EDITOR’S NOTE: Tenth in a series. Staff writer Rick Ryan has seen a lot come and go in his newspaper career. Following are recollections from his days at the Wheeling Intelligencer (1978-90), Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times (1990-94) and Charleston Gazette-Mail (1994-2020).
As I hit the finish line with my series, I’m left with various bits and pieces that still come to mind after all these years:
It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when top college players risked life and limb playing in what amounted to barnstorming tours in the spring after their college eligibility had run out and before they were drafted into the NBA.
I got to see one such game in 1994 where several ACC stars toured different communities in North Carolina. The games were usually held at local high school or small college gyms and sprinkled onto the rosters were former athletes from the various communities and even perhaps a few teachers from those schools.
Well, the one I got to cover for the Citizen-Times featured Duke’s Grant Hill, who later that year wound up as the No. 3 pick in the NBA Draft by the Detroit Pistons. One particular moment in the game had me and many people in the stands and on the benches holding our breath.
Hill was dribbling the ball beyond the top of the key at the end of the first half, looking for the final shot, and this big, burly, balding older guy jumped out to play tight, one-on-one defense against him. Somehow, they banged into each other — hips and knees — and Hill’s knee seemed to buckle.
There was no whistle and Hill just let the ball go and it slowly rolled out of bounds as he limped off the court.
Everyone feared a knee injury for Hill but, thankfully, it didn’t turn out to be serious and he came back to play some in the second half. However, it made me wonder back then just why the top-notch players were willing to do these sorts of games with million-dollar contracts on the line.
I realize these barnstorming events still exist — the ACC Tour is now in its 41st year and in the past has included such stars as Michael Jordan and Len Bias — but the top players seldom participate any more.
Ripley’s believe it or not
Forgive me if you’ve seen me mention this one before, but it’s worth repeating. Probably the strangest thing I’ve ever seen on a basketball court.
I was covering a Magnolia at Wheeling Central boys game in the early 1980s, back when the Maroon Knights were in the midst of cranking out Class AA state tournament teams. Anyway, the Blue Eagles were decided underdogs that night, but coach Bob Ripley proved — in a weird way — that he certainly had a lot of fight in him.
Central had possession and missed a short shot, got the offensive rebound and missed another try from point-blank range. All the while, Ripley was standing and screaming at veteran official Warren Hood, who was stationed at the top of the key with his back to Magnolia’s bench.
“They’re going over our back, Warren,’’ Ripley ranted as Central kept tapping the ball at the basket, but missing. “They’re over our back!’’
Finally, Ripley had seen enough. As play ensued under the basket, Ripley strode onto the floor and tapped Hood on the shoulder. Hood turned and did a classic double-take, eyes bulging wide.
“I said: ‘They’re going over our back,’’’ Ripley said calmly.
Hood needed a moment to collect himself, but blew his whistle sharply, slapped Ripley with a technical foul and tossed him from the game.
Central never did put the ball in the basket, and Ripley had a wry smile on his face as he walked off the floor to the locker room.
Another basketball coach who had a lot of fire back in the day was Woodrow Wilson’s Dave Barksdale.
At one state tournament back in the 1990s, Barksdale took out his ire on an unsuspecting Tom Aluise of the Charleston Daily Mail who, like me working for the Gazette, was in the media room getting interviews following a Flying Eagles game. Barksdale, then the team’s head coach, was angered by a small mention I had in that day’s paper about Woodrow’s 0-5 record in games decided by five points or less, a mere statistical anomaly for a long-respected program. Barksdale felt it was a cheap shot.
As Barksdale left the interview room, he growled something at Aluise, who asked what the fuss was about. “Well, you’re Rick Ryan, aren’t you?’’ Barksdale said.
For the record, Aluise and I didn’t — and still don’t — look much alike. But perhaps the worst part of that story for me was fellow sportswriters looking to rehash the moment virtually every state tournament since then.
“Hey, remember the time Barksdale thought Aluise was you?’’ someone will begin, and I just roll my eyes.
