At least he got his steps in – a little over 10,000. Roughly half accumulated during Emanuel Bell’s first full-go coaching appearance this season at Wenonah. His first since being diagnosed with lung cancer in August.
Bell, 61, knows his oncologist will disapprove of his decision to roam and yell from the sidelines against Ramsay, the highlight of a Wednesday which began with chemotherapy at 9:30 a.m.
He had to. Bell wants to share his #FaithNotFair mantra with the community — to encourage frequent testing for cancer. He wants to push Wenonah girls basketball, the three-time defending state champions, to aim for another dream season.
He wants to live.
“This game meant so much to me,” Bell says later.
So wearing all-white everything, he takes two steps in one direction, three the other way, then back again on the Dragons sideline. A mask rests on Bell’s throat. It’s supposed to be on his face to protect his immune system, weakened by chemotherapy drugs that kill cancer cells and healthy white blood cells.
A white towel, sitting on his left shoulder seconds ago, is now flapping in the air as Wenonah’s full-court pressure defense ends with a Ramsay player reaching the free throw line.
Bell starts walking, his face wrinkling.
Later, Bell places his hands above his head, his fingers rotating as he signals for an offensive play. The possession ends with Jayla Morrow setting up Faith Reynolds for a 3-pointer along the baseline.
Now, Bell’s hands are straight, above his head in celebration. His legs still moving.
During a timeout, while assistant coaches talk to the Dragons, Bell sits in a chair at the courtside press table, bending his knees till he’s inches from the seat where he plops down, water bottle in hand.
Bell sat at the end of the Wenonah bench for the first two games of the 2016-17. Tonight marks his return to coaching, if just for one night – for now.
“If you walk in faith,” Bell says, “you don’t worry about stuff.”
He doesn’t want your pity. He wants to coach.
Bell means so much to Alabama.
That’s why he struggles to wear a mask. Disposable gloves, also a deterrent against infections, spend more time in his pocket than their intended location, even in a Wenonah gymnasium at near capacity.
He knows everybody wants to shake his hand. Give him a hug. Take a photo.
Longtime fans that watched Bell amass more than 400 games at Wenonah, his alma mater. Former players that helped him win four AHSAA state titles, or played on his AAU team, the Alabama RoadRunners. Even little ninth-graders at Ramsay. They wanted to attend Wenonah, play basketball for him. But their moms made them go to a different high school, Bell says, smiling.
He loves them anyway.
And he wants to shake every extended hand. Rejoice every hug. Smile in every photo.
“God don’t want you to be stupid,” Bell says. “But you know He got your back. He don’t let nothing happen to you.”
That’s why Bell stopped crying. No more crying. Unless somebody follows Bell’s explanation of how much they mean to him by telling him why he means so much to them.
Pat Sullivan called the other day. Bell cried.
CUTTIN’ UP IN DOCTOR’S OFFICE
God doesn’t want him to cry anymore, Bell told his girls, some of whom he’s still learning to match faces with names because of his absence from fall practices and school.
Instead of crying, feeling depressed about his diagnosis, Bell is spreading His word. God is great. He’s so great.
Bell tells every person he can to get tested. Get tested. He smoked his last cigarette about 28 years ago, yet on August 21st, to his surprise, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer.
So far, Bell says chemo has not drained him of the energy which makes him so affable. He lost about 30 pounds early in his diagnosis, but not much, if any, since, which speaks to his favor and faith, said his daughter, Ashley.
At the doctor’s office, Bell is often chipper, motivating others that aren’t so lucky. A man from Sylacauga who can’t wait to attend the Wenonah game next week. A woman who spends four hours at the treatment center then continue treatments at home for two days.
His daughter travels from Georgia during his chemotherapy treatments.
“That’s my little baby,” he says. “I love her.”
She’s trying to help him find a balance between taking care of the team and taking care of himself, a difficult challenge for a man, a father, a coach who lives to improves the lives of his players.
‘GOD… WANTED TO GET MY ATTENTION’
If it takes a village to win a state championship, it takes a coach like Bell to be dedicated to the kids, the sport year-round, save for one week off in July.
Meanwhile, Bell has spent plenty of Sundays at home, acting as if he was too tired to attend church, he says. He joked that since his Aug. 21 diagnosis, he hasn’t missed a service. Doesn’t plan to.
“Man, I’ve been to more churches, and people have been coming to my house, anointing me with oils,” Bell says. “Preachers at the church putting oil on me, and people at the church praying for me. Got people everywhere just calling and praying for me.”
He attends Mount Olive Baptist Church on Willard Avenue in Birmingham.
His support team of assistant coaches, in place long before this season, handles day-to-day duties — from practice to discipline; scheduling to player etiquette. Yes, etiquette. Because basketball is a game, not the end game, Bell wants to produce a whole kid, not a basketball kid.
MISSION: WIN THEM ALL
Even when he’s too tired to stand, Bell remains a motivator.
He tells sophomore center Thaniya Marks the key to her success is to follow every detail in his instructions. You got to be smart, he tells her. Don’t try to block every shot. Just put your hands up.
He’d rather surrender two points on defense, because he’s knows his girls are going to score six points on offense. But for that to occur, Marks has to be on the court, not in foul trouble, on the sideline with him.
“You already a beast,” he tells her. If she heeds his wisdom, he says, “You going to be beast-er.”
His word improvisation fills the locker room with laughter. All right, back to basketball business.
Bell tells senior forward Alexus Dye, nicknamed “Snoop,” that his cellphone is blowing up with college coaches interested in her services. But Snoop can’t drop her head when faced with on-court adversity.
“In your mind, you’re this, and you’re that. And you are,” Bell says. “But your actions speak louder than your words, OK?”
Bell calls for applause for freshman guard Ke’Andria Childress, who earned praise for her efforts against Ramsay. Wenonah won 62-36.
“You’re just beginning,” he says. “Just beginning.”
Bell tells the rest of the underclassmen, “If you want to get in, that’s how you get in.”
He then reminds Wenonah of Tuesday’s 64-55 win at Center Point and his disappointment at watching a 24-point lead dissipate to single digits.
“This is serious business,” he tells them. “Serious business. We work too hard. You work too hard to let people beat you. You work too hard to let people beat you.”
Cancer or not, Bell has plans this season for Wenonah. Does not matter if he’s strolling along the sideline, sitting at the end of the bench or …
“We’re going to go undefeated this year,” he says. “Anybody get in our way, we’re going to knock ’em down. Because we got what?”
“Faith, not fear,” his players say.
“We got what?” he asks.
“Faith, Not Fear …”
“We got what?”
“FAITH … NOT FEAR!”
“All right baby.”
For at least one night, Emanuel Bell is back.