Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
For The Birmingham Times
Emanuel Bell never thought to look too far down the road when he was named the girls basketball coach at Wenonah High School in 1996.
“I was just so happy to get that job,” he said in a Sunday night conversation. “I was coming behind a legend, Ms. Eleanor Pitts. She had already done a phenomenal job. Wenonah girls basketball has always been a pinnacle of girls basketball in the state of Alabama.”
Bell reached a pinnacle of his own last week as his Dragons gave him his 500th varsity high school coaching victory, 67-60 at Pleasant Grove on Jan. 9. The coach, who is battling Stage 4 lung cancer, celebrated the accomplishment three days later as he chalked up win No. 501 at home, 59-19 over Woodlawn.
The celebration drew a host of notables, including Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, Birmingham City Schools Superintendent Lisa Herring, city schools athletic director Henry Coleman, State Rep. Merika Coleman and Birmingham City Councilor Sheila Tyson.
“It was a great turnout,” Bell said. “I was really shocked to see that many people be there.”
Ron Ingram, who chronicled many of Bell’s games as a reporter for The Birmingham News, was also on hand. Now the director of communications for the Alabama High School Athletic Association, Ingram presented Bell an engraved basketball to commemorate the milestone.
It was one of many plaques and mementoes given to the veteran coach, who admits he was just learning the intricacies of girls basketball when he got the job.
Bell’s teams have a 72.6 winning percentage with 501 victories and 189 defeats in 21 seasons as a varsity coach. He counts defense and discipline among the keys to his program’s success.
“Discipline plus defense equals championships … that’s the sign on my wall in my locker room,” Bell said. “They have to slap it every time they walk out the locker room before a game.”
Bell just got back to work in January as he was being treated for cancer. His assistants have been handling coaching duties in his absence.
“I’m gradually getting my body acclimated to the sideline,” the coach said. “Since the Christmas holidays, I’ve been sitting on the bench and letting my coaches handle things like they always have. My coaching staff’s been with me for years. They know what I want and, of course, the kids know what I want.”
These days, Bell is likely to be seen wearing a surgical mask and gloves to fend off germs and the flu bug.
“With this aggressive chemo I’m on, my immune system fluctuates, it goes up and down,” he said. “I am battling Stage 4 lung cancer. I’ve given it to God and He’s fighting for me. I still have to do my part.”
Bell said his most recent scan showed that his tumor is shrinking. He’ll have his next scan in two months.
“We’ll keep doing the chemo until God takes it away or the chemo takes it away or whatever takes it away,” he said. “I just look forward to Him taking it away. I’m giving all the glory and credit to God any way. He’s got the doctor and the doctor’s got me. We’re all in this thing together.”