Don Banks: Iberville’s own Jackie Robinson

Tryve Brackin
Don Banks, a former high school basketball standout, preached his first sermon recently.

Don Banks will tell you immediately that he is a “legend”, not a “superstar”. In one way that does parallel his experiences as a high school basketball standout in Plaquemine with those of Brooklyn Dodger baseball infielder Jackie Robinson.

Only Babe Ruth, “The Great Bambino”, because he revolutionized the sport during his time, is considered by historians to surpass Robinson’s impact on the national pastime. Robinson was the first Afro-American to have a career, and a Hall of Fame one at that, in Major League Baseball. The Dodger great faced tremendous prejudice in his first season in 1947, but he endured and became a legend, an MVP player, and a team leader for a diamond club that reached the National League Pennant several times during his career.

Robinson was a great player, but he shared “superstar” status on a team full of fellow stars like Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, and Don Newcome.

“I played on two high school teams full of outstanding players. That is why we accomplished so much. I became a legend for what I did, but I was no superstar on those teams, just one of the good players,” admits Banks.

The fact Banks was a legend, like Robinson, explains only a part of his comparison to the baseball great. The main reason for such a comparison of the two is the fact Banks was the first black to play sports at Plaquemine High. He set the standard locally for integration in parish public school sports.

“I attended all-black Iberville High School in the ninth grade and played junior varsity basketball there. When integration came the next school year I transferred to Plaquemine High. I was one of nine black students to transfer. There were six girls and two other boys that joined me,” explained Banks.

Although he was not eligible to play sports his first school year at PHS, per the La. High School Athletic Assn., he came under the eye of then Green Devil hoop coach, the late Ted Gullatt.

“Coach Gullatt knew I could play, and he and some other people made it possible for me to play basketball at Plaquemine High,” said Banks.

At the time Banks sat out a school year at PHS he playing basketball on a regular basis at the National Guard Armory with some very good white players like current Parish Clerk of Court J. Gerald ‘Bubbie’ Dupont, Jr., Don Hart, and Sam Gerace, Jr. Banks also knew current Parish Athletic Director and former prep coach John ‘Weed’ Bueche, who played the hoop sport at PHS only a couple of years before. “’Weed’ lived pretty much right down the street from me as kids. He and the group that played ball with me at the National Guard Armory were good to me. The one I see the most these days is Bubbie Dupont. He was a great, great basketball and football player for Plaquemine,” said Banks.

Tall, lean, and strong, Banks hit the practice court in the preseason for the 1967-68 Green Devil basketball season. It did not take long for him to become the team’s starting center at 6-foot, four.

“I played with a great group of fellas who were outstanding basketball players. (Doctor) Larry and Kenny Ferachi were great players and leaders. Larry had a solid set shot. He was our outside shooter. Kenny also could shoot from the outside, but he was even better at handling the ball and driving to the basket. Some of the other regulars were Tommy Bickham, Gene Stevens, Charlie Carville, Johnny Miller, and Randy Raymond,” noted Banks.

When speaking about the PHS basketball players he knew, Don was quick to add a skinny eighth-grader from E.J. Gay Middle School, named Chris Raymond, the younger brother of teammate Randy Raymond and the son of PHS Principal L.J. Raymond. “Even in the eighth grade Chris could keep up with our varsity players. He was a natural as well as a smart young player. He could really jump. He was going six-four in the high jump as an eighth grader. I ran track and did some jumping in the spring for Plaquemine High, but I could not come near to Chris’ high jumping marks,” said Banks. Raymond, eventually, became a PHS hoop and track star and had his jersey number retired in recent years. He coached prep ball at St. John High and is currently on the coaching and faculty staff at Brusly High.

“I had a great time playing at Plaquemine High. I enjoyed it just as much as the next year when I returned to Iberville High. We took second-place honors in state at Plaquemine. The next year at Iberville, we won the LIALO state championship with a team a lot of people think was the best ever in the parish,” explained Banks.

When at PHS the biggest district rival was Redemptorist High. Banks’ Green Devils lost to them by a 99-85 score at RHS, but in their second meeting at PHS the Green Devils won in overtime by a 82-79 score to claim the district crown. The Green Devils eventually made it to the state tournament, then the Top 20, at Rapides Parish Center in Alexandria. Plaquemine faced Redemptorist yet again in the state title match and lost the title by a mere four points, 80-76.

