A little awkward, but amazingly effective.”
This is what I thought about the late John Belk the first time I went head to head against him.
In 1961, he was playing on the alumni team in a pre-season basketball game against the Davidson College varsity coached by Lefty Driesell. Coach Driesell assigned me to guard the most important, if not the best, player on the alumni team - Belk.
Driesell was working hard to line up Belk behind his dream of bringing “big-time” basketball to the school. Belk was a good prospect. He had been the co-captain of the basketball team when he was a student at Davidson. He was already an unabashed booster of everything that was “good for Charlotte.”
A few years later Driesell’s Davidson teams became national powerhouses. But, at the time of this alumni game, it was just Coach’s dream.
Looking back, I think Coach wanted two things. As always, he wanted to win. But he also wanted John Belk and the other alumni players to feel good about the experience when it was all over.
As far as I was concerned, before the game got started, Belk was just a nice old man (He was just past 40.) who would make a perfunctory appearance and then sit down to watch the rest of the game. Watching his less-than-smooth warm ups, I guessed that he had not spent much time on the basketball court since he left Davidson.
But when the game got started, Belk showed he was bull-headed and determined to take the ball to the basket, even if he had to run over me to do it. I responded with the most aggressive defense I could muster, arms waving, shouting, and stomping.
Coach called time out and called me over to the side. “Hey, D.G., ease up a little bit on John Belk. I don’t want you to kill him.”
It was the only time I ever heard Coach ask anybody to ease up.
A few months later, while visiting the family of a young woman I was trying to court, I learned that her parents were good friends of John Belk. So, of course, I told them how Coach made me “ease up” on him.
Big mistake, because they were bound to tell the story to Belk, and he would not like knowing that Coach had given him special treatment.
When I saw Belk again, I went up to reintroduce myself. He quickly turned towards me, saying, “So Lefty told you to ease up on me, huh. I should have known.”
But he did not hold it against me or Coach. We were never together that he didn’t bring up the story, and he laughed harder and harder each time.
Nor did he ever fail to tell me how lucky I was to have such fine parents.
On one occasion, during a long conversation about other matters, he said that both of us were fortunate to have had good parents. Then, he said, “Of course, you don’t always have to agree with them about everything.”
His father, William Henry Belk, the founder of the Belk store chain, had been a trustee of Davidson while John Belk was a student leader there. As a trustee, the father was resisting the pressures from the students, led by John Belk, to open the campus for formal dances.
“We just disagreed about that one thing. And that was that. He didn’t get mad with me about it. We both wanted good things for the school.”
Coach Driesell’s partnership with Belk paid big dividends even after Driesell left. Davidson’s basketball team now plays on the John Belk Arena, made possible by Belk’s generosity.
Maybe Coach Driesell ought to get some credit, too, for helping seal Belk’s connection with the college. Several years ago, Belk became Davidson’s most generous individual donor ever by establishing a “Morehead type” scholarship program that pays full expenses for 10 students in each class.
While others are remembering and celebrating his “amazingly effective” service in business and civic life, I will be thinking that “easing up on John Belk” might have been the most important thing I ever did on the basketball court.
—D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Fridays at 9:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m.