Wiedmer: Say a prayer for Henry Dickerson and his family

Henry Dickerson needs our prayers.

The former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga head basketball coach and longtime Mocs assistant - and one of the most decent and thoughtful people to ever scribble Xs and Os on a grease board - is in rapidly declining health.

A broken hip earlier this spring led to complications in his heart and lungs, so much so that he was placed on a ventilator. Hospice has since been called in. Prayers, lots of prayers, may be the only medicine that can ease his pain and suffering.

"He's lucid," said former UTC coach Mack McCarthy, who hired Dickerson away from Marshall in 1989, then saw him take over the Mocs in 1997 after McCarthy left for Virginia Commonwealth. "He just can't talk for long because of his lung issues."

Former Mocs great Brandon Born echoed his former head coach's sentiments after speaking briefly with Dickerson last week from the family's Durham, North Carolina home.

"We talked for five minutes or so," Born said Monday afternoon. "It's hard. I haven't lost a parent yet, but I imagine this is what it feels like. He's the kindest, most gentle man I've ever known. A true gentle giant."

Said Steve Lickliter, Dickerson's closest friend from his childhood days in Beckley, West Virgina and his teammate at Morris Harvey College: "He's the best athlete I've ever known - he almost played both football and basketball at Norfolk State - but he's also the ideal person off the court. He's never talked about himself, not a word. But he's always had plenty of nice things to say about everybody else."

Former UTC player and assistant and current Baylor School girls basketball coach John Gibson echoed Lickliter concerning Dickerson's aversion to drawing attention to himself, saying, "Any information I gleaned from him (about his athletic achievements), I had to ask. He never volunteered anything."

Yet if there's ever been a guy who should have talked about himself for hours, it's Dickerson. He remains the only person to ever make the all-conference and all-tournament teams in the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference all four years he played. He was an NAIA All-American. He also played for both the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks of the NBA. He was so athletic that after often playing inside in college because of his physicality and jumping ability, he became a 6-4 guard in the NBA.

"(The late Basketball Hall of Famer) Bob Lanier used to tell me that Henry was the hardest-working player he ever played with," said Bill King, who was a freshman at Morris Harvey - now the University of Charleston (West Virginia) - when Dickerson was a senior there, and then a public relations person for the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks when Lanier played there.

That reputation for hard work on the recruiting trail and the practice court is what led McCarthy to lure Dickerson away from Marshall on the advice of former UTC assistant LJ Kilby. It became one of the most successful good cop/bad cop coaching duos in college hoops, Dickerson a master at smoothing out a player's ruffled feathers after McCarthy had chewed him out.

"I'm sure he talked more players off the ledge than I'll ever know about," said McCarthy with a chuckle. "He totally kept problems out of my office. And on the recruiting trail, he was a machine. He did an incredible job of building a relationship with a player and his parents while still selling me.

"And it was all so sincere. I can't tell you the number of letters and phone calls I got from parents telling me about how much Henry stayed in touch with them, always telling me how much he really cared about their son."

Tim Brooks, one of the best point guards in UTC history, now lives in Nashville. He said he tries to live every day by the lessons Dickerson taught him.

"Just a standup guy," said Brooks. "A mentor. He always told you the truth, but he always tried to leave you with a positive message. He taught me to be a man of my word. Be a man of integrity. That held more weight for me than basketball."

Gibson coached with and under Dickerson at UTC for 12 years total before heading off to Baylor.

"Such a good person," Gibson said. "Great father to Brian and Brandon. Great husband to Deborah. His priorities have always been with his family. And we never had a player who didn't love him."

A single example of that goodness: Whenever the weather turned cold, Dickerson would start Deborah's car long enough before she left for work that it would always be warm before she climbed inside. Always.

Said Lickliter on Monday, his voice a bit shaky, "If I had a daughter, which I don't, I'd want her to marry somebody just like Henry. He's the purest, most decent person I've ever known."

And there's not a person on this planet who's ever met him who wouldn't say the exact same thing. So let the prayers flow, and also the thank yous for all the lives Henry Dickerson has made better just by being Henry.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com