The Story of Banker Joe

In 2018, Tony Bennett’s team was well positioned to make a deep postseason run. Virginia finished the regular season with a 31-2 record. They won the ACC tournament and received the overall #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. They were popular favorites to win the national championship.

Then disaster struck.

The 16th-seeded UMKC Kangaroos shocked the college basketball world as they pulled off the greatest upset in NCAA tournament history, defeating Virginia 74-54 in a game that was a blowout from start to finish. It was the first time a #1 seed had ever lost in the opening round since the tournament began in 1939.

The Cavaliers were devastated. The criticism of the Virginia program, and Coach Bennett in particular, was blistering. It was a failure of epic proportions.

How does one come back from something like that?

Bennett found inspiration from an unlikely source. His wife stumbled on a TED Talk by storyteller Donald Davis. Bennett watched, and it changed his life.

In the talk, Davis tells a story about his father, a man once known as Crippled Joe. When Joe was five years old, he accidentally cut himself while playing with an ax. The wound severely damaged his knee, and relegated him to a limp for the rest of his life. Physical work would be out of the question.

Eventually, Joe enrolled in college and became a successful businessman. He spent years building a small fortune while caring for his mother and siblings after his father passed. Just after his 44th birthday, Joe bought the local bank and earned a new nickname, Banker Joe.

As a child, Donald only knew his father as Banker Joe. It surprised him one day to hear someone refer to him as Crippled Joe. Donald demanded an explanation, and so his father told him the story about the ax and what his grandmother taught him about bad things that happen in life.

She said, “It’s never tragic when something people think is bad happens to you. Because if you can learn to use it right it can buy you a ticket to a place you would never have gone any other way.”

Donald wasn’t so sure, and neither was Coach Bennett. How could someone learn to use setbacks of this magnitude to achieve something greater?

Grandma had an answer for that as well. 

As Donald’s father recovered from the accident, his mother did something simple, yet profound. She made him tell the story over and over again, but never the same way twice. Every time she asked him to tell the story from a different perspective.

Tell the story and include what you learned by living through that.

The next time you tell the story, explain what you think you mom and dad learned by living through that.

Now tell the story and include what the doctors learned by helping you through that.

Every single time he recounted the story as a child, there was a focus on how the incident impacted the lives of so many for the better. Grandma explained, “You’re not telling the story to change what happened. You’re telling the story to change you.”

“Because when something happens to you,” she said. “It sits on top of you like a rock. And if you never tell the story, it sits on you forever. But as you begin to tell the story, you climb out from under that rock and eventually you sit up on top of it.”

Before the start of the 2018-2019 season, Bennett showed this TED Talk to his team. They needed to come to terms with what happened the previous season, to find a story that changed them. 

In true Cinderella fashion, the Cavaliers went on to win the NCAA tournament in 2019. Prior to the national championship game, Bennett was interviewed by Andy Katz. He was asked how he seemed to be so peaceful on the sideline despite trailing in the final seconds of their last three games before pulling off two miraculous comebacks. Bennett’s response as summarized by TJ Rosene on the Hardwood Hustle podcast:

“I’ve already made peace with the outcome.”

Even before the game was played, Bennett knew he was in the midst of a story chock full of lessons that had already changed him and his players. He accepted the outcome before the game even began - clearing his mind to focus on the biggest moment of his career.

When faced with difficult circumstances, our stories don’t change what happened, but they have the power to change our relationship to what happened for the better.

As Donald’s father told him, “If I hadn’t gotten to be Crippled Joe, I would have never gotten to be Banker Joe.”

Do your stories allow your hardships to take you to a place you could not have gone any other way?

Food for thought.

Nate Sanderson


Virginia’s Tony Bennett on How Perspective Led to a Spot in the National Championship Game

Virginia Writes Championship Comeback Story, Sports Illustrated

How the Story Transforms the Teller, a Ted Talk by Donald Davis

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