(Editor’s note: This piece on former Lebanon High point guard Tabb Bickell was written by his coach, Chic Hess, who led the Cedars to the 1977-78 state championship game.)
BY CHIC HESS
When you see headlines like this, “Former Cedars Hardwood Great, TABB BICKELL, Now in Prison”, it may make you wonder. But because I was the Lebanon Cedars basketball coach during the Bickell years, I can attest that this is no fluke. Here are my thoughts regarding the 1977-78 Cedar point guard.
Coaches are often reluctant to name their best player. I’ll break the silence. Sam Bowie was my best ever, but there was another who fascinated me even more.
I was standing near my office in the Lebanon High School gym one day when a ninth grader, much in need of a haircut, confronted me. He must have been feeling good about himself because his junior high basketball team had recently won another Lebanon County championship. In his unique, uninhibited manner, the lanky 5’9” fourteen-year-old strolled up to me and said, “You wait, Coach, because when I’m a senior, we are going to states and win the championship.”
It had been 35 years since Lebanon had won a championship, and this boy was alerting me to the fact that we had to wait a mere three more for another one. His gravity and confidence gave me goose bumps. As I smiled approvingly, I tried to recall his name.
I darted back into my office to look at the picture of the county’s junior high champions that I had cut from the newspaper to identify my little Nostradamus. From the caption under the picture, I read the names: Artz, Crespo, Sattazahn, and Simone…. Ah! I’d found his name–Tabb Bickell.
Through a staunch booster group, I had arranged to have all the boys in the program, Lebanon Magicians included, attend the state championship game at Hershey. The boosters, a.k.a. dentist Don Gigler, Inc., donated the funds to rent a bus and purchase tickets for my 65 future champions.
It was important for my future champs to envision our goal first-hand. Before pulling away from the school, I addressed the jam-packed bus of excited players. I told them that I was taking them to the state championship game, but there would come a day when they would be taking me.
As I spoke, I looked over at Bickell. He wasn’t talking; he just looked at me with hic cocky grin. By the look on his face, I sensed his thoughts, “Damn straight!”
This wasn’t the last time Tabb super charged my upper layer of epidermis with bumps.
I took a special interest in Bickell and followed his actions as he progressed through our program. The kid was a winner, but also a bit of a mystery. Something told me that he was going to be a challenge to coach—the unique ones usually are. His big heart, competitive spirit, and personality were too much to pass up. I had to learn more about him if I was to realize his talents.
Bickell came from the other side of town—a loving home on the 100 South block of Fourth Street, as I remember. He lived alone with his grandmother, Mrs. Mildred Fisher, who was as patient and gentle as a Mother Theresa. She loved him very much, and I was learning why. When Tabb was on, he had a winsome smile and magnetic personality, but those traits fluctuated with bouts of pugilistic tendencies. “If I could only bottle the stuff,” I remember thinking.
With Bickell, my challenge was to separate the wheat from the chaff without damaging his natural gifts. By now, I had developed a personal interest in him, but I could tell that if he knew how I felt, he would take advantage. I had to be firm, strict, and consistent but slightly distant.
Tabb Bickell “arrived” on the opening night of his junior year. A full house awaited the team’s ingress to the court, and the boys where having a difficult time lining up to leave the locker room. It was opening night jitters, and no one wanted to be the first one out the locker room door.
While this was going on, Tabb was preoccupied with tying his shoelaces and adjusting his glasses. He wasn’t aware of his teammates who were jousting around over who didn’t want to be first. All of this ended as Tabb stepped to the door and asked for the ball. “Let’s go,” he said and bolted out the door with his team in tow.
I’m sure it had to be a rush for the boy as he led his team on to the court while the band played and the crowd stood up to cheer. Again, I felt a chill run up and down my spine. It was game time, and Tabb was alive and focused. He was doing what he must have dreamed about many times over—leading his Cedars into competition.
Bickell wasn’t one of the appointed captains; he was just the team’s leader. Like clockwork whenever the game lights were on, when the cheerleaders jumped and cheered, the lion’s heart in Bickell emerged. It was a phenomenon that intrigued me for two seasons.
His prophesy was also my wedge to keep him in line—keep your cool, boy, or you will not play. I had to make sure he knew that I had other players ready to take his place in the event of a meltdown.
I didn’t have a son back then, but if I had, I would have wanted him to be a lot like Bickell. He didn’t know fear. He would take the ball right to Godzilla—it didn’t matter who was guarding the basket.
Never did I experience the empty feeling of seeing a player graduate as I did seeing Tabb move on. If his life had warranted it, I would have adopted him. I had coached many great kids up until then, but I never thought of adopting one until I met him.
I used to say to my wife, Linda, when referring to Bickell and the son we hoped to have some day—“I want one just like this, thank you.”
Tabb Bickell never changed. Shortly after high school graduation, he joined and served with distinction in the U. S. Coast Guard. A few years later, he began his career as a corrections officer at the State Correctional Institute in Camp Hill, and from there steadily rose through the ranks of the state penal system.
Today, the former Cedar point guard is now the superintendent (Warden) of the State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon where he oversees a facility that houses more than 2,100 inmates and employs more than 600 staff.
If we were to make a case study out of Tabb’s career, he would be strong proof for the belief that leaders are born with the ability to lead. As his coach all I did was take advantage of his inherent skills and personality. Every coach should have the pleasure of coaching one like Tabb sometime during their career.
And for the son Coach Hess had hoped to have one day—on the night of a home game with McCaskey in 1978, his dream came true when his wife Linda delivered a 9lb Stephen Hess. The only son followed his dad’s career from PA to HI, UT, WA, back to HI to AZ and back to HI as his ballboy.
Steve played four years on the varsity team at Kalaheo High School in Kailua, HI where his team finished either first, second or third each season. MVPs and first team all-state honors followed his playing career to the University of Puget Sound where he played for four more years. Today, Steve is an Occupational Therapist and manager of the Therapy Department at Pohai Nani Retirement Community Home in Kaneohe, HI.
Both Tabb and Steve have a unique gift which is why they have been successful at every step of their careers. I am extremely proud of both. Someday, I hope the two will meet and become acquainted.
Chic Hess, Ed. D., former Cedar basketball coach with a 158-57 record (1974-82) and author of the popular biography, Prof Blood and the Wonder Teams: The True Story of Basketball’s First Great Coach, (www.profblood.com). Dr. Hess can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.