“Coach Gullatt blamed himself. He said he didn’t notice until too late in the game that we could have changed things up and gone to a man defense instead of a zone in the second half. I have a tape of the championship game and each time I watch it I recognize what he was talking about. We were so close to winning it all,” explained Banks.

“Long” had a great season for the Green Devils. He became the first black player to ever notch first-team all-state honors in the La. High School Athletic Assn., joining teammate Larry Ferachi on the coveted honors club. He led the Green Devils in rebounds and blocked shots. He averaged a huge 13 rebounds per game to go with an 11.5 scoring average for the 30-6 overall state runner-ups.

“I still hold the school record for rebounds in a single game. I had thirty in a game against Donaldsonville High that season,” noted the former Green Devil.

When PS SPORTS happened to speak to Chris Raymond prior to the interview with Banks, the former PHS standout said: “Ask Don about the trip to South Lafourche High. He was the first black to play in their new school’s gym and they gave him a hard time.”

When asked, Banks said the South Lafourche fans were “a piece of cake” compared to a trip to Denham Springs High for an important district game.

“I had a good following of black friends and fans at Plaquemine High, but no one wanted to go to Denham for that game. They said the Klu Klux Klan was big time up in Livingston Parish. Everyone told me that I didn’t have to go to the game, if I was afraid, but I wasn’t about to leave my teammates. When I got their I was the only black in the gym, or at least I thought so until after the game ended and I noticed a black janitor,” remembered Banks.

The Green Devil said the Yellow Jacket fans taunted him the entire game with a “Klan Bait” cheer, but Banks says he was only concerned with winning the game. “I knew nothing would happen during the game, but I was concerned about after the game, if we won it. And we did win it, in overtime. Randy Raymond, who was big and muscular back then, came up to me and said not to worry, because he would protect me all the way to the bus,” noted Banks, who added he remembered Cecil Harris was a standout player for DSHS and Coach Gullatt put him on the Yellow Jacket late in the game and he held him down with his defensive play.

Banks said the only other time he ever had anyone frightened him just a bit was down at Kaplan High in a state playoff game. He said a bottle was thrown at him and it landed right behind him on the court. “I looked up in the stands and the only place it could have come from was a section of black fans. I guess they were loyal Kaplan fans and didn’t like the way we were whipping them,” chuckled the former Green Devil.

 After the season Coach Gullatt and Don discussed his future at Plaquemine High. He was not eligible to play his senior year at PHS because he was too old to play LHSAA sports, but could transfer back to Iberville High and be eligible for one more prep season of round ball.

“He suggested I go back to Iberville so I could continue to attract attention from colleges and keep enjoying the sport I dearly loved. I spoke with Coach James Peterson at Iberville and he was all for it as well. The fall of 1968 I was enrolled back at Iberville High and about to join one of the best basketball teams every assembled in the parish,” said Banks.

The biggest difference in basketball style between Plaquemine and Iberville High was the running game. PHS played the more deliberate half-court, set up offensive style. The Iberville Bulldogs played run and gun, or as Banks put it “run, run, run”. “Coach ran us all the time. If we lost to one of our big competitors we were in the gym on a Sunday, after church, and running figure eights on the court until we dropped,” explained the Green Devil-turned-Bulldog.

“Another difference was at Iberville we played every position. I could play center, forward, and a little guard. We moved around positions a lot. Coach Peterson and assistant coach Joe Calloway wanted us ready to play anywhere in case of injury or fouling out,” noted the former Bulldog.

Finally, Banks said times at PHS were more upscale. “They feed us very well at Plaquemine. We ate at all the good restaurants when we went on the road. We road on charter busses to big games. We got fed before home games. And we had practice and game uniforms. We were provided game and practice shoes. At Iberville High we practiced in our own shoes. We were lucky at Iberville to get sandwiches from an opponents’ concession stand,” noted Banks.

Times were a bit tougher at the black high school in the late sixties, but on the court, Banks played with a handful of some of the finest players ever assembled in the parish. Heading up the group was another legendry player, Joe “The Pro” Simpson.

