The last time I heard from Banks, who for years covered the Bulls for the Sun-Times, was November 22, 2010. He wanted to alert me to dramatic progress in his battle to stay alive: he'd jumped to the top of the transplant list!
If all goes well, sometime in the next 30 days I will get a new heart.
This past week, my case manager at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., heart-transplant nurse Jody Hanson, gave me the good news: I have been elevated to ''1A,'' tops on the list to get a transplant—not only in bad enough need but also now in good enough health to undergo the operation.
It has been 31 months now since Dr. Valluvan Jeevanandam, chief cardiac surgeon at the University of Chicago Medical Center, and Dr. Allen Anderson, a U. of C. cardiologist, diagnosed my end-stage congestive heart failure. They told me I needed a heart transplant to live longer than three or four years.
''Give me that heart!'' I pleaded.
But as they made sure I was healthy enough to risk being given a precious donor heart, I was disqualified when doctors discovered I not only had a bad heart but also a brain tumor and a prostate tumor.
Fortunately, the brain tumor was benign. And radiation treatment drove my early stage and localized prostate cancer into remission.
Banks went on to say that in what he called "the Mayo Clinic's Midwest region" there was nobody with a B-positive blood type who would be given a new heart ahead of him. A Baptist preacher as well as a Sun-Times sportswriter, Banks was no more willing to submit meekly to the presumed will of God than he'd ever been to the will of publishers and editors. "Death always has been inevitable," he reasoned. "But God has blessed medical science with the ability and skill to salvage organs from dead donors and use them to save the lives of others." He was determined to be one of those others. "Once I'm told that a heart is available, I have to get to Minnesota and be on the operating table within four hours. [His wife] Joyce and I already have our bags packed, and four different air ambulances and private charter planes are ready to get us there."
In the meantime, "To the best of my knowledge, I am the only newspaper reporter working under the power of a heart pump, a device that runs on batteries when I'm outside covering games and plugs in to house current when I go to bed."
But the call from Minnesota didn't come. The last post I found on Banks's blog—which he called "Conquering cancer and heart failure . . . with Jesus, doctors and common sense"—is dated last August 21. In language oddly indifferent to the feelings of the doctors he's counting on to save his life, he explains why he's decided to drop off the Mayo Clinic's heart transplant list in favor of the list kept by the University of Chicago Medical Center.
"Yes, the Mayo Clinic is much more highly acclaimed for heart transplantation, and yes, it was the Mayo that decided to put me on its heart transplant list when nobody else I contacted would," Banks wrote. But the medical center is much closer to home and family and therefore much easier and cheaper to get to; and "if the Lord chooses to take me, I will already be home in Chicago instead of another distant city. Thank you, Jesus! Hallelujah!"
On Wednesday evening Banks, surrounded by family, died at his home in Hazel Crest while listening to the Bulls game. He was 68. His sister Veruynca Williams tells me there was no transplant. It had been ruled out months ago, when medicine he needed to support his heart caused other internal organs to begin to deteriorate.
I want to share two columns I wrote about Lacy Banks. The first ran in 1990. Banks sowed a fair amount of consternation in his life, and one of the most consternated—and rightly so—was the late Lewis Grizzard. Banks joined the Sun-Times in 1975, and soon after, Grizzard, the new sports editor, took away his weekly column and started spiking his stories. Banks told the Chicago Defender the treatment he was getting was racist, refused to apologize for saying so, and was tossed off the paper. Thanks to a federal mediator, Banks managed to climb right back on, and it was Grizzard who soon beat a retreat. Years later, having become a popular southern humorist, Grizzard wrote a book that recalled his Chicago fiasco:
"'Some of you, it has been a pleasure to work with. Others of you, it has not been,'" Grizzard wrote that he said in his farewell speech to his staff (of which Banks was far from being the only writer happy to see him go). "'And one of you has been an incredible pain in the ass.'
"With that, Lacey J. Banks got out of his chair, walked over to me, and stuck out his hand. I shook it."
Nothing that Grizzard wrote about his 17 months in Chicago is particularly reliable—which was the point of my column. But at least it can be said of Banks that in addition to his other distinctions—such as his degree in French, his service as a naval officer, the books he wrote—he will be remembered for all time under a misspelled name in the pages of If I Ever Get Back to Georgia, I'm Gonna Nail My Feet to the Ground for having driven its author back to Georgia.
The 2010 column examined some complicated pension problems Banks ran into when he looked into retiring from the Sun-Times. Banks hired a lawyer, decided his lawyer was serving him badly, and told him in a letter: ""Now, I can understand why people are afraid to drop a dime against crime. . . . With friends like Brutus and Judas, who needs enemies?"
He said to me then, "I guess . . . I am a pain in the ass to anybody who makes me a promise and tries to renege on it. Anybody who lies to me or anybody who tries to violate my human rights, my civil rights, damn, my union rights, I'm going to be a pain in their ass, their nose, every orifice that exists in their body."
Visitation will be March 28 from 6 to 9 PM at Leak & Sons Funeral Home in Country Club Hills. The service will be the next morning at 10 AM at Liberty Baptist church on South Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in Chicago.