For retiring legend Reggie Lee, education and respect are color blind

By Dave Mast

It seemed appropriate to honor Reggie Lee during Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. Lee, the girls head basketball coach of the Brookhaven Bearcats for the past 30 years, steps down this year as one of the most successful coaches in the state of Ohio. Lee was honored in front of a packed house at the Perry Reese Community Center on Saturday, Jan. 15, and the honor was as much for what Lee has done off the court as what he has done on it, where he has fashioned a state power.

“I am truly humbled by this,” said Lee, having no idea it was coming. “For 30 years, this has always been about these girls. I feel like I am one of the most blessed men on the earth to coach girls basketball.”

In his tribute to Coach Lee, Tom Jenkins, executive director of Ohio Girls Basketball Report and one of the coordinators for Classic in the Country Challenge, one of the nation’s premier high school girls basketball events, praised Lee for his unyielding commitment to his players over the years. The Classic, which also makes a dedicated effort to honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Perry Reese and other African Americans whom have made great social impacts on the world. Jenkins spoke about the impact Lee has had in dissolving racial barriers through his time spent on and off the court. Jenkins said that Lee was instrumental in bringing many of Ohio’s top black basketball programs into the Classic.

“For 30 years (Coach Lee) has used athletics to teach life lessons to our young people,” said Jenkins. “For 30 years, he has used athletics to teach young people the principals and core values we all share, black, white, brown and yellow. He has bridged all cultural differences in uniting girls basketball in Ohio, and has become known as the Urban Legend. All of us in the Reese Center here today should be thankful for his efforts and impact.”

For Lee, the step into coaching girls basketball came almost as an afterthought three decades ago. Lee said he had always loved the game of basketball, noting that he has played with some incredibly talented players over the years. One day, while watching over a study hall at East High School, where he taught, he was approached by a school administrator, who informed him that the girls’ head coach was sick that day, and asked him if he would take over coaching duties, just for that one game, in his absence. That was the start of something special.

“We lost that game by 45 points to Walnut Ridge,” said Lee with a laugh. “But through it all, I kept encouraging the girls to keep fighting and playing hard to earn their respect. I felt it was extremely important for them to understand that you don’t ever give up.”

One year as an assistant led to a head coaching job, and the rest is three decades of defining a man whom has set the coaching bar very high in terms of dedication, commitment and teaching not just basketball 101, but life skills.

One such example of that is Lee’s drive to make sure that every single one of his players has a top-notch education and stellar GPA. Seeing Lee’s player’s touting GPAs upwards of 3.0 is nothing new. For him, the teaching of how to properly prepare yourself for your adult life down the road is as important as anything he teaches on the gym floor.

“You create your own culture in life, whether it is in the classroom or on the gym floor,” said Lee. “This coaching job has always been more to me than just basketball. This is about life, and teaching these kids that what they do now, and how they approach whatever they do, will make them who they are as an adult. I think that one of the best memories for me will be seeing so many of these girls going on to college, and not only getting scholarships and playing ball at the next level, but becoming successful as they move on in life. I take great pride in seeing kids work hard in the classroom, because it matters.”

And as a black coach applying his beliefs with mostly black players, Lee has been a rock-solid foundation in promoting the idea that nothing should ever hold back African Americans in their efforts to achieve greatness. But at the same time, he said color plays no part in how kids should approach the gym, the classroom, their community or their dreams.

“When I’m coaching and teaching, I don’t see any colors,” said Lee. “All I see is a group of kids with a lot of potential, and it is up to us as coaches to draw that potential out of them. This isn’t about colors, it is about helping our youth understand that they can make something positive of themselves if they work hard at whatever they do. That is why I have always put such a high premium on making sure our kids excel in the classroom, because education needs to be our focus.”

Lee sees his role as a coach one in which winning programs come from the ground up. He believes that great talent may win a lot of games, but great people will win even more.

“Anyone in a position of authority, as a coach or whatever, needs to understand that the spirit in how they approach their task is so important,” said Lee. “There is a time to be demanding, because you want kids to learn to work at what they do and take pride in it. There is also a time for praise, because kids need to know that they are successful. Those two things work together to make our young people successful.”

Lee said that he enjoys nothing more than seeing former players come home for visits, or to talk with his current crop of players, having become successful adults. Those players were like daughters to him in their playing days, and today, that is no different. Once a member of the Lee family, always a member of the Lee family.

On this day, Lee’s Bearcats were handed a brutal 52-24 beating at the hands of Canton McKinley, the state’s top-ranked Div. I team. A joy… no. A learning opportunity for the kids… definitely. Lee spoke about how his team wasn’t tough enough, nor physical enough, to withstand the competition the Bulldogs provided. He felt they could play with McKinley. They didn’t, but that doesn’t make the kids a failure to Lee. It only means they have work to do to get better, to make improvements and adjustments, to play better the next time out.

Coach Lee, always the teacher, always the inspiration; demanding they give their best, yet providing leadership just like a father.

Asked what he will miss following his retirement, it is not the Xs and Os and wins and losses, nor even the championships that he mentioned, but rather the relationships with his players, and with his staff, that will leave the biggest empty spot in his life. He vows that he will not step away from this game he loves completely. He will be there when his advice and expertise is needed. You just don’t give up something you love with great ease.

“My staff, I will definitely miss the interaction that comes with this game,” said Lee. “I absolutely would not be coaching if I did not have the support and love of them. For 30 years, they have been right here with me, and they have the same ideal that we are family. Over the years they have been like parents to these kids. The past 30 years has been all about relationships. That is what I will miss the most.”

Coach Lee accepted his awards during the special ceremony before his final game at The Classic, a huge grin on his face, amidst a few verbal, good-natured jabs from Jenkins, with an adoring crowd providing a standing ovation. Lee graciously accepted the wave of affection, having made a difference in so many lives over the years, not just as a coach, but as someone who cares about the future of countless young people, be they any color.