If you’re struggling to cope with a March without high school or college basketball, consider retired Scott County High School boys’ hoop coach Billy Hicks a role model.
After 38 consecutive years of setting his watch by the sport and having that incomparable career as his compass, Hicks and his ultra-supportive wife have quit the sights and sounds of the bouncing ball, cold turkey.
“Betsy wanted to keep me as busy as possible. I don’t think she missed basketball,” Hicks quipped. “I didn’t have a chance to really miss it.”
The grind of summer scrimmages, autumn open gyms, and a slate of 30 to 40 games every winter never left the couple much time to stop and enjoy the finer things in life.
Scott County’s annual Christmas week journey to South Carolina or Florida traditionally qualified as the only “vacation” between June and every following March.
Now free from those obligations, Hicks’ docket over the past year reads like an itinerary from an all-day binge viewing of the travel channel. He’s sailed the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, visited the Canadian maritimes and Hawaiian islands, and been in the heart of both the Big Apple and the City of Angels.
Oh, and of course, when his suitcase is unpacked and he’s surrounded by the comforts of home in Kentucky or Tennessee, no day has been complete without Hicks dropping a boat or a fish hook in the water.
“It was an unbelievably fast year,” Hicks said.
In the fall, Hicks traveled to Quebec, where he boarded a ship that took him around the neighboring provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and the New England states before docking in New York City.
That part of the journey proved you can take the coach out of the country but never quite remove the country from the coach.
“I’d never been to Manhattan, Times Square, any of that, so we rented a car and drove right in there,” Hicks said. “I found out being a cab driver in New York City must be the toughest job in the world.”
Hicks later split a month evenly between a Hawaiian cruise and a cross-country road trip.
“We drove out west, took a southern route down to San Antonio, and then Interstate 10 all the way to San Diego. We went to Los Angeles and Las Vegas, then took Highway 40 back,” Hicks recounted. “It was a good road trip, about eight days out and seven days back. We hadn’t been on one of those in a long time.
“We also took a 16-day cruise to Hawaii. I’m glad we did all that before this (COVID-19 virus) stuff happened. If it had been two weeks later, who knows?”
When he wasn’t sailing the ocean blue or driving off into a sunset, Hicks spent most of his initial retirement year at his second residence, adjacent to Douglas Lake in the Great Smoky Mountains.
There, you might find him devouring a book or frying up his catch of the day.
“I’ve had a lot more time to read. I probably read more books in the past year than I did in the five years before that,” Hicks said.”I read ‘Hawaii’ by James Michener, because we were going there and I wanted to know more about the history. There’s been so many I couldn’t even remember them all.”
Hicks took a recent phone call from home from a reporter inquiring about all those exploits while floating down the French Broad River.
“I probably went 12 miles today,” Hicks said. “Out here I don’t have to worry about social distancing. There’s nobody around. Betsy probably would like to do a lot more shopping when we’re home, but she kind of knows if I have a place like this, I’ve got to go fishing.”
Ranking ahead of it all: Quality time with his first grandchild, 14-month-old Wyler Nash Johnson. Hicks’ daughter, Ashley, gave birth during a Scott County game against Ashland in her dad’s final season. The coach left at halftime to make a beeline for the hospital and be part of the happy occasion.
In retrospect, had Hicks not felt such loyalty to a stellar group of seniors that took him to consecutive state finals, he said he might have retired after the first one in anticipation of the child’s arrival.
“Wyler has definitely become the center of our lives,: Hicks said. “I love it in Tennessee, but it’s hard being away. The toughest thing with the coronavirus is he’s too young to understand why we aren’t around much.”
So does the basketball lifer miss it? The sport has provided so much of his identity, after all.
Well, anybody who’s met Hicks knows brutal honesty is a key component of his game.
“The summer stuff, you don’t really miss that. I enjoyed working with the kids individually, but it got to the point where I didn’t care much for all the games,” he said. “Obviously you miss it some. I listened to lot of the News-Graphic broadcasts, watched the regional semifinals and finals on PrepSpin.”
Seeing the talented group of coaches and players he left behind make a late, unexpected surge to an unprecedented fourth consecutive 11th Region championship would have exacerbated those feelings of isolation, if anything did.
Hicks, who won a KHSAA record 1,013 games while losing only 276 in his illustrious career, gained enough perspective from those highs and lows to enjoy watching others reap the benefits.
“I probably went to three or four high school games. I have a nephew who plays for Shelby Valley, so we went and watched him play,” Hicks said. “I saw Scott County a couple of times, Great Crossing once. Went and watched A.W. (Hamilton, coach at Eastern Kentucky University) a couple of times.
“Watching some of my former players coach this year, you see the excitement when they win, and maybe you miss that a little bit,” Hicks said. “Then when they get beat, you say to yourself, ‘Gosh, I’m glad I got out.’ The longer I coached, It seemed like the losses hurt more, and winning became no big deal. The success we had at Scott County, everybody starts to take that for granted.”
Hicks coached casually at the youth level in the 1970s, but said he had no intentions of pursuing it as a career until one of his best friends, David Lewis, became principal at Evarts High School.
Lewis lured Hicks into a fateful decision that led to an amazing run at Harlan, then Corbin, and finally a matchless quarter-century at SC.
“Coaching before that was just something I’d done for the fun of it. I wasn’t getting paid,” Hicks said. “It’s hard on your family. It really is.”
Career or not, equal parts challenging and charming, it is a labor of love. Hicks feels blessed to have passed on that passion to a new generation.
“Scott County and Great Crossing, this whole community is lucky to have such great role models for young men,” Hicks said. “I think of guys like Tim Glenn, Chris Willhite, Matt Walls. A coach has a lot of influence on a kid, especially these days, and you won’t find any better than those guys.”
They learned it from the best – someone who’s now celebrating the rewards of a job well done.
Kal Oakes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.