Sidelined twice last season and unsure of hoops future, Shelby coach Bruce Blanton still shares positive message
By John Herndon, 110forChrist.com
(Editor’s note: Bruce Blanton resigned as girls’ basketball coach at Shelby County on June 9, citing a desire to spend more time with his family, devote more time to God’s work and to pursue some other interests. He added that he plans to use his time away from basketball to “rest up and hopefully be back on the sidelines in the near future.”)
Things were looking good for the Shelby County High School girls’ basketball team.
The Lady Rockets had opened the 2019-20 season with three straight wins, something they hadn’t done in four years. They were getting ready for back-to-back 30th District games against Spencer County and Collins and felt they had a chance to snap a district losing streak that had reached 22 games.
But one December afternoon, Shelby coach Bruce Blanton and his team saw things from a different perspective. And the wins earned since that time are bigger than any trophy the Lady Rockets could have added to their vast trophy case.
“We were off to a pretty good start. We were having great practices and we had brought some of our middle schoolers up,” Blanton remembers. “We were having a great practice. Something just happened. We were working on a half-court trap. I was sliding along and I just blacked out. I had to sit down on the bleachers and then an assistant coach helped me to the locker room. The trainer was there and the assistant coaches tried to get me to the emergency room that night…. I went home, put on a heating pad, took some Tylenol and took a hot shower. Then I went to bed.
“The next morning, I went to work. I was only there a little bit and realized there was something wrong.”
Blanton, a special education teacher at Shelby County, went to see his doctor. Instead of returning to class or the gym, he found himself checking into the stroke care unit at Norton’s Hospital in Louisville.
It’s a sobering diagnosis, especially to someone in his early 50s. But he left the hospital, feeling things were going well. Unfortunately, they weren’t as well as he thought.
Blanton, who had just started his third year as head coach at Shelby, tried to return to the sidelines a few weeks later when the Rockets hosted South Oldham on Jan. 9. South won that one, 59-43, but most importantly, Bruce Blanton was back at his doctor’s office the next morning.
“They ran some more tests and that’s when they told me, ‘You just need to stay away for a while,’” Blanton says.
He reluctantly heeded the warnings, but wanted to at least make it to the Lady Rockets’ final home game, a 67-39 win over Moore on Feb. 17. His doctor nixed that.
“I listened to games on the radio and I watched games on film and stuff,” Blanton smiles. “They asked me how that made me feel and I said, ‘A little aggravated.’
“So they said, ‘Absolutely not.’”
Blanton sported what appeared to be a sheepish grin as he recounted the events that kept him off the bench. We talked via Zoom due to his increased risk of complications from a potential COVID-19 infection.
And, Blanton says, his doctors are not 100 percent sure that his issues were caused by a stroke. “That’s what the initial symptoms kind of were, but they haven’t decided if that is what happened,” Blanton says. “One time they think that is what it most likely was. The next visit, they are not sure.
Blanton says an unknown battle with COVID-19 has not been ruled out. He says his doctors believe it is possible since the issues began in December, “before it became a thing” and it will be sometime this summer, at the earliest before anyone can be sure.
But one thing is certain: Bruce Blanton believes God has gotten him through a major scare and trial in his life. “Through a lot of prayers by a lot of people and through the grace of God and His blessings, it has gotten better,” Blanton says.
Blanton didn’t return to the sidelines after that South Oldham game on Jan. 9 as Shelby finished 14-14, before losing to Spencer County in the 30th District Tournament opener. Assistant coach Katie Hudgens, a former Shelby player, ran the team in Blanton’s absence. “Katie got thrown into a situation,” Blanton says. “It was kind of a perfect storm. An assistant coach’s wife was pregnant and had to go on bed rest. He was trying to work and take care of her, so for her health and the health of the baby, he had to step away. Another assistant was supposed to be in it just for conditioning, so he deferred to Katie. She did a good job and did something she was never expecting to do.”
Blanton was cleared to return to his job as a special education teacher three weeks before schools closed for the coronavirus in mid-March. In his field, meetings are required with He smiles at the irony of his stress level rising after the schools shut down. “I don’t know how unstressed it is,” he says with a chuckle. “You try to have a 3 or 4 o’clock cutoff (from school work) but I find myself trying to help students or having meetings at night. The stress has probably gotten worse.”
Blanton got his first taste of the sidelines during his senior year at Eastern Kentucky University. That stint coaching basketball at Model High School, on the EKU campus, began a career that has taken him to his native Rockcastle County, Spencer County and Henry County before landing at Shelby County, where he served as an assistant coach before taking over the girls’ basketball program three years ago.
Being involved with high school sports for nearly 30 years made staying away tough. “I really loved the kids,” he says. “They were some good kids and hard-working kids. The kids understood, but I really wanted to see them.”
The reality of health issues coupled with the double caution associated with COVID-19 opened some new ways for Blanton to communicate with his players and make an impact. He’s honored his seniors with Facebook posts highlighting his careers and he’s become a pro with the Zoom application. In addition, he’s used several forms of technology to share his deep faith.
One such avenue has been a recurring Facebook video he class “Motivational Moment by The Ole Ball Coach.” He simply shares some life insights, weaving biblical truths in his messages.
“I started that kind of as a way (to communicate). I was getting a lot of calls and texts and Messengers,” says Blanton, who is a part of the Holly Hill Church of Christ in Frankfort. “We were doing Bible study one night with people talking about how they could help others (during the coronavirus shutdown). I couldn’t get out. My doctor said it wasn’t a good idea. But on social media, I could connect with people, talk to my friends and family, plus, I get in a Bible study.
“It gave me a chance to let everybody know how I was doing and I got some Scripture in. I let them know how much I appreciate them. I didn’t do it for feedback. I did it to help others through this time. I was able to have a positive effect and we can share those blessings on social media. You know, Scripture says each part of the body has a purpose and the church is a body. (The medical issue) has had a silver lining. We have been able to share blessings.”
It’s that word Bruce Blanton uses over and over again during a 30-minute conversation.
Blessings. God’s blessings. Blessings bestowed by people simply living as they believe God leads.
Whether Bruce Blanton will be able to continue sharing those blessings as head coach of the Lady Rockets is yet to be determined. “Right now, it’s questionable,” he says. “I think it is 50-50, but I am hoping to get back.”
Blanton says he has an appointment with his neurologist scheduled this month and they will be evaluating more at that time.
Meanwhile, Blanton just tries to share a message consistent with his faith in Christ. “People ask why God would put me through this. I say, ‘Wait just one second. God doesn’t have anything to do with that. Everything bad comes from the devil and everything good comes from God. He will bring rain on the just and the unjust.
“If we are Christians, it doesn’t mean we don’t have to face the same trials and tribulations that everybody else does. When you read the Scriptures, you see that everyone has trials and tribulations. If you don’t believe that, go look at Job. He got closer to God. With trials and tribulations, we get wisdom. We become stronger in the faith. People ask me and I say it could always be worse.”
Blanton’s voice begins to break.
“The thing that struck me, my wife and I were down at Norton’s Hospital. We were able to walk out instead of being in a wheelchair.”
And with that simple act that most take for granted, Bruce Blanton knew things really are looking good.