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Book profiles Roanoke coach and his huge influence

The name Joe Gaither may not be well known outside Roanoke, but for a number of athletes, his influence goes far beyond the city, and involves much more than sports.

Gaither.jpg
Greg Kiser
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Now a new book lays out his impact over more than 40 years – and counting.

Richard Wilson first met Joe Gaither when he was 11, in the mid-1980’s, playing inner city football for him. He says a key part of practice those days was hearing Gaither’s lectures.

“I call them blessings,” he said. “How we’re supposed to conduct ourselves in school, in the community, things of that nature.” Wilson is about 5’5” in height. “(But) he made me feel as if I was 6’7”. There was nothing I couldn’t accomplish on or off the field.”

He’s now the girls’ basketball coach at Roanoke’s William Fleming High School. And he and Gaither are still close friends, calling him a life coach.

“I can remember several times as a man coming to Coach Joe and just talking about life,” he explains “And I still find myself thinking ‘what would Coach Joe say? How would Coach Joe handle this?”

Gaither was born in 1949 at the former Burrell Memorial Hospital, in the city’s predominately Black Gainsboro neighborhood. Raised in Salem by a single mother, it would take more than 20 years for him to really find his stride.

“Not having a father in the home was difficult, but I had a lot of people around me to lead and guide me,” he said. First and foremost, Gaither says his mother Laura did all she could to bring him opportunities that she was denied. “Every obstacle has been an opportunity. I think everything we’ve experienced and gone through has been for a purpose.”

As described in the book ‘The Joe Gaither Story: Strong Faith and Tough Love in the Star City', he was nurtured in the church, academics, and athletics. In 1966, Gaither was on a basketball team that finished with a record of 22 and 1 at GW Carver High School, where he also served as student council and junior class president.

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PFC Manuel
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Dave Russo
Gaither takes a jump shot in the U.S. Army in Stuttgart, Germany, sometime between 1970-72.

Roanoke County Schools integrated later that year, bringing its share of challenges to Black students. But in his senior year at Salem’s Andrew Lewis High, Gaither was one of two Black players on the team, averaging 11 points a game. He also fell in love as a teenager – meeting future wife Bernice at the age of 13. Gaither calls her his biggest fan, and biggest critic.

“The Bible tells me ‘whoso findeth a wife, findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favor of the Lord (Proverbs 18:22)" he noted. “So when we understand that, I mean, I’m a witness to that, and I got a great wife, and I’m blessed to have her. She’s been with me all through this journey.”

Gaither’s first time away from Bernice, what he calls his ‘dark period’ came during his years in the Army. He was drafted during the Vietnam War, but the typing skills he gained in high school led him to Germany instead, where he was an administrative assistant.

The military also left him in great physical shape, and he excelled as part of a European basketball team.

“I pulled myself into the sports, and met some really good people. That kind of broadened my horizons,” he explained. “That was just the thing – I needed to funnel my time into something productive.”

The pieces began to come together when Gaither returned home in the 70’s, when he and Bernice started raise a family.

She was the one who started taking their kids to games hosted by Roanoke’s Inner City Athletic Association.

By the end of the decade, Joe was head coach for two of its basketball teams. While day jobs included work at the Salem GE plant and local post office, Coach Gaither volunteered for both the ICAA and Roanoke’s Amateur Athletics Association.

His teams travelled, and excelled against the likes of future NBA stars, like Penny Hardaway, while Gaither’s teams boasted of talent like former player and current NBA referee Curtis Blair.

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Dave Russo
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Gaither after winning the Mount Zion Invitational in Durham, North Carolina against a team that included NBA star Kevin Durant

Gaither says the single game that stands out the most – was actually a loss in 1988. He was missing two key players while playing for a national championship in Seattle.

“To see some of the teams that they defeated was pretty impressive,” he said. “At that point and time, just the drive they had to succeed and represent this area, and to believe in themselves, and not worry about who they didn’t have – but bring out the best in who was there.”

The coach’s knack for developing not only talent, but human beings, later led to coaching positions at William Fleming, Roanoke Catholic School, and Virginia Episcopal School in Lynchburg.

William Fleming coach Richard Wilson says it’s hard to say where he’d be today without Gaither. He believes Coach Joe saved his life, at a time when he could have gone left or right.

“And that’s the only way I knew how, was just to give back, and just make sure – you got to be true to yourself, gotta have self-discipline. And values. And I can honestly pay respect to Coach Joe for that.”

The lead writer on ‘The Coach Gaither Story’, Ted Edlich, is no stranger to mentoring kids in youth sports, working with the coach as the president of Roanoke’s Total Action for Progress for 40 years.

Jeff Bossert is Radio IQ's Morning Edition host.