To understand Steve Forbes, you probably need to understand Lone Tree, Iowa. But to understand Lone Tree, you probably need to understand Steve Forbes.
They are inseparable, one a tiny one stop-sign town and the other a no-nonsense, one stop-sign coach.
Hard-working, humble and the salt of the earth.
Wake Forest hasn’t hired just a basketball coach. It’s hired the town of Lone Tree.
Forbes is proud of where he came from. But he wants to set one thing straight right away.
“There’s more than one tree,” he said.
In his opening press conference last week, Forbes talked fondly of the town that made him, the farms that formed him and the schoolhouse that taught him that nothing comes easy.
“I went to school in Lone Tree, Iowa from 1970 to 1983,” he said. “Our school colors were black and gold. If you cut my veins, I bleed black and gold. I have now come full circle from Lone Tree to Wake Forest.”
In truth, he went to one school his entire time in Lone Tree, the only school in town.
“You started on the bottom floor in kindergarten,” Forbes said. “You worked your way up to the top floor as a senior. Along the way, you went around the corner to the left in junior high. But it was all one building.”
Lone Tree is that small.
According the chamber of commerce, there are two churches, two gas stations, a floral shop, a hair salon, a masseuse and yes, to this day, one stop sign.
“We’re a really small town of about 1,400,” said Lone Tree mayor Joanne Havel. “We’re all excited that this has put us on the map. Everybody here is proud of Steve.”
Forbes is a common name in Lone Tree, she said.
“Everybody is a Forbes,” Havel said. “You’re either a Forbes or you’re related to a Forbes or you’re married to a Forbes.”
That’s why, he joked, he eventually had to leave town to find a wife.
“I didn’t want to marry my cousin,” he said.
Before coming to Wake Forest, Forbes traveled the country on what he called “a journey” that eventually landed him at East Tennessee State University. From junior colleges and major colleges, from a stint as a sports information director to a seat on bench at the University of Tennessee, he and his wife Johnetta went from unheated cabins to houses scattered from Idaho to Florida to Texas and Kansas.
The vagabond life of a basketball coach tests nerves and marriages and families. It requires a strong background and a faith in hard work.
“That was what Lone Tree gave me,” Forbes said. “It made me who I am. It’s all about work ethic. You get what you earn. It’s hard work. Farming is hard. I worked the farms, the fields. I worked at McDonald’s. I’m probably the only coach in America who worked at McDonald’s and then coached McDonald’s all-Americans.”
His career was typical of coaches without pedigree, coaches who clawed their way up. Forbes took jobs when he had no other choice, took good jobs and bad jobs, endured a brush with the NCAA, always landing on his feet and always winning.
“My journey taught me to appreciate people, how to treat people,” he said. “That small-town honesty and values. It’s about respecting people and being honest. The truth sometimes hurts, but that’s the way I was raised. Strong family values. That’s why I brought my staff here from ETSU. I didn’t build ETSU by myself.”
His best friend growing up said he knew Forbes would one day accomplish all his goals, see all his dreams come true.
“He was two years older than me,” Todd Krueger said. “And he was my mentor. He was the only mentor I ever had. He was just a very smart kid, super athletic and friends with everybody. Everybody just seemed to gravitate toward him.”
Kruger said Forbes pushed him in every sport they played, telling him he had a future, that one day he would play Division-I basketball.
“He was coaching me right there in the driveway, and he was still in high school,” Krueger said. “And years later, I indeed played Division-I basketball. Steve was right.”
Forbes didn’t play Division-I basketball. After graduating third in his class of 32, he went to junior college and waited for avenues to open up for him. After three years of basketball, the avenue took an odd turn.
He’d been good at everything at Lone Tree, winning a state championship in football, all-state in everything else including baseball. Before his senior year in college, he walked away from basketball, enrolled at Southern Arkansas and joined the baseball team.
The Muleriders would go 46-7 that year, and the team ended up in the school’s athletics hall of fame, the only team in any sport in school history to be so honored. He met his wife there, took her to Omaha for their honeymoon because he had a job interview and began to wander his way toward, as it turned out, Winston-Salem.
She still hasn’t forgotten she had to go to Omaha for her honeymoon.
“I think she thought I said Oahu,” Forbes said.
So Johnetta will be in charge of finding a house here.
Forbes has to find a basketball team.
This won’t be an easy job. Wake Forest is facing a long rebuilding process from 10 years of losing in a state where losing is a one-way ticket out.
Forbes has won everywhere he’s been, a remarkable run across the country and back, a journey that tested his will and his resilience. But also one that took him back home every time he faced uncertainty.
Home is still Lone Tree, the town with only one stop sign that not everyone bothers to stop at anyway. Forbes didn’t stop there. He took the town with him, stop sign and all.