed a $106-million contract. On Friday, I texted a friend that I was headed near his hometown to meet Gene Bess.
“I attended his camp!” he texted me back. “I’ve never done so many pushups in my life.”
Bess was raised on a farm near Jackson, Mo., where he’d shoot by himself in the barn loft, even on cold and snowy nights. He went to high school up in Oak Ridge, Mo., and he’d shoot in the old gym after building a little fire in the heating stove.
“I just really have liked basketball,” Bess said. “And even before that, my daddy had been kind of a country player, and he went to a lot of games. And he’d take me.”
Over the decades, Bess has run different types of offenses, depending on personnel, such as when future NBA All-Star Latrell Sprewell played for him. But to Bess, there aren’t different types of defense; there’s man-to-man.
He coached and coached well at numerous rural Missouri high schools, from Lesterville to Anniston to Oran. He recently went back to Anniston for the burial of an old player. “Saw all those old guys again,” Bess said, “and they’re still living back in that day – it was a grand ol’ time for them.”
You won’t believe what happened at Oran. It was the ’69 state title game in Columbia. Two undefeated teams. Bess’ boys from Oran were down two points with 12 ticks left when Fred Johnson was fouled while shooting. Johnson was Oran’s best player, and he made the first free throw. The crowd went bananas. Johnson took it all in, took a breath, took some dribbles …. and then the referee took the ball from him.
“I’d never seen that before,” Bess said — and, really, who has?
Bess’ son, Brian, does a lot here. As do other staff members. It takes a team to run the team. This year has been good for Bess and the Raiders — they’re 7-2 — but one thing certain in junior college basketball is uncertainty.
“I think we recruited a pretty good crop, but we’ve lost 4-5 already,” Bess said. “One of them, a 6-9 kid, couldn’t handle the culture. Then we had a guy come in here who could hit his head on the rim, but he had health issues.”
Coach Bess wonders when he’ll stop coaching. He says he’ll know when it’s time. Three Rivers has a fancy new basketball facility under construction. Opens next season. The school president has urged Bess to stay on board to, as Bess said, “get us into the new building. So that’s prolonged my career a couple years.”
I imagine that’ll be quite a night, Gene Bess’ first game in there. People will come — his wife, Nelda, to be sure, and former players who graduated to Division I, former assistant coaches who now are head coaches, former campers who got stronger physically and mentally with each summer push-up.
“A coach has a special relationship to a kid,” Bess said. “They know if the coach is sincere, and they know if they have actually been pushed and developed. And that’s one thing I really try to do. … I really just try to do for them what I would my own kid.”
He actually did once coach his own kid. Brian was a point guard back on the Sprewell teams. And this season, Bess is coaching the kid of an old kid.
One of the Three Rivers guards is Jeffrey Porter. He’s the brother of Otto Porter Jr. — their father, sure enough, was a star on Bess’ Three Rivers team in 1978.
“Gene Bess, he’s a big part of the reason why I’m here today – and a big reason for how much success my father had,” said Otto Porter Jr., the former camper who averages 16 points per game for the Wizards. “He’s an unbelievable coach — coaches the principles, the fundamentals. … He means a lot to my family. He’s a respectable, loving guy.”
Benjamin Hockman - St. Louis Post Dispatch