Tabb Bickell was determined to get into the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, one way or the other. What he figured was, if you can’t beat them, join them.
All insensitive innuendos aside, the story of Tabb Bickell is certainly a compelling one.
The one-time driving force and emotional leader of the 1977-78 Lebanon Cedars – one of the best boys’ basketball teams that Lebanon County has ever produced – is now the Executive Deputy Secretary for Institutional Operations in the state of Pennsylvania. It’s been a long road for Bickell to get where he is today, but it all began on the playgrounds of Lebanon.
Bickell is tough, straight-forward and just a bit unorthodox – was then, still is. Ironically, that tough Lebanon upbringing that might have put him in harm’s way when he was younger also allowed him to attain his current status.
“It’s the truth,” said Bickell. “There’s a fine line. Because of certain people, I could’ve easily gone the other direction. I’ll be the first one to tell you that. I could’ve very, very easily been on the other side of the fence.
“I think it was 100 percent, all that stuff,” continued Bickell. “I’m in the correctional business and I’m second in command in the whole state of Pennsylvania. It’s almost unreal to me, where I’ve gotten. Everything goes back to sports for me. It’s a team, it really is. It all came from me being a basketball player at Lebanon.”
Bickell is in his 33rd year of working in corrections. As the Executive Deputy Secretary for Institutional Operations, Bickell oversees Pennsylvania’s 25 correctional facilities and his duties include inspections, reviews and tours.
“I came up through the ranks,” said Bickell. “I started out as a correctional sargent. After high school, I went to college, but it didn’t work out well for me. I came back to Lebanon and played basketball in some local amateur leagues. Then I wound up going into the Coast Guard, which is what I needed at the time. The Coast Guard really helped me, especially with some of the situations we were in.
“Personally, I feel where I’m at today, I owe everything to Coach (Chic) Hess,” Bickell continued. “When I was young, he saw something in me. He gave me books to read about positive thinking and how to treat people. The guy took an interest. He knew he had me because I wanted to play basketball. I was raised by my grandmother. I could’ve easily gone the other way.”
Bickell was one of a handful of great athletes surrounding Cedar superstar and legend Sam Bowie, during the late 1970s. That chemistry, along with Bowie’s talent, Hess’ coaching and Bickell’s leadership, propelled Lebanon to the 1977-78 PIAA big-school championship game.
The team captured the imagination of the hard-working, steel town that Lebanon was at that time.
“I was the point guard,” said Bickell. “My job was to keep the team moving, penetrate and get the ball to the big man. We knew everything about every (opposing) player. I would just go out there and lead the team, and be part of the team.
“We had some great athletes on that team,” added Bickell. “You gave everything in practice. We worked hard. We had a lot of leaders on that team. I was the guy who would step out and speak up. I remember one time when Coach Hess went to watch Steel-High play. I asked him, ‘We can get them, can’t we?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’ Then the practices got even more intense. I would like to think I was part of that energy.”
In 1976-77, when Bickell was a junior and Bowie was a sophomore, Lebanon advanced to the state playoffs, where the Cedars lost to Hempfield, on a buzzer-beater at Hersheypark Arena. The following year, everything came together for the Cedars, as they reached the PIAA championship game, where they lost to Pittsburgh-Schenley 51-50, in a back-and-forth contest that could’ve gone either way.
Lebanon finished that season 30-3.
“What I remember was how big they were,” said Bickell of Pittsburgh-Schenley. “I still pay attention to sports, and I can tell you, even to this day, I’ve never seen a team as big or as talented as Schenley. And they were good. But we controlled the tempo. We got them playing our game. We should’ve had that one. We really had a legitimate shot to win.
“But the game I remember most was the Eastern final, when we played Steel-High” Bickell added. “Sam dunked twice in the first half and got two technical fouls, and he fouled out. We also had some tough kids. We came at Steel-High. We came at them hard. I could feel they were defeated, but they didn’t lay down.”
Of course, Bowie went on to earn national fame. He played at Division One Kentucky, then enjoyed an under-appreciated 11-year NBA career with the Portland Trail Blazers, New Jersey Nets and Los Angeles Lakers.
“It was great,” said Bickell of playing with Bowie. “There are still plays to him on the court that I remember vividly. I just looked at him in awe. He’s gifted. He’s talented. But he worked hard. I don’t think people knew that. We stayed in touch, but people move on. But I played with that guy. I saw his talent. I mean this from my heart, Sam was talented but Coach Hess got him to reach his potential. Coach Hess was one of the better basketball minds.”
Yet, Bickell learned many of his tough basketball lessons before he even reached high school. His love for the game was instilled in him in grade school.
“It means everything to me,” said Bickell. “I love basketball, in particular high school basketball, with college basketball being my second love. There was a sixth-grader teacher, Kermit Hower, and he developed a league inside the school itself. We didn’t really practice. We just came to play on Saturdays. From there, I fell in love with the game. Then, I remember just going to the playgrounds and just playing as much as you wanted.
“I remember we won the the County junior-high championship with the same guys,” continued Bickell. “I remember my teammates. I remember Coach Hess playing us in summer leagues. We went all over the place playing basketball. We had one of the best basketball players in the state, and maybe the country, in Sam Bowie. I remember the games. I remember the pressure.”
That work ethic that Bickell developed as a Cedar has also served him well in life. Bickell, now 59, still resides in Lebanon County.
“I want people to know I worked hard,” said Bickell. “I was given many chances by coaches and mentors. Lebanon was a great place for a young man to grow up. I was just a lucky guy. The right people came into my life at the right time. Basketball was my passion, but I was even more fortunate to play with the players I played with. There was just so much good that came out of that.
“I’m somewhat aggressive,” concluded Bickell. “I can come across quiet initially. I’ll be honest with people. I can be rough around the edges, but I’ll never disrespect you. I’m very caring about people. I think that’s one of the most important things in corrections. I’ve always cared about people and I think that’s how I got to this point. I’m one of the most caring people you can run into.”
A tough exterior, but a Cedar inside.