By John Herndon, 110forChrist.com
The last walk Bob Osborne took as a basketball coach is still seared in my mind. He held to a walker and slowly made his way from the Anderson County bench across the court at Owen County High School where he’d won so many games in 37 years of coaching.
It was supposed to be Anderson County’s year. And when Coach Osborne came out of a one-year retirement to join the Lady Bearcat coaching staff in the fall of 2018, Anderson hadthe experience of seniors and the exuberance of youth. Osborne, who had become friends with Anderson coach Clay Birdwhistell years before when they often crossed paths on the scouting trail.
He’d been off the bench for a year, but it was a natural that Osborne join the Anderson staff, giving Birdwhistell, who had become head coach less than five years before, the perspective of a seasoned veteran.
It looked like the perfect match.
Life didn’t cooperate. Not long before that 2018-19 season began, Osborne got the call no one wanted: He had Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” Time was short and most knew he would leave the bench for good sometime in March, 2019.
It happened a couple of weeks too early. A bad shooting game did Anderson in against its old nemesis, Simon Kenton, in the regional semifinals. Like almost every team that does not reach a lofty goal, the Lady Bearcats shed tears freely.
And Bob Osborne’s walk off the court one final time was even longer. He ultimately lost his battle with ALS in December. In a church filled with people Bob Osborne had touched during his time teaching and coaching at Owen County sat the 2019-2020 Anderson County Lady Bearcats. Birdwhistell said they attended the service on their own.
The beloved coach was a member of the Owen County Hall of Fame, but amid Rebel memorabilia in his casket was an Anderson County Lady Bearcat shirt. One of the four coaches speaking at his funeral was Birdwhistell.
Wednesday night, the Lady Bearcats slipped past Franklin County, 40-37, in the opening round of the Mingua Beef Jerky/KHSAA Girls’ Sweet 16. It was a year late for their beloved coach but some of the lessons he taught had been apparent in the run to Rupp Arena.
Grace. Resilience. Caring for others. Giving everything to be the best one can be.
“We are very excited about this win,” Anderson coach Clay Birdwhistell said in the postgame press conference. “I think it is very indicative of this team. They are going to play their butts off every game as long as there is time on the clock.”
They’d manifested themselves eight days earlier when the Lady Bearcats withstood an early punch from Simon Kenton then fought and clawed their way to a 42-32 win. Bob Osborne’s widow, Linda, was in attendance to cheer on the Lady Bearcats.
Anderson took care of business with easy wins over Owen County and South Oldham for the Eighth Region title, but just as they had against Simon Kenton, fell behind Franklin County 6-0. The courtside analysis would focus on Anderson’s defense bothering Franklin and containing star guard Brooklynn Miles. It would point to Anderson’s enormously talented sophomore, Amiya Jenkins making play after play, including a breakaway layup with 18 seconds left that set the final score.
But those would only be part of the story. That Franklin County win, Anderson’s second over the Flyers this year, was a testament to Birdwhistell and his staff’s molding of the team. And it was a testament to Osborne’s legacy. Through much of the year, Birdwhistell had carried Osborne’s whistle in his pocket as a reminder of the lessons he’d learned from one of the coaching greats.
Down early, there was no panic. There was a resilience to get the job done and a celebration to enjoy the moment.
“I think all year and especially in the last week or so we have had him in our minds a lot, not because we have had any kind of pressure, where we felt like we had to succeed necessarily for Bob,” Birdwhistell said, “but more of how much he would have loved every second of this and how much he believed in these kids and how much he believed in what they could do and what was possible with them. It was really special over the last week to win a region that he had been talking about for years about this bunch. Tonight afterwards. just to have a moment to think about how much he would have loved this moment It was really special”
He wasn’t just sharing some sentimental platitudes. Even though Coach Osborne was taken from this earth in December, he still influences the Lady Bearcats.
“I think of him a lot actually. He was there for our team and he was there for us. He was willing to do anything,” said sophomore Jacie Chesser, who came off the bench to score 13 points and claim a team-high six rebounds against Franklin. “He would stay after practice and help with us. He was a great person and I feel like the team thinks about him a lot. We talk about him in the locker room still. We know he is watching over us and watching us play.”
Junior Rachel Satterly, who came up with a steal and a layup to put Anderon up 38-37 with 49 seconds left, added, “I agree with everything (Chesser) said. We love Bob.”
Over the last few months of his life, I visited Bob Osborne several times in his Owenton home. It became difficult for him to talk as ALS attacked. Yet, when I visited, he was often watching the Major League Baseball network — he loved those Cincinnati Reds! — or ESPN. He knew his days were numbered but Osborne was always positive. A visit often did more for the visitor than it did for the man fighting for his life.
I talked with Birdwhistell several times over the last few months and I said more than once that while it was disappointing that the 2019 Anderson County team did not make the Sweet 16, those girls learned invaluable life lessons from being around a man who lived his Christian faith. They were lessons bigger than any championship trophy.
Little did we know those life lessons would manifest themselves less than 24 hours after what was apparently the Lady Bearcats’ final game of the 2020 season. The Kentucky High School Athletic Association, citing concerns from the governor’s office and health organizations, suspended the Sweet 16 before the first round was even completed. Even though the KHSAA has left the door open to reschedule the remaining games, doing so would likely present an enormous logistical problem.
It’s athletic adversity unlike any I have ever experienced in 35 years of writing. But it’s nothing compared to what Bob Osborne experienced when he was given his devastating diagnosis. He carried on, fighting with grace, resilience and enjoying the moment.
The Anderson County Lady Bearcats did that Wednesday night. “We wish he was here with us,” Chesser said.
But handling the unexpected adversity with grace is a life victory exceeding any they could win on the Rupp Arena floor.