Gene Banks had some teammates in his day. He played in the NBA with Michael Jordan, with George Gervin. Banks played in an NCAA championship game for Duke as a freshman. Thinking of great teammates, he goes right back to West Philadelphia High School.
“I never played with a guy I had so much fun with,” Banks said this week. “I never feared losing when I was on the court with Eggy.”
Over the phone, Banks didn’t hide his pain, explaining that his own life had just changed when Clarence “Eggy” Tillman died last week, age 60, after a long illness. For Banks, Eggy was far more than a teammate, more like a soul mate, sharing the basketball and the very love of a sport.
“They called us the B.T. Express. I was the big brother,” Banks said of being a year ahead of Tillman playing for the fabled Speedboys under Joey Goldenberg. “He was the little brother.”
Three seasons, three Public League titles and three city championships, including a 1977 season when the Speedboys went 30-0 and were the consensus top high school team in the country. In his three seasons, Tillman lost one game, finishing as the school’s all-time leading scorer. A 66-game winning streak still stands as a state record.
“He had the prettiest shot by any big man I ever saw in my life,” Banks said of the 6-foot-8 Tillman.
City basketball historians will tell you Banks and Tillman were as good as any pair in city prep history. Wilt and Vince Miller at Overbrook? Gathers and Bo at Dobbins? The Morris twins at Prep Charter? Wallace and Stokes or McKie at Gratz? Henderson and Ellington at Episcopal? Anyone else you want to put up there? Banks and Tillman took a backseat to none of them, each earning multiple All-American honors. (As a senior, Tillman played in the first McDonald’s All-American Game.)
“I’ve talked to a lot of the old-head guys, asked, ‘Who was the better team?’” Banks said, wondering how his group would stack up with Wilt Chamberlain’s storied Overbrook teams, or later on with Rasheed Wallace-led Simon Gratz teams. “They said, ‘You guys were the best team out of everybody.’ We had Joe Garrett, too. We had the biggest front line ever. Nobody has ever had a front line like we had.”
Not just the frontcourt either. Darryl Warwick went on to be a Hampton University Hall of Famer. Vincent Ross went on to play in the 1979 Final Four at Penn. Mike Nichols, starting guard, would have been the star at most other schools.
The pride of the neighborhood? Two neighborhoods.
“What’s so strange, both Eggy and I lived in South Philly,” Banks said, explaining that he lived with his grandparents for a time in South Philly.
“Lo and behold, I did not know … my grandmother told us, they hung out at Tillman’s Turf, a bar on Tasker. Then we met one time at Barrett Elementary School court.”
An outdoor court. Banks figured he was 10 years old.
“I didn’t know him, until my grandmother came over to the court, because I wasn’t supposed to be there,” Banks said. “She said, ‘That’s Eggy.’ We just looked at each other. He was tall. I was kind of tall. We had heard of each other. We just stood there looking at each other, kind of nodding.”
Turns out his mother and stepfather and grandmother would hang out with Tillman’s parents. Then in junior high, the two played each other. Banks was at Furness, Tillman at Vare.
“Everybody in South Philly wanted to see this game,” Banks said. “It was a junior high game. He had a smooth type of movement — I was like a wolverine.”
Banks remembers winning that one, and then, as a ninth grader, coaching a team in the Inter-Denominational Church League.
“I got Eggy to play on that team,” Banks said. “We just became closer. Basically, he had an aunt that lived in West Philly. He moved to the aunt’s house.”
Becoming teammates — “it was all God’s work.”
Banks posted on Facebook how “I always knew I was going to win when he was at my side. We even slept in the same bed, staying up all night talking about girls, life, South and West Philly … I want to say more but I am without words.”
Thinking of Tillman as a teammate, “he always had a smile on his face,” Banks said over the phone. “You never saw him sad or hurting. He always had an awesome, warm smile.”
They played against each other once in college. Tillman went to Kentucky but didn’t get on the court too much as a freshman and transferred to Rutgers. He was a double-digit scorer for three seasons, a star on the Rutgers 1983 Sweet 16 team. Tillman led Rutgers with 16 points in a season-ending loss to Chris Mullin and St. John’s.
“It was weird, real weird,” Banks said of playing at Rutgers in 1980-81 when he was at Duke, the Blue Devils surviving by two points. “I didn’t know whether to be very hard and manic. I didn’t know what to do. I just played the game. I wasn’t trying to out-best him.”
Banks remembers the one time they got word that Mike Schmidt, at the height of his Phillies powers, wanted to meet them. The pair was taken to the dugout pregame.
“That blew us away,” Banks said. “I was a little kid at Christmas.”
Their friendship went on, with Banks going on to the NBA, Tillman playing professionally for years overseas. Banks, who lives in North Carolina, had plans to get up to Southwest Philadelphia to see Tillman and his wife, Carol, just after Christmas. Instead, he’ll be in town this week. Services for Tillman will be held on Friday at Pinn Memorial Baptist Church (2251 North 54th Street) with a public viewing from 9-11 a.m.
“The whole city loved us,” Banks said of those magical days he shared with his friend.
And that jump shot … Banks compared Tillman’s form to Steph Curry. He always knew where to find Eggy on fast breaks, he said, and what would usually happen next.
“It was beautiful,” Banks said, referring to that shooting stroke, but really the whole era.