The Port Arthur News
PORT ARTHUR —
James Gamble’s childhood is not for print.
“It was tough,” the retired Lincoln High School basketball coach — who recently received a Lifetime Achievement award for exemplary service to the National Alumni Association and Prairie View A&M University — said of growing up in south central Los Angeles. “There were a lot of things going around, all of them not good.”
Gamble managed to avoid the unrest of his community by busying himself with sports. He excelled most of all in basketball and track, earning all-American honors in both sports in high school.
“It occupied your time,” Gamble said. “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.”
Gamble’s ticket out of that life came when one of his basketball coaches at David Starr Jordan High School accepted a coaching position at Prairie View A&M University, in Prairie View. Tom Williams recruited 11 of his high school players to follow him to Texas.
Gamble was among those 11 players. After his freshman year, only three remained and his high school coach departed Prairie View for a job at Grambling State University. By 1957, Gamble was the only player from his high school to walk across the stage and receive his diploma (he earned a degree in physical education). Still, even amidst the unfamiliar faces in an even less familiar state, Gamble had found his home.
“There were a lot of people down there just like me, that didn’t have much of anything,” he said. “We had nowhere to go but forward.”
And forward he went. Gamble moved to Port Arthur in 1962 to take over as the head basketball coach at Lincoln High School.
At a time when basketball functioned primarily as the stepchild to football, Gamble managed to amass 641 wins and 220 losses, 16 district championships and four state titles before his retirement in 1988. Ten years later, he would — in the style of another basketball icon, Michael Jordan — temporarily unretire, coaching the Bumblebees to a 29-6 record and 4-A state runner-up.
Gamble’s success has not gone unrecognized. There is a street in Port Arthur, as well as the Lincoln Middle School gymnasium, that bears his name. Every year, the Southeast Texas area top offensive and defensive players receive the James Gamble Awards.
Each of these awards holds a place of honor on what Gamble jokingly refers to as his “Wall of Fame.” All of them, however, pale in comparison to the Lifetime Achievement award, received on his behalf at the 2013 Prairie View A&M University National Alumni Association Convention, held June 26-30 in Atlanta.
A humbled Gamble called the accolade “the best award I could receive.”
“I’ve received a lot of awards, and I’m appreciative of every last one of them, but this is one that I did not seek out,” Gamble said. “This is something that came from someone that felt like the contributions that I have made to my university to the National Alumni Association that warrants me receiving this.”
That someone was Samuel Metters, a former football player at Prairie View A&M University who graduated alongside Gamble in 1957. Metters went on to found Metters Incorporated, an engineering firm with six offices and more than 18 locations nationwide.
“He’s lived the life true to his alma mater, true to his country, and true to the city of Port Arthur and the state of Texas,” Metters, who lives in Arlington, Va., said in a telephone interview. “He’s carrying the message that Prairie View is one of the greatest institutions in the country.”
Much of Gamble’s illustrious career, he said, is owed to his coaches. He aspired to make the same impact on every player who crossed his path — starter or benchwarmer.
“You always try to figure out how you can pay back,” Gamble said. “The only way I could figure out was to do for some youngsters what was done for me. I feel like I’ve done that.”
This is especially important, Gamble said, because he found in Port Arthur a similar economic climate to the one in which he was reared.
“There’s a lot of kids here in Port Arthur that grew up in similar environments,” Gamble said. “You just have to sit down with them and spend time with them and let them know that your primary interest in them is not just as an athlete, but also a person.”
Now 78, Gamble has maintained his involvement with Port Arthur and its community. Any time a new coach is hired, Gamble meets them. He is also a fixture at the Memorial High School football and baseball games.
And the number of calls he receives from former players on Father’s Day is a testimony to his impact on the community.
“Two little guys, 150 lbs. soaking wet, and each of us did great in our field,” Metters said. “We’re still giving back to our alma mater.”