Stage 4 lung cancer can’t keep Coach Emanuel Bell from celebrating his players and life

Emanuel Bell has been the girls basketball coach at Wenonah High School for many years. He has won five state titles with the school.
Emanuel Bell has been the girls basketball coach at Wenonah High School for many years. He has won five state titles with the school.

By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.

For The Birmingham Times

The final horn had just sounded declaring Wenonah the Class 5A girls state basketball champions. Coach Emanuel Bell reached into the pockets of his suit and pulled out the rings he and his Dragons had earned in prior seasons.

There was one for the 2004 season and one each for the past three successful campaigns. The 2017 title was Bell’s fourth in a row and fifth overall.

But to hear the outspoken coach with the “signature” round belly, those four rings and the new one that will join them pale by comparison to another set of rings.

Those rings can’t be seen but they can be heard. They are the ring tones of telephone calls from countless girls from Wenonah and beyond whose college education came in no small part because of the determined effort of the man known to many as Coach Tubb.

The man who is currently battling Stage 4 lung cancer.

“Where I pride myself the most is getting kids in college,” Bell, 62, said Sunday in his Roebuck home. “My folks didn’t have no money but all of us went to college off of some kind of athletic scholarship, me and my three brothers.

“I know where our kids come from so to get them in school in somebody’s junior college or four-year college is like a championship to me,” he said. “Yeah, I love these rings and things but if I can get them in college, that’s an accomplishment to me. That’s a major accomplishment.”

‘A Caring Guy’

Bell’s latest on-court championship puts him in the same four-in-a-row club with former Ramsay High girls coach Robert Mosley. Now an assistant women’s basketball coach at the University of Georgia, Mosley was more than happy to welcome his former rival into the club.

“If your record’s going to be broken or tied, you would rather it be by someone that you genuinely care for,” Mosley said. “And I love Bell like a brother.”

Their early relationship was a bit contentious as Bell’s exuberance could be taken the wrong way.

“Bell has always been pretty outspoken and was fairly confident,” Mosley said with a laugh. “Over the years you got to know the man. Bell is a caring guy with a big heart and loves to help kids and people around him. That superseded all the competition on the court.”

The Wenonah girls coach, who has a 485-178 career record over 23 seasons as a high school head coach, is a product of the very southwest Birmingham area for which he is known. He grew up in Grasselli Heights and studied at Wenonah Elementary, A.G. Gaston Middle and Wenonah High schools.

His mother was a registrar at A.G. Gaston. His father was chief of security at Lawson State Community College, and more, including Boy Scout leader, little league coach and PTA president.

Bell, who founded and still runs the Alabama Roadrunners Amateur Athletic Union girls basketball club, says he didn’t want that kind of selfless life. Decades later, he realizes he has just that.

‘Adventurous Mind’

After playing linebacker and offensive guard at Lane College, Bell went to “find himself” in The Bronx. What he found, he admits, was “all the wrong things.”

“I had a very adventurous mind at that time,” he said. “I had a good job working at a factory but my social life was not one of a reputable status.”

Bell lived a “fast, fast life … a life of ill repute,” he said. “I smoked everything but cigarettes.”

Bell was on that bad course from 1985 to 1993. That’s when his wife brought their daughter back to Birmingham.

Her action was a declaration that she wasn’t going to sit idly by as he lived the “adventurous” life that he was living. It was also the speed bump that jolted him into making a change.

“I couldn’t live without her,” he said of Ashley, now an adult in Atlanta. “That tore my heart apart.”

Decades later, the lifestyle of Bell’s early adulthood came back to haunt him with a diagnosis of Stage 4 lung cancer in August, 2016. That diagnosis came just weeks after he lost his mother to stomach cancer.

‘Faith Not Fear’

While initially taken aback by the finding, he has adopted a “faith not fear” approach to his treatment, and his life.

“I just started praying and the more I prayed, the stronger I got,” he said. “It hit me. I guess God’s going to make you practice what you preach. You ’round here talking about faith not fear. You talking about everybody else having faith. There it was.

“My whole life just changed,” he continued. “When you read His Word every day, how could I not be at peace? How could I not walk out of here every day with a smile on my face? So what it’s Stage 4? I believe in God.  He told me, Don’t worry about it, so I don’t worry about it.”