“Magic” was already taken. So was “Dr. J,” “Chocolate Thunder,” “The Iceman” and so many other well-known NBA nicknames.
“In high school, we skipped out one afternoon and went to the movies,” former Spurs forward Gene Banks recalled. “A preview came on about ‘Peter Pan.’ My cousin, who had nicknames for everybody, out of the blue says, ‘That’s what we’re going to call you, Tinkerbell.’
“I said, ‘Don’t you ever call me that again.’”
But the name stuck. Before long Banks, a muscular 6-foot-7, 215-pounds — hardly resembling the waif-like, fictional Disney character — had become a basketball prodigy.
“There’s a new bell in town,” proclaimed the front page of a Philadelphia newspaper. “Tinkerbell.”
Banks eventually embraced the moniker as his career took off.
A two-time All-American, he was the top high school player in the nation as a senior at West Philadelphia High — sharing the honor with Brooklyn legend Albert King — on the No. 1 team in the country.
Considered the top recruit to come out of Philly since Wilt Chamberlain, Banks went on to star at Duke where he was ACC Rookie of the Year and helped the Blue Devils to the NCAA championship game as a freshman. He finished his career by winning the league scoring title.
Selected in the second round (28th overall) of the 1981 NBA draft by the Spurs, Banks likely would have gone higher had it not been for a broken wrist he suffered in his final season at Duke.
Spurs coach Stan Albeck and general manager Bob Bass were excited to get Banks, whom they considered first-round talent.
“That made me happy,” Banks said. “At first I was pretty distraught at my stock dropping like it did, but going to the Spurs was probably the best thing to ever happen to me. I was going to a veteran team. And they had ‘The Iceman.’”
Banks played four of his six NBA seasons with the Spurs (1981-85), where he averaged 11.8 points and 6.3 rebounds, numbers he duplicated in 21 career playoff games with the Silver & Black. He shot 54 percent from the field in 323 regular-season games with the Spurs and probably would have been the featured scorer on many other teams.
But in San Antonio, playing alongside George Gervin, Mike Mitchell and Artis Gilmore, Banks accepted his role as secondary scorer and frontline defender.
He delighted fans at HemisFair Arena by getting out on the break with Gervin and Johnny Moore.
“Geno was special, man,” Gervin said. “His understanding of the game, coming from Duke, is why he stayed around the league as long as he did. He understood his role. He was always ready to play.”
“We had a lot of weapons then,” said Gilmore, the Spurs’ 7-2 center who now lives in Jacksonville, Florida. “He could have been the main man on a lot of teams.”
Banks once made all 10 field goals in a game against Golden State on March 12, 1983, and scored a career-high 44 points a month later in a 114-109 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on April 13, 1983.
That game was part of one of the most memorable — and strangest — episodes in Spurs history. It followed the conclusion of a game on Nov. 30, 1982, when the Lakers took advantage of a faked free throw by guard Norm Nixon to beat the Spurs in double overtime.
The Spurs protested, charging Nixon’s actions violated NBA rules. The league agreed, forcing the teams to replay the end of the original game the next time the Lakers came to town.
The Spurs won the original game, and the regularly scheduled contest with the help of Banks’ career night.
“I was in a zone that even astronauts don’t reach,” Banks recalled. “I was in another stratosphere.”
During his time in San Antonio, the Spurs qualified for the playoffs three times, advancing to the Western Conference finals twice, only to lose to the Lakers.
“They were the only team stopping us from winning a championship,” Banks said. “They would always add a piece for the playoff run.”
Case in point: The Lakers picked up Bob McAdoo in December 1981, Banks’ rookie season.
McAdoo had three games of 20-plus points as L.A. swept the Spurs in the Western Conference finals, then averaged 16.8 in helping the Lakers beat the Philadelphia 76ers in six games to win the NBA championship, their second in three years.
“Not winning a title didn’t bother me then, but it does now,” Banks said. “We had a team capable of winning a title. We just couldn’t get past the Lakers.”
Banks said it was a joy to play for the Spurs alongside Gervin, a Hall of Famer.
“I saw so many things he did in practice he didn’t even show in games,” Banks said. “He was like a magician out there. He was an amazing, amazing player. When he was on the floor I always thought we had a chance to win.”
Although seven years older, Gervin became one of Banks’ closest friends on the team.
“He was a great teammate,” Gervin said of Banks. “Everybody loved him. He was Mr. Personality and still is. Even after all these years, we still talk.”
Loved the Bums
Like many Spurs of that era, Banks has fond memories of playing in HemisFair Arena in front of the Baseline Bums.
“It was one of the most unbelievable places to play,” Banks said. “The energy of the fans was amazing. The Baseline Bums were like my family. No matter how down you were, they’d pick you up.
“They’d have dinners for the players and I’d go to their homes. I enjoyed it.”
But after the 1984-85 season, the Spurs traded Banks to the Chicago Bulls for Steve Johnson and a second round draft pick.
Banks said he learned of the trade while vacationing in China with his wife.
“I was watching television in the hotel lobby,” Banks recalled. “They said Stan Albeck was hired as the Bulls’ new coach and his first move was to acquire Gene Banks. No one told me about it.”
He said he still loves Albeck, now 86 and in failing health, “more than anything in this world.”
“He was tough on me, but he accepted and respected me,” Banks said. “But I had to earn it.”
Banks averaged 10.9 and 9.7 points per game in his two seasons in Chicago playing with Michael Jordan. He suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in a non-sanctioned summer league all-star game prior to the 1987-88 season.
The team waived him that fall.
He went on to play a year in the CBA, then coached and played eight seasons in France, Italy (with Gilmore), Israel, Peru, Greece, Belgium and Argentina.
Banks has worked in broadcasting, dabbled in acting (he played a key role in the movie “Eddie,” starring Whoopi Goldberg) and coached women’s basketball at Bluefield State (West Virginia) and Bennett College (North Carolina).
He served as assistant coach and scout with the Washington Wizards of the NBA from 2009-2012 and was a finalist for the San Antonio Stars’ recent head coaching vacancy (a job that went to former Stars player and assistant coach Vickie Johnson).
Banks said he felt snubbed by the rejection.
“It really bothers me, because I felt I could have revised the program,” he said. “I like (Johnson) as a person, but they started 0-14. San Antonio can be a good place for women’s basketball, done right.”
Banks recently spent time in China at a basketball camp training Chinese big men.
Ready for more
Banks hopes to coach again in the NBA and would consider coming back to the Spurs, even if only in a community relations capacity.
“I love coach (Gregg) Popovich,” Banks said. “(Spurs shooting coach) Chip Engelland and I played together at Duke. My heart’s always been a Spur.”
In the meantime, Banks, 58, is content to work on his foundation from his home in Greensboro, North Carolina.
His personal life has been touched by tragedy.
He has two sons and two daughters, all grown, with three grandchildren. But another son, Kyle, died in 2008 of a ruptured aorta.
His wife, Isabelle, a cable television producer of Spurs halftime shows, died in 1997 after battling multiple sclerosis.
He has never remarried.
“No one can ever replace her,” Banks said. “She was God’s gift to me.”
As for that nickname? Banks said he’s still known as Tinkerbell in Philly and at his alma mater of Duke, but the moniker never followed him to the NBA.
Possibly because of Banks’ physical style of play
“It had no bearing on my masculinity,” Banks said of his Tinkerbell nickname. “Let’s make that very clear.”