The spring of 1969 was a different time for basketball in our state. The basketball culture was different then. There were no interstates to Morgantown and WVU games were rarely shown on television.
The Mountaineers still played in a small Fieldhouse. Marshall played in Memorial Field House, small by today’s standards with 6,500 seats.
There was no ESPN televising games around the country. In Charleston, WCHS-TV gave us the ACC Game of the Week. WSAZ-TV gave us Kentucky basketball and the SEC. In the 1960s, the SEC games featured all-white players. In the ACC, there was only one black player who had star power, Charlie Scott of North Carolina. The 1960s were a time of racial turmoil in our country.
Here in the Kanawha Valley, basketball fans took incredible pride in Charleston High basketball. Lou Romano and his Mountain Lions were the talk of the Valley.
In a time of racial unrest, the Charleston High basketball team unified the city. The Mountain Lions were liked and respected by the East End neighborhoods, the downtown business community, the minority Triangle district and the Kanawha City suburbs.
On the court they were excellent. Off the court they were gentlemen. They played hard, but they played clean. While other teams talked trash, they did not. Former DuPont star Jim Fout once said, “Those guys would beat us by 20-30 points, but it was impossible not to like them.”
At Christmas in Charleston, when one of the players was spotted in the Diamond Department Store, it was our town’s version of a celebrity sighting.
Charleston High was the Class AAA state runner-up in 1967 with a bunch of young kids. In 1968 they went undefeated and won the AAA state title led by Curt Price. In 1969, Charleston was a perfect 23-0 heading into the regional finals. Charleston had won 48 straight games and another state title was expected.
Then in March of 1969, the unthinkable happened. Charleston lost to Greg Hawkins and Huntington 86-70 in the regional final. The game was played in front of a packed house in the old Charleston Civic Center.
The coach of that Huntington team was Jim Ward, who died on Monday of this past week at the age of 86. Ward was the longtime basketball coach at Huntington and he was also a great golfer. He won the State Amateur in 1964 and helped Marshall win the MAC championship in 1962.
The starters for Charleston High were Terry Berkely, Larry “Deacon” Harris, Skip Mason, Steve Parsons and Levi Phillips. The Huntington starters were Steve Crank, Greg Hawkins, David Johnson, Bill Wellman and Bernard Williams. Phillips and Harris went on to play at WVU. Hawkins would play at N.C. State on the 1974 NCAA championship team.
When Charleston High lost the game, our city went in a state of stunned shock. Thoughts of losing never entered the fans' minds. On the radio broadcast of the game, veteran local broadcaster Ernie Saunders said several times, “I can’t believe this is happening."
It was a different time. High school basketball does not mean as much today. In the late 1960s, Charleston High was the center of the Kanawha Valley’s basketball universe. This week’s passing of Jim Ward was a reminder of the night our city was stunned by a high school basketball game.