Live and learn
As a fresh-faced lad working at The Intelligencer in 1978, one of the first big story assignments I ever received was to drive to Burgettstown, Pennsylvania, about 14 miles from Weirton, and meet with Gary Havelka, a two-time wrestling champion in the prestigious Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL).
Havelka was recovering from the loss of his left leg in a May 1978 auto accident, but was still vowing to compete in college. I interviewed Havelka and other members of his family at their home, and was impressed with his bravery and noble mindset. I realized right then it would make a great inspirational story, and perhaps even evoke a few tears from the reader.
Well, when I got back to the office, I started typing the story on one of our brand-new but notoriously unreliable video display terminals (VDTs for short). Remember, this was 1978 and technology wasn’t anywhere close to what it is now. So, with me about a paragraph or two from finishing, the VDT suddenly went bzzzt, and the story was gone. I hadn’t saved my work, and there was no printout. I was out of luck. I had gotten rather emotionally invested in the story, so it was a real pisser.
But I had my notes and I had no choice. I had to start all over again. The story eventually turned out OK, but I always wondered which version was better. And now I hit the save function after every paragraph.
Back in 2000, I traveled to Harman in Randolph County on Jan. 7 to write a feature on a pair of Class A senior scoring whizzes playing there that night — Josh Delawder of Paw Paw and Scott Shillingburg of Harman. Harman won 70-69, but for me it was a treat to watch a game that featured two players who would finish their careers with the most combined points in state history on the same floor at the same time.
Delawder finished the season with 2,965 career points, still a West Virginia record, and Shillingburg 2,128. Their total of 5,093 points beat the former mark of 5,014 by players in the same game in 1958 when Paul Popovich of Flemington (2,660) squared off with Don Jones of Sherrard (2,354).
The only thing better would have been to attend the rematch on Feb. 25 in Paw Paw, when the Pirates avenged that earlier loss by beating Harman 72-66.
The first time I won a West Virginia Press Association first-place award, it came for a story during my early days with The Intelligencer. I wrote about an 8-year-old girl with one arm who was playing Bantam League baseball in Eastern Ohio, not far from Wheeling, and she was having a great time doing it.
It was a feel-good sort of human interest story that ran on the front page of the entire newspaper (as opposed to just the sports front) and was enhanced by a headline written by Joe Lelli, one of our late-night copy editors. I remember Joe showing me a proof of the initial layout he had in mind, with the hammer headline reading “Bantam.’’ I told him the league name was inconsequential to the theme of the story, and then he came up with: “True Grit,’’ which referenced the popular movie about 10 years prior starring John Wayne.
I still believe Joe’s headline had a lot to do with my award. As an homage to Joe, I used that same hammer head 15 years later when I worked at the Citizen-Times and wrote about a boys basketball team from tiny Nantahala in North Carolina that was bravely keeping the program alive after getting down to six or seven willing and healthy players and absorbing a lot of one-sided losses.
Anyone who watched ESPN’s SportsCenter back in the mid-1990s knew about the Trickle Report. That’s when night-time anchors Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann gave Dick Trickle’s finish in that week’s NASCAR Winston Cup race.
Thanks to Patrick and Olbermann, the curiously named Trickle became a national fan favorite even though he wasn’t exactly breaking the bank with the paychecks from his weekly finishes. Once a legendary short-track driver in the Midwest, Trickle ran in 303 Winston Cup races from 1970-2002 with one pole, no wins and 15 top-five finishes.
I got to meet and interview Trickle, then 52, when five NASCAR drivers competed in the Granger Select Race of Champions in July of 1994 at West Virginia Motor Speedway in Mineral Wells. I asked him about the Trickle Report.
“I think they’re having fun with it,’’ Trickle said. “It’s really a plus for me. How are you gonna get any better national advertising than that?’’
To enhance my feature, I also put in a call to Patrick in Bristol, Connecticut, and he promptly returned the call and we chatted about the phenomenon of Trickle.
“You can’t help but root for him,’’ Patrick said. “He’s nothing flashy, nothing fancy. He gets in his car, rides it until it falls apart and cashes his $200 paycheck. That’s what NASCAR used to be. Now it’s high-tech, and he doesn’t fit in with that picture. It’s such a big business and it’s who’s got the most money has the best car. He’s never gonna have the best car.’’
