By Harold Bell (February 23, 2022)
The cities of Winston-Salem and Baltimore lost a favorite son and sports legend, Monday, April 18, 2005, Coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines died at the age of eighty-one. He was a true college basketball giant and icon.
He is the winningest black coach in the history of college basketball. When he retired in 1993 at the age of seventy-two he was the number one winning active coach, black or white in the country. Big House was second only Adolph Rupp of Kentucky University. He won 828 games to Rupp’s 876. Big House won eight CIAA conference titles and led the Winston-Salem Rams to an NCAA Championship, making them the first team from a black college to do so.
Despite the naysayers “Big House” could have easily coached into his seventies if the talent pool was still available. Penn State’s Joe Paterno won the Big Ten football title when he was eighty years old.
The athletic talent pools, at Black Historical Colleges, had been depleted by Division One Colleges. Black Historical Colleges have not been able to match the package of white schools so they have followed the adage “If you can’t beat them join them.”
They have done so without financial success or a Final Four or Rose Bowl appearance. The losers are Black Historical Colleges. For example, when Big House retired the once vibrant CIAA Tournament was almost down to a “Skeleton Crew.” Schools were jumping to Division One, including Winston-Salem. The conference moved from city to city like a gypsy caravan chasing the almighty dollar.
The price paid—–the loss of Black History. This made “Big House” sad, he was big on Black History.
Despite the raids conducted by Division One schools for the black athlete “Big House” left behind a legacy of a winner on and off the court. He touched and won thousands of student/athletes’ hearts and minds with “Tuff love” during his forty-seven years on the Winston-Salem campus.
He left behind two families, first, his one-of-a-kind wife Clara, a daughter Lisa and a son Clarence Jr. The second family was the athletes and students who called him “Daddy” on campus. There were hundreds more he touched on other Black Historical college campuses around the country. He was like a rock star during games and at the CIAA Tournament, many of his players thought they were the stars, but “Big House” usually stole the show. It seemed like everyone wanted to talk with or touch him in those two settings. Many thought it was often like a scene from the movie “Godfather.”
During the Cleo Hill era, white fans would show up at our tiny gym and sometimes we were left on the outside looking in. Cleo was the Michael Jordan of Tobacco Road long before MJ. He was selected in the first round of the NBA draft in 1961 by the St. Louis Hawks (8th overall)
I met Coach Gaines through an introduction by my Washington, DC Spingarn High School football coach, Dave Brown. Big House was no stranger to the Nation’s Capitol. He was a graduate of Morgan State University in nearby Baltimore where he was a chemistry major and an All-American football player. He coached in the first-ever CIAA Tournament in D.C. at old Turner’s Arena in NW DC. in 1946. The first six CIAA tournaments were held in DC and the seventh was held at Morgan State University.
I will never forget that summer day in 1958 when he walked through the DC pool room door like he owned it and asked, “Which one of you guys is Harold Bell?’ All pool table action stopped it was so quiet you could have heard a mouse piss on cotton when. I took a minute before I responded, I was not sure if he was a cop or a Bounty Hunter. I thought to myself “I had never seen a cop or Bounty Hunter that big.”
I identified myself and he sat down in a chair and waited until I finished my game. His first question was, “son are you interested in going to college?” My response was “yes sir.” His next words were, “I am Clarence Gaines and I am the coach at Winston-Salem Teachers’ College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. If you are interested in going to college you must first graduate from high school. When you do check with Coach Brown.” He got up and left the poolroom without another word. I was left thinking, “Where in the hell is Winston-Salem Teachers College?”
The visit from “Big House” would turn out to be a lifesaver. The life saved would be my very own.
“Big House” and Winston-Salem for almost five decades was the “Life Line” on the East Coast corridor (Boston, New York, New Jersey, Phila., Baltimore, and D.C.) for many lost souls like me.
In the summer of 1959, I would find my way down Route One south to interstate 85 to Winston-Salem, NC. Alan ‘Stu’ Roberson was a senior at Winston-Salem. He would pile us into his car for the drive down Tobacco Road. Stu was a graduate of Spingarn High School and a senior starting guard on the Winston-Salem football team. He took the responsible for getting freshmen, Al Mayo, Richard Hansberry, and me safely on to the campus of Winston-Salem Teachers College.
My freshman year in 1960 was a disaster, I sat on the bench for almost the entire season. I stayed in the Big House Gaines ‘Doghouse.’ This was a Coach Gaines’ ritual for knucklehead egotistical freshmen like me. This was his way of keeping me grounded. After the football season was over I was ready to try out for the basketball team. Big House kicked me to the curb immediately, he said, “I have one basketball and that belongs to Cleo Hill. Go to class and try to stay eligible for next season.”