“Everyone knew Joe, blacks and whites. He is still considered one of the best to come from our area. He could do it all. Kids would try to imitate his shooting style where his shirt flew up into his chest and his legs folded under him in the air. He could score from anywhere on the court. Had they used the three-point scoring system back then, no telling how many points a game he could have averaged. One time we went to a tournament in Lafayette and Joe had the flu. Oveal ‘Tootie’ Gales led us in scoring that night with 35 points. Joe played only two quarters of the game, but he finished with 30 points. He likely would have caught Tootie had he had a couple more minutes on the court,” said Banks. Simpson went on to play college basketball at Grambling State and eventually played professional ball before too much of the good life got to him. Admittedly, Joe cleaned himself up and today is a minister, which he and Don have in common these days.

Joining Banks and Gales in the Bulldog regular lineup were Ronald “Sam” Johnson (long time successful White Castle High boys basketball coach and Don’s brother-in-law) and Donald “Peaboy” Piper. Others on the club were Frank Jones, Sr., Richarsd Prem, Sherman Diggs, Clarence Patterson, Quindel Washington, and Emanuel Brown. “A lot of those players were from White Castle. Even back then White Castle had outstanding basketball players,” noted Don.

Banks missed winning a state championship by four points at Plaquemine High, but he helped win a LIALO title at Iberville High in 1968-69. The Bulldogs went 36-6 and beat L.B. Landry High for the state crown. Simpson went point for point with LBLHS star Kenny Thomas in the title match.

“Winning the title was something, but playing big games in Baton Rouge against McKinley and Capitol was something else. Those were the roughest, toughest basketball games I ever played. We fought on the court and the fans fought in the stands. The fans would line the back wall behind the goal post with umbrellas on a rainy night. The rest you can figure out. It was rough and tumble basketball and we were good at it,” noted Banks.

The best offensive game Don had at Iberville was a 28-point effort against L.B. Landry in their first meeting that season. “I stood with my back to the goal and grabbed rebounds. We had enough shooters on the team. My brother-in-law ‘Sam’ he was a steady scorer. It was usually Tootie and him scoring behind Joe. ‘Sam’ could really jump for his height and he could drive to the hoop as well as shoot from the outside just like Joe. We had so many good shooters we hit hundred-point games thirteen times in forty-two games.

Banks said most of his former PHS teammates would stop by to watch him play, especially when Iberville hosted its annual tournament, an all-day affair. St. John athletic hall of fame member and former PS sportswriter Mickey “Rico” Rivet attended many of the Iberville High home games. “Both Plaquemine High in sixty-eight and Iberville in sixty-nine had great basketball teams. ‘Joe The Pro’, well, he was something else! Don Banks was a solid player on both teams and his good nature helped bring together whites and blacks with a common interest in the sport. Those were good times back then,” commented Rivet.

“I think I did help bring together white and black basketball fans of the community during those times before everything changed. My class at Iberville High was the final graduating class there. After that everyone went to either Plaquemine High or White Castle High. I was fortunate enough to experience something not too many others got to experience. I was a superstar in the neighborhood pickup games, but in high school I was a role player, good, but not great. But playing at both Plaquemine and Iberville, setting a standard in integration as a result, well that made me a legend in the community. I managed to make a lot of lifelong friends at both schools,” commented Banks.

Following graduation Don and Joe Simpson were invited on recruiting trips. They went together to Oklahoma City University on one. Also interested wass the University of Utah, which recruited both he and Dr. Larry Ferachi. However, Don went to work and eventually got drafted, joined the U.S. Army, and went to Vietnam on a 14-month tour of duty. He played some basketball in Vietnam during his stay. Once he got out of the army, Coach Gullatt had set him up for a recruiting visit to Waco Jr. College, but Don decided to get married, to get a job, and to give up on college and basketball. He went to work for the City of Plaquemine and eventually landed a position as a plant operator at Dow Chemical. He worked for the local chemical industry for 34 years and today does part time consulting as a safety technician. He also set a precedent at Dow as one of the first Afro-Americans hired as a plant operator at the local chemical plant.

Back on the first Sunday of this month, the Reverend Don Banks gave his first sermon as a Baptist minister in Plaquemine.