Yesterday, U.S. World Cup player (1990) and Milwaukee sports legend Jimmy Banks died at the age of 54 due to pancreatic cancer. Jimmy was the father of three sons – Demetrius, J.C. and Jordan – the head coach of the Milwaukee School of Engineering’s men’s soccer team, a 1999 UW-Milwaukee Athletics Hall of Fame inductee and one of our city’s most important treasures.
Besides being the first Milwaukeean and African-American to make the U.S. team's World Cup roster – the latter achieved along with Desmond Armstrong – Jimmy was a community leader and an amazing educator who provided his many employees, mentees and players with tools and tips for navigating life, not just the athletic field.
Here are six lessons I learned while working and coaching with one the most humble and extraordinarily thoughtful people I’ve ever met.
1. Be a class act
As a child, I often attended Jimmy’s camps and clinics, and always tried to get his autograph after matches. Even though he was often swarmed by on lookers, JB was present, attentive, and respectful to the many players and fans who wanted his time. Yes, Jimmy came of age before the rise of Major League Soccer, but he was a former high school All-American who played pro indoor soccer for the Milwaukee Wave and outdoors with the ultra-successful Bavarian Soccer club, the same club that introduced me to the game.
In short, he was the man.
But he handled the pressure of being one of the brightest stars in a sport that was still dominated locally by Western and Eastern European immigrant soccer clubs gracefully. Jimmy had a Jackie Robinson-esque ability to deal with racism and hate that was frequently pointed his way as a player and coach. Regardless of the circumstances, odds or bad calls, the former Westlawn Housing Project resident always demonstrated the importance of staying above it all and being a class act. It’s no surprise that JB prepared his players for adversity by challenging them to be great during life’s most unfair moments.
2. You prepare young people by "bringing them along" and "giving them a shot"
When I was 16, JB asked me to work for him at the Mary Ryan Boys and Girls Club as a play leader. I was tasked with organizing games and athletic activities in Sherman Park, but not just soccer. JB believed in the value of other sports, had a wicked left-handed jumper and one day even told me that learning proper technique in martial arts class as a child might have been his competitive advantage as an athlete. Ask any Sherman Park or Boys and Girls Club athlete from the '90s, and they’ll tell you that JB inspired them to get better at their respective sports.
But it was always Jimmy’s goal to turn Sherman Park and the local Boys and Girls clubs into breeding grounds for urban soccer talent. He had spent his post World Cup years building the Jimmy Banks Soccer League inside the Boy and Girls Club and, by the mid '90s, helped launch the Simba Lions Soccer Club, an effort that worked collaboratively with the Milwaukee Kickers to give inner city soccer players a shot at playing big-time youth club ball. After my short college soccer career ended at 19, I joined JB’s coaching staff that over the years included people like Clyde Ward, Oscar and Juan Toscano, Bob Jacoby, Roger Quindel, Oscar Tovar, my father and even his son Demetrius Banks.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but throughout my teenage years, Jimmy was educating and training me for future opportunities by simply giving me a shot at responsibility. Having someone believe in me as a young person made me feel powerful. Especially because JB never forced or pressured you to be great; he just wanted you to believe that you could be. Ask any of his former players, knowing that JB had your back was often all the inspiration you needed to go to the next level.
3. Don’t burn bridges
JB was a professional athlete who understood his value as a player and a coach. But he was never cocky or arrogant. In fact, I can’t think of ever hearing him boast of his greatness, something many great (and not-so-great) athletes love to do.
JB always reminded his players that one day your opponents might be your teammates, and you never know who you might need to have your back. In a city that is literally separated by bridges, JB is one of the few people who was universally loved by all. It’s no surprise to me why.
4. Love your children
JB treated all children like his own. This is what made him a great coach and mentor. That’s why I am so thankful that I got to watch him raise his extremely talented sons. JB loved his boys, and I am especially grateful that they shared their father with so many of us. Their dad saved many lives, but his motivation for his work was undoubtedly Dee, J.C. and Jordan. That was clear from how he raised and was present in the lives of his children. Nothing was more important to him.
5. You can play the game with passion and style
JB was a trailblazer in American soccer, not only because of his race but because of the way he played and coached the game. He was the first youth coach I had ever met who fully embraced playing an attractive, attacking based brand of soccer known as tiki-taka, a style made popular by Spanish and South American teams. During his career, American soccer was still filled with hard men who often played a fast, frenetic and physical game.
Jimmy, on the other hand, inspired and encouraged his teams to express themselves through fancy footwork, intricate team passing and a more modern way of playing the game. As long you had done the work on the training ground, there was nothing wrong with expressing your creativity and passion on the field. In fact, they could also be your tactical advantages.
6. Saying less often has more impact
On several occasions over the last few years, I’ve made my way to MSOE to watch JB coach games, practices and youth camps. He never over-coached; later in his career, he seemed to have mastered the art of motivating his players and coaching staff to take ownership over the team by creating space for them to learn from the game. After all, he led through example, preparation and knowledge of the game. He didn’t need to give big speeches to motivate his team to win. In 17 seasons as a college coach, Jimmy won 164 games, including nearly 63 percent of conference matches. MSOE finished in the top three in the conference standings nine times, including three runner-up finishes.
Jimmy will forever be missed, but his life lessons will live on in the people he mentored and inspired. He was a great athlete, an amazing coach and a true Milwaukeean who never gave up on his community. There’s so much our city can continue to learn from his powerful example. Hopefully Jimmy’s death will inspire us all to have the courage to be class acts.