Friday, May 1, 2009

Friends Mourn Death Of Longtime Virginia High Basketball Coach, Ballard Lee


By Allen Gregory
Sports Writer / Bristol Herald Courier
Published: April 30, 2009

Gentle giant. Role model. Pioneer. Those were just some of the terms used to describe Ballard Lee.
The former long-time Virginia High boys basketball coach and star King College athlete died late Wednesday night at age 64. The exact cause of death has not been determined.

Jim Norton, who served as assistant coach to Lee at VHS, said he was deeply saddened when he heard the news Thursday morning while on a trip to Alabama.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Norton said. “Ballard was a great coach and an even better person. He was like a brother to me, and I will miss him.”

Lee, who retired from coaching in 1990, earned respect throughout the Mountain Empire as an athlete, coach and mentor.
After starring in football and basketball at now defunct Douglass High School, the tall, muscular Lee was recruited to play defensive end at Tennessee State University in Nashville, but ended up serving a 13-month tour in Vietnam with the Marines.

“Ballard was around 6-foot-6 and 220-pounds, and I remember him having those huge forearms when he returned from Vietnam,” Norton recalled.

Lee became just the second African-American basketball player in King College history. According to former King teammate and longtime Tennessee High basketball coach Dale Burns, Lee was an instant force in the old Volunteer State Athletic Conference from 1969-71.

“King was very fortunate to have an athlete of Ballard’s caliber,” said Burns, who played alongside Lee at King for two years. “Ballard was such a dominant player in the paint. He was the top rebounder in the conference and a great outlet passer on the fastbreak.”

Lee, who played for coach Al Nida, earned a place into the King College Athletics Hall of Fame for his basketball skills.

In 1972, Lee was named boys basketball coach at Virginia High where he enjoyed a long and successful run with the Bearcats with players such as Darryal Wilson, Mike Pender and Kevin Jessee.
Burns, now the athletic director at King College, estimates that he coached against Lee for 15 years in high school.

“Ballard was a highly respected coach, and we had some really good battles,” Burns said. “We always liked to refer to Ballard as the mayor of Bristol, Virginia.
“Ballard was a real treasure. This is just a tough day for everybody.”

Terry Caldwell coached swimming, golf and tennis when Lee was at Virginia High. Caldwell now serves as the Director of Personnel and Support Services for Bristol, Va., Public Schools.

“I’m broken-hearted right now,” said Caldwell, who has worked in education for 32 years. “Ballard was one of the best basketball coaches Virginia High ever had, but he was much more than a coach.”
Caldwell said Lee’s reach at VHS extended far beyond the basketball court.

“Ballard was the go-to guy for many people in our school and community,” Caldwell said. “He was a great family person, an advocate for kids and a wonderful friend.”

After retiring from teaching in 2004, Lee spent several years working with youth at the Jacobs Creek Job Corps in Bristol, Tenn.

Lee was interviewed in 2006 by the Bristol Herald Courier shortly after the release of the motion picture “Glory Road.” The Walt Disney Pictures production focused on the exploits on the 1966 Texas Western basketball team which upset Kentucky for the NCAA men’s basketball championship with an all-African American starting lineup.

“Race relations in the Bristol area weren’t always the best when I was growing up, but it was better than what I saw traveling around the deep South,” said Lee. “Black athletes are now accepted, and there’s not as a much pressure on them to be the best just to earn a spot on the team.”

Norton said that Lee made a positive impression on everyone he touched.

“I don’t know if you could find a better role model than Ballard,” Norton said. “He was as good as they come.”

Current Virginia High baseball coach Mark Daniels said he cited the selfless example of Lee in a speech to his team on Thursday. Daniels played baseball and football at VHS when Lee was still coaching the Bearcats.

“It’s been a somber day for Virginia High School, that’s for sure,” Daniels said. “So many coaches over the years have relied on the friendship and wisdom of Coach Lee. He certainly had a big impact on my life.”

Funeral services for Lee will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday afternoon at Lee Street Baptist Church in Bristol, Va. A visitation is scheduled from 2-3 p.m.|(276) 645-2544

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