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Former basketball player/coach returns home
Tuesday, June 11, 2013
By MARK THOMPSON - Bulletin Sports Editor
In mid-May, Lonnie James Kilby (L.J. for short) made his way back to where it all began 64 years ago.
And more importantly, a trip to see who it all began with.
Kilby, an assistant basketball coach at Cleveland State Community College in Cleveland, Tenn., returned to visit his mother, Gayne Kilby, in Patrick Springs. She is everything to Kilby, and nearly every aspect of his life can be traced back to her.
Kilby’s 64 years have been filled with plenty of heartache and joy. A former Bassett and Ferrum basketball player and lifelong coach, he’s seen some peaks. Kilby is also no stranger to the valley.
“I almost died three years ago from depression and alcohol abuse, and found Jesus Christ, thank God,” Kilby said. “I didn’t pass away when I should have.”
Every day since then has been a reminder of what he nearly missed out on. But through it all, nothing was as beautiful to Kilby as what he experienced visiting his mother.
“She’s up cleaning and fixing breakfast. It’s one of the biggest blessings in my life to see her happy,” Kilby said.
But to truly understand the magnitude of that requires a look back at Kilby’s childhood.
When Kilby was 2 years old, his father was killed in a truck accident, leaving Kilby and his brother Darryl to depend solely on Gayne.
“She never re-married and still wears her wedding band,” Kilby said.
And Gayne came through.
Kilby grew up in Bassett and played basketball at John D. Bassett High School. He played for former Bassett coach Dick Leftwich.
Kilby has enough stories from those days to last 100 trips from Tennessee to the Southside. One in particular was a loss to Martinsville under former Martinsville coach Robert “Husky” Hall.
Leftwich gameplanned for his team to hold the basketball, and that led to a halftime score of 4-2.
Kilby said Martinsville’s team had the mumps during that year and had a losing record, but Martinsville beat Bassett 33-30 in overtime to go to the state championship game. And Martinsville won it that year.
Kilby played at Ferrum Junior College, as it was in the 1960s, then finished his collegiate playing career at Virginia Commonwealth University.
He stayed in school until the mid-1970s, but immediately felt a desire to coach basketball to help kids. He attributes that to his mother’s influence on his life.
“Without a dad, I got to experience things that some kids that had fathers probably didn’t get to experience,” Kilby said. “She worked at Fieldcrest Mills at one time. She worked at the five and dime down in Bassett. She even worked at the school cafeteria when we were in elementary school.”
And Gayne also found a way to be at all of her sons’ games.
Kilby wanted to coach high school basketball. Instead he started as an assistant coach at Ferrum in 1974 and hasn’t coached a day of high school basketball in his life.
But in the junior college structure, Kilby found what he was looking for.
“Junior college is sort of special. You’re getting kids that have been really decent high school players, but they need experience and need some seasoning,” Kilby said. “It’s the same thing with high school kids. There’s a difference between a freshman and a senior, unless you’re LeBron James. I feel like I’ve actually exceeded my own (goals) in that area because for over the number of years I’ve been able to do it, there are a number of youngsters I still communicate with that have gone on to do some good things.”
Some of his former players have courts named after them now. They’ve gone on to win state championships as high school coaches. And Kilby is pleased.
He has coached for more than 30 years at various schools. Kilby helped lead teams to the NAIA tournament, district and conference championships, the NIT tournament and the NCAA tournament. In 2012 he was inducted into the Lincoln Memorial University Athletic Hall of Fame, where he coached from 1975-1983. He was the head coach for the last five seasons.
“Being able to coach and hopefully do some things to help some kids, it’s been all worth it,” Kilby said. “There’s a ton of things that if I could go back, that I would change. But I would still coach.”
Much of that outgrowth of his coaching career and the influence he has been starts with his mother, which is what made his recent return home so special.
A few years back, Gayne had to stay at the Blue Ridge Nursing Center in Stuart. She’s recently been living with Darryl, and with the help of a walker, is able to do just about anything.
Kilby enjoyed the visit before getting back to Cleveland State Community College to prepare for the upcoming season.
While in town, he also spent time playing golf with Darryl, who Kilby says is a great golfer, at Gordon Trent Golf Course in Stuart. That’s also where the brothers played their first ever round together years ago.
But the greatest blessing Kilby received was just watching his mother live — and live with a big smile on her face.
“If I die tomorrow, I’ve seen her happy,” Kilby said. “The way we grew up in the country and what she did for us, I can’t put a price tag on that. But seeing her happy is one of the greatest feelings I’ve had in my life.”