Think you're a big basketball fan? Meet 'Pops' DeBose

Retired veteran and avid local hoops fan, J.C. "Pops" DeBose (center) watches the first half of the Class 7A region boys basketball quarterfinal at Hillsborough High School in Tampa, Fla. on Thursday, February 16, 2017.
Retired veteran and avid local hoops fan, J.C. "Pops" DeBose (center) watches the first half of the Class 7A region boys basketball quarterfinal at Hillsborough High School in Tampa, Fla. on Thursday, February 16, 2017.
Published March 1, 2017

Say hello to Pops.

He phones the newspaper all the time. Has for years. People know the voice, full of gravel.

"What are the good games tonight?" he asks.

He means high school games, boys and girls basketball. Doesn't much matter which.

Someone reads off the games. And away Pops goes.

Every sport in Tampa Bay, every sport anywhere, should have a Pops.

J.C. (James Chester) "Pops" DeBose, 81, recently moved into a one-bedroom unit in an assisted-living facility, not far from Tampa's James A. Haley Veterans Hospital, where he is a frequent visitor.

Pops will tell you about the brain surgery six years ago. His Parkinson's tremors. His heart troubles. His kidneys.

"Had some strokes. Got the high blood pressure and the sugar diabetes," Pops said, pointing to a tray filled with his daily medications.

Not going to stop Pops.

"There are games I need to be at," he said. "These children keep the spirit in you."

Pops DeBose goes to high school games nearly every night. He folds up his walker and loads it in his red 2000 Ford Explorer, which at last count had 210,452 miles on it. Pops travels all over Tampa Bay and beyond. Dozens and dozens games a season.

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And there's state — the state high school basketball tournament in Lakeland. Pops goes every year — every game, boys and girls. He has been going to state for more than 35 years. He sits in the Lakeland Center with the "Tournament Gang," a group of older fans who attend state every year.

"You come find me," Pops said.

Late in the season, Pops hitched a ride. He and his new friend picked out a boys game, a regional playoff contest, Land O' Lakes at Hillsborough. Pops' friend swung by to get him.

There's a recliner in the living room. Pops sleeps in it instead of his bed.

"Got all I need right here," he said.

Pops works out of his recliner. His Bible sits nearby, highlighted throughout. There were scraps of paper everywhere. More like collages of newspaper and magazine clippings. He hands them out at games when he can. He wants to send a message to the kids he watches.

"Stay in school, stay healthy, live a smart life," Pops said.

Pops was born in Gainesville in 1935. He grew up in St. Petersburg. He attended Gibbs High, graduating in 1954, and played basketball, football and some baseball. Pops said he went to Florida A&M, then joined the Army. Then came his barber days, half a century of them, he said. Pops said he had a barber shop and barbecue joint in Largo. He did the cutting and cooking.

Pops is divorced. He has six children. And he has all the other kids, those young athletes.

"It keeps him going," said Pops' oldest child, James Jr., who is 57 and lives near his father. "My dad goes and goes."

The car pulled up to the Hillsborough gym. Pops wore a black T-shirt bearing a message.

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Win or Lose, God Loves You

Pops loaded his water and snacks and meds onto the walker. The Land O' Lakes bus arrived. Players in sweat suits hopped out.

"God, we are going to have us a game tonight," Pops said.

Inside the gym, Pops called out to Hillsborough boys coach Chris Ward, who waved at him.

Ward played basketball for Bradenton Southeast High in the late '80s. One of his teammates was Clifford Rozier. And when they came to St. Petersburg for district play, Pops was there.

"Everybody knows this man," Ward said. "You can't miss him. He has seen more basketball than most of us ever will. His history, the kids can live off him. He enjoys the game. A gentleman like that, you take the game away from him and we might lose him."

One of the referees at the game knew Pops. Barry Brown played for Lakewood High. Pops watched him, too.

"The guy is a basketball junkie," Brown said. "He's good for the game."

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Pops doesn't just go to high school basketball. He likes college ball, too. Likes all sports.

"One time, when I was living in West Palm, he had me come all the way up here so I could check him out of the V.A. hospital so he could go to a high school football game," James Jr. said.

Hillsborough beat Land O' lakes by 11. Pops cheered both teams.

"I got no favorites. I love 'em all."

A Wednesday night at state. A small crowd remained at Lakeland Center for the sixth and final game of the day, the Class 2A girls championship game between Boca Raton Grandview Prep and Ormond Beach Calvary Christian.

And there was Pops. He said he'd been there all day.

"Where the hell else am I going to be?"

Pops' friend George Smith, who co-founded the "Tournament Gang" 16 years ago, said you can count on Pops.

"He's part of this tournament," Smith said.

Grandview Prep beat Calvary Christian. Pops lingered for the Grandview celebration.

"Seeing these kids makes me young," James Chester DeBose said.

He loaded his walker into his old Ford. The tail lights disappeared.

Another perfect season for Pops.

Contact Martin Fennelly at or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.