February 1, 2012

By Paul Corliss

People draw inspiration from different sources. For Dr. George W. Tinsley Sr., the drive to succeed comes from way back on the mean streets of Louisville’s Smoketown neighborhood – A place where he learned toughness, determination and moxie that have served him well on his march through life.

Be it basketball, business, education or family, Tinsley has been defined in life by one word: success. This former basketball star, business dynamo and rock-solid family man has the world at his fingertips. But this rags-to-riches story had a tough beginning that included Tinsley being abandoned by his birth mother and raised by a disabled, elderly lady who kept her household together with a $65 social security check each month.

“My situation may seem unique to the outside world, but lot of athletes came from tough situations,” Tinsley said. “I’ve had many angels in my life and I learned from the community. I learned from my teachers, I learned from the preacher and I also learned lessons from the bad people … the pimps, the prostitutes.”

The lady Tinsley came to call “mama” – a neighborhood babysitter of sorts named Willie Tinsley – always seemed to find a way to hold her household together and young George took note. Some of his first applications of this grit and determination came on the athletic fields of Smoketown.

“I started getting into athletics in junior high because I found that it gave me the reward of self esteem,” Tinsley said. “My first sport was track, but then I started growing in 6th and 7th grade and joined a basketball team the gym teacher put together.”

As his basketball game developed, Tinsley slowly took to the game and eventually starred at long-time powerhouse Male High School in Louisville. Though he says he was only a role player in high school, Tinsley was good enough to draw interest from several colleges and eventually selected Kentucky Wesleyan, because Coach Guy Strong told him he could start as a freshman.

Tinsley immediately took advantage of his on-court opportunities at Kentucky Wesleyan and helped lead the Panthers to their first-ever NCAA Division II National Championship in 1966. The Panthers would make four NCAA Division II Final Four appearances in Tinsley’s career, winning three national championships in four seasons.

Off-the-court, Tinsley’s character developed with similar voracity. As his college career wound down in 1969, Tinsley received Kentucky Wesleyan’s highest honor – the Oak & Ivy Award. In 1969 he became the first African American student-athlete to graduate from the college.

“College is where I really blossomed and came into my own from a self esteem standpoint,” Tinsley said. “From there, I was drafted by the (Chicago) Bulls in the sixth round of the NBA’s draft and the ABA’s Oakland Oaks took me in the second round. Oakland had won the ABA championship with Rick Barry and Larry Brown the season before and they offered me a signing bonus. I came right in as a poor young man, grabbed that money and was ready to run.”

And run Tinsley has. Through a basketball career that included stints with the Washington Capitols, Kentucky Colonels and Miami Floridians. Then head-first into a stellar business career that started with a trainer position at Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Today, Tinsley is one of the country’s most prominent restaurateurs and concessionaires, with an impressive business portfolio that includes franchise and license agreements with Kentucky Fried Chicken, TGIFriday’s, Starbucks, Quiznos, Sbarro, and many more well-known brands. He’s also been wildly successful in family life, with Seretha – his wife of almost 40 years – and children Penni and George, II (now grown and also involved in the family business).

The secret to his success? For Tinsley, it all goes back to Smoketown and the will to make the best out of difficult circumstances.

“The lady that raised me in my formative years, seeing her survive with one leg, little education and a $65 social security check … that’s my inspiration,” Tinsley said. “She always took life’s lemons and made lemonade. She instilled in me that you can make it.”