In the fall of 2013, I took a random phone call in the office from Wayne Lundberg of Redmond, Washington, near Seattle, who was planning on criss-crossing the eastern United States for a football road trip that would take him and his two stepsons to five games in five days in Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. They already had tickets for a Saturday game at WVU and NFL home games for the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants, and were seeking recommendations for high school games in Ohio and West Virginia the two previous nights.
I helped direct them to a Thursday game in Westerville, Ohio, and a Friday game at Cabell Midland in which the Knights outlasted previously unbeaten George Washington 49-40 in a wildly entertaining game. The folks at Midland treated them like football royalty, introducing them to the crowd over the public address system and inviting them to the Touchdown Club’s pregame meal.
I kept in touch with Wayne for a few weeks and wrote a couple of stories about the dream trip with his “sons’’ as he liked to call them, Brent and Steve Meiser. Less than a year later, though, I was saddened to hear that Brent Meiser, 41, passed away suddenly in Redmond. Wayne contacted me and asked for one last favor: Could I write something about their trip that could be read at a celebration of Brent’s life? I felt honored to do so.
In more than four decades of sports reporting, I’ve made it a habit to check my wardrobe before I head out to cover a game to ensure I’m not wearing a blatant color scheme of one of the teams I’ll be watching. I learned that the hard way from the very beginning.
In the early 1980s, there used to be two press boxes at Wheeling Island Stadium, one on each side of the field. I frequented the one where the visiting coaches and their film crew were located, usually because it was far less crowded and easier to get a good vantage point for the game and access to the field.
Well, one time for a season opener, I showed up wearing a bright yellow windbreaker I’d just bought, and thought nothing of possible consequences. But lo and behold when Wheeling Central’s coaching staff came onto the field, they had on bright yellow jackets, very close to the color I was wearing. It was surprising, because Central’s main colors were maroon and white and occasionally a metallic gold, but never bright yellow.
So one of the assistant coaches for the visiting team, which was also taking its place in the press box, told me I wasn’t allowed in there — the same place where I’d always worked. I had to explain I wasn’t with Central’s staff, but was a newspaper reporter. I didn’t leave, but I don’t think they totally believed me. It’s become another lesson learned.
One of the more peculiar working vacations I ever took was in the fall of 1980 when West Virginia played a football game at Hawaii and the WVU Alumni Association offered a reasonably priced trip to go over and watch the game and do some sight-seeing, so I signed up with Matt Mellor, a friend of mine. I worked out a deal with my bosses at The Intell where I would write them a preview and game story gratis in exchange for taking five vacation days in the middle of a hectic football season.
I took along the newspaper’s bulky and balky portable VDT to transmit stories. As usual, I experienced some trouble sending my copy into the office, but loaned my terminal to the Morgantown Dominion-Post’s Mickey Furfari, one of the state’s most beloved sportswriters, who was also having VDT issues. He said it worked just fine for him.
I was indebted to Ed Inouye, Hawaii’s accommodating sports information director, for helping me mix business with pleasure. I sat in the stands to watch the game that night, but came back to the hotel room to write my story and Ed had someone drop off the final stats and some pool reporter’s quotes right to the front desk.
When I first started at The Intell in February of 1978, we were compiling weekly girls basketball scoring leaders for Ohio Valley Athletic Conference schools. We also wrote short stories to go with the scoring lists, so I inherited that task, which turned out to be the first opportunity for me to get a byline in a daily paper.
Those stories could become repetitive, especially that season when Martins Ferry’s Peri Powell had a large lead on everyone else in the scoring race. So I tried to spice it up a bit when I took over.
The lead of my first story went something like this: “Prolific Purple Rider point producer Peri Powell practically put a padlock on the pinnacle of the OVAC scoring picture with her past week’s performance.’’
I can still clearly recall the reaction of my former sports editor, the late Cliff McWilliams, as he proofread the piece a couple of hours later on his VDT.
“Hah!’’ McWilliams cackled.
“What?’’ I said, not realizing what he was doing.
“All those Ps,’’ he said, breaking into a grin.