Winning For Wenonah High Basketball Coach Means Triumph On and Off the Court

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The Lady Dragons of Birmingham’s Wenonah High School are chasing a fourth girls’ state basketball championship today the at the BJCC. But while these players are looking to triumph with the full court press and clutch shots, their longtime coach, Emanuel “Tubb” Bell is fighting a different battle.

Bell has stage 4 lung cancer, but you wouldn’t know it judging from the energy he displays court side and throughout the school.

At a recent playoff game at Wallace State Community College, Bell paced the sidelines of the gym, flailing his arms and shouting instructions, even when the team was ahead by 17 points in the final two minutes.

Bell was wearing a black and gold T-shirt that sums up his spirit. The front reads “Box Out Cancer”. The back reads “#faith-not-fear”.

“Man, the devil picked the right one, ’cause I’m fixing to beat his butt,” Bell says during an interview. “I am not a loser. He is not fixing to win here.”

When he went into the hospital about six months ago, Bell thought he had pneumonia. But doctors instead discovered cancer – a golf ball-sized mass in the lower right lobe of his lungs. It had spread across his stomach and upper right lung as well. Bell, who was raised in church but at one time gone astray, found strength in his faith.

“The chemo is working, along with God’s grace it’s working,” he says. “I did those first four treatments. It shrunk by 54 percent.”

Bell still is going through chemotherapy. But he says that’s not enough to put him on the bench.

“I told my kids that this is not going to be a pity party,” Bell says.  “‘God’s got Coach Bell. Coach Bell gonna be all right. We’ve got business ta take care of. I’m trying to get you all a fourth state championship. I’ve got six of y’all I’ve got to get in college somewhere.’”

Bell says 75 percent of the Lady Dragons go on to play in college. It’s a way out and a way up from an area where poverty is high, and so is the crime rate. Already this year, two Wenonah students have been fatally shot.

“I want them to be something because I graduated from Wenonah High School,” he says. “And like I always tell them, I was not the smartest kid at Wenonah, but because of that football, I had a chance to go somewhere for free because my parents didn’t have no money.”

Kate Rodgers is a freshman forward for the Ole Miss Lady Rebels.

For her, Bell was a coach on and off the court. She didn’t like going to class in high school. And she was doing just enough to get by. Then Bell stepped in.

“He called me in his office one day, and he’s like ‘you know you have a chance to go to college and be good. But if you don’t go to class and do the work you won’t excel. You won’t make it,’” she recalls. “And it clicked.”

Rodgers still regularly talks with Bell. She says she was sad when she learned of his illness, but she knows of his strength and his faith.

Bell pulls double duty at Wenonah. Just last week, Rev. Al Sharpton spoke at the school. Hundreds of people packed into the gym where his championship banners hang. Principal Regina Carr Hope says he was all over the place as the school’s chief of security.

Bell set up the security plan, made sure everyone was posted and that Rev. Sharpton had a smooth entrance and exit at the school.

Hope says Bell is always concerned about others, but needed a push to go to the doctor when he first became ill.

“We were on the golf cart, and I told him you need to go and get yourself checked out,” Hope says. “He’s always caring, always trying to do something for somebody. Even with these kids, it’s as if he birthed them in the world.”

Bell hopes that world will be better for his players with another state championship, and a personal win in his battle with lung cancer.

The Wenonah Lady Dragons face Sylacauga Aggies today at 3 p.m. at the BJCC.