The alumni team came up short for their annual game with the varsity, Big House gave me the okay to play with them. Jack DeFares an all-time Ram great had returned to school to finish work on his degree. Jack was a super ball-handler and shooter. He told me to keep my eyes on him, he assisted me for 23 points but we still lost. Big House looked at me after the game and said, “You are still not playing varsity this year.”
I would be 30 miles away when “The Greensboro 4” attending North Carolina A&T College sit-in at the all whites-only lunch counter at Woolworth’s department store downtown. Their act of defiance and courage would vibrate all the way to Winston-Salem.
Despite the warnings of Big House for all athletes to stay away from downtown Winston-Salem during the protest, I followed my friend and senior co-captain Winston-Salem native, Vic Johnson to the march. I would flunk out my freshman year simply because I was spending too much time hanging out in the city and not enough time hanging out in the classroom on campus.
Big House would bring me the bad news. I had failed to meet the academic requirements of the school and I would be returning to the ghetto and poolroom where he found me. He made it clear there was no money for dumb-ass athletes to attend summer school.
Two weeks later he would return to the dormitory to tell me my high school coach Dave Brown had mailed a check to him for me to attend summer school. Now I had to find a place to live for six weeks. The men’s dormitory would be shut down for repairs during the summer.
The first two weeks I would live with him and his family, wife Clara, daughter Lisa, and son Clarence, Jr. This was a first, no student/athlete had ever lived in the Gaines’ house. I paid the price, from scrubbing the kitchen and bathroom floors to cutting his treacherous uphill and downhill front lawn in the hot North Carolina sun. He find me a place for me to stay and I was sad to leave the big guy–his “Tuff Love” saved my life.
My successful work with at-risk children and youth gangs in the streets of the inner-city is my way of repaying Coach Brown and “Big House” for reaching back to help me.
He and coach Brown both deserved an assist. During the summer months after college my first job was as a member of the DC Department of Recreation as Roving Leader with the Youth Gang Task Force. I would often try to give the inner-city youth camping experiences out of town.
Dave Bing a native Washingtonian and NBA Hall of Fame legend provided them with their first camping experience in 1969. The experience took place in the Poconos Mountains in Pennsylvania. Here they would meet Detroit Piston NBA Hall of Famer Bob Lanier and the late John Brisker.
The Harlem Globetrotters when they played in DC, would invite youth to the arenas thanks to my friends CIAA legends Jackie Jackson (Virginia Union) and Curly Neal (J. C. Smith).
There were camps organized by NBA pioneer Spencer Haywood in New Jersey, the John Chaney/Sonny Hill camps in Philadelphia, it was here they would meet NBA legends like Earl “The Pearl” Monroe and Bill Bradley. Last but not least was the “Big House” Gaines camp on the Winston-Salem campus in North Carolina.
This was the camp that made the biggest impression on the young men from the inner-city. All the NBA players they met were all voted into the NBA Hall of Fame and selected among the Fifty (50) Greatest to ever play in the NBA, but the man they remembered most never played in the NBA—-Big House Gaines.
“Big House” and I were born on the same day and month, May 21st. We celebrated several birthdays here in D.C. during our forty-five-year relationship. It has been said, “They are like two Bulls in a China closet.” Others have described our relationship as one of “Love and Hate.” Our zodiac sign is Taurus the Bull.
I loved him and he hated me or vice-versa, but love was always the common denominator.
Big House reminded me of two other sports icons and friends, Muhammad Ali, and Red Auerbach. Ali and Auerbach just by their presence in a room made other men feel small and insignificant. “Big House” had that same kind of effect by just being himself.
On June 25, 2004, in Chicago, I received the first annual “Clarence “Big House” Gaines Scholarship Award for Unsung Heroes.” It was an award honoring a student/athlete for community service.
I am honored that I had an opportunity to go one on one with him Up Close & Personal.
“Big House” and I didn’t get a chance to have one of our face-to-face discussions at the last homecoming because of his health. I missed the CIAA Tournament the following year in Raleigh, North Carolina. But it would be in Raleigh, where “Big House” would receive his last living tribute. The CIAA honored its All-Time greatest team, three of the ten players honored played for him, Cleo Hill, Earl Monroe, and Carlos Terry.
He was also honored and named one of two coaches on the All-Time greatest team along with his friend John McLendon. He was still stealing the spotlight even as he made his exit.
Harold Bell—— is a former student/athlete at Winston-Salem State and a pioneer in radio and television sports talk shows in Washington. D. C. His Inside Sports radio talk show changed the way we talk and reports sports in America and around the globe.
He received the 2020 NABJ pioneer award.