EDITOR’S NOTE: First of 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 Citizen-Times, N.C. (1990-94) and Charleston Gazette-Mail (1994-2020).
When I first started out as a raw rookie sportswriter in 1978, I found it to be a flexible profession. You got out of it what you put into it.
Not only did you spend countless hours on local high school and college athletics, but if you wanted to put in the extra time, you could dabble in some professional sports, too. The canvas, as it stood, was wide open.
When I first started at The Intelligencer in Wheeling, I used the opportunity to cover some Pittsburgh Steelers and Pirates home games, and I even got a kick out of setting up phone interviews with NFL players I watched on television.
During my first few years, I talked to Steve Largent (Seahawks), Mark Moseley (Redskins) and Ted McKnight, a running back who had a couple of decent seasons with the Chiefs from 1978-80. One of the reasons I interviewed Largent, who was early in his Hall of Fame career, was so that I could write the headline: “Largent becomes Seahawks’ money man.’’
But I digress. Phone conversations can be the lifeblood of a sportswriter looking to crank out copy, since you can’t always track down coaches and players at their games.
Through the years, I’ve had several memorable phone interviews with people I might not otherwise have met, and I’ll recount of few of them here:
Jerry West (1989, 2003)
The first time I called West, one of the most popular athletes the state has ever produced, it was for a story I was doing at The Intelligencer on the 30-year anniversary of West Virginia University playing in the NCAA basketball championship game. The Mountaineers lost to Cal 71-70 in the 1959 title game in Louisville, Kentucky.
At the time I called, West was the general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers, a franchise where he was part of eight NBA championships as a player, executive or special consultant. He was very gracious with his time and answered all my questions.
Interesting side note: A few weeks later, I was in Charleston covering the 1989 boys basketball state tournament and I read a Daily Mail story written by Bill Smith that “borrowed’’ several of the comments I got from West. Smith had written a preview for WVU’s first game in the NCAA tournament that year and reminisced a bit about the 1959 team.
When you use someone else’s work in writing a story, it’s considered a professional courtesy to mention where you got the information. Smith didn’t do that, and I sent him a note saying it wasn’t appreciated.
The second time I called on West was 2003, when he was the president of basketball operations with the Memphis Grizzlies. The team’s point guard at the time was none other than Jason Williams who, like West, was a native of eastern Kanawha County — West having played at East Bank High School and Williams at DuPont.
Williams, always known for his dazzling ball-handling skills, was enjoying perhaps the best season of his career at that point after having been selected seventh overall in the 1998 draft by the Sacramento Kings. He ranked in the top six in the league in assists, assist-to-turnover ratio and 3-pointers per game.
Having West — the inspiration for the NBA’s logo and a well of information — as a mentor certainly didn’t hurt Williams’ rise, but West deflected much of the praise.
“One thing I said to him when I came here,’’ West said, “is don’t waste a gift. And he has been given a gift, no question. He’s a very gifted player — one of the more-gifted players in the league at his position.’’
West also said he felt a special kinship with Williams, thanks to their state roots.
“Most people from West Virginia are alike,’’ West said. “They don’t change a lot. I’m not a person who interferes or talks about the past. One thing that’s important to me is to be supportive and to encourage. I have been that.’’
Ron “Fritz’’ Williams (1995)
At the time, I was writing some stories on former WVU athletic greats and what had become of them since their glory days. I caught up with Williams at his home in Redwood City, California, and had a pleasant conversation.
With all the great Mountaineer players who have come and gone, it’s easy to overlook the exploits of Williams, a West Virginia native who began his career as an All-State player at Weir in the early 1960s.
In 1964, Williams was a member of the first class of black athletes to enroll at WVU in basketball. He became one of the program’s greatest players, scoring 1,687 career points and finding his way into the record books in several categories. After that, he was a first-round draft pick of the San Francisco Warriors in 1968 and played eight seasons in the NBA.
Williams even told me how he’d gotten his nickname — when he was 8 or 9 years old, he had a frisky little dog he named “Fritz.’’ After the dog died, Williams recalled, everyone started calling him by that name.
At the age of 50, Williams was keeping busy working as a basketball consultant and helping coach an American international basketball team that played exhibition games along the West Coast.
“I enjoy running around with friends and talking about the experiences we had,’’ Williams said at the time. “I can remember everything, but I know it’s gone. It’s still vivid, but it’s fading.’’
Williams died in 2004 at the age of 59.
Jennings Boyd (1999)
Most basketball fans in West Virginia are familiar with Boyd, the legendary coach who led Northfork High School to 10 state titles, including a national-record eight straight from 1974-81.
He stepped down as coach in 1984, and when I contacted him in 1999, Boyd was serving a term on the Board of Education in McDowell County.
I was writing a story at the time entitled “Consolidation: Progress or problems?’’ It took a look at statewide school consolidations and wondered if they were as successful as advertised.
Boyd was eager to discuss the topic, which stirred a lot of passions for him. In its final 12 seasons, Northfork reached the state tournament 11 times, but after combining with Welch and Gary to form Mount View in 1985, there had been no more trips to Charleston through 1999.
Then there was the issue of getting of better education, which Boyd didn’t think forced consolidations provided.
“I just don’t think the consolidation idea has worked anywhere the way people thought 10, 20 years ago that it was going to work,’’ he said. “I don’t really have any studies to back it up, but my feeling is that kids in consolidated schools aren’t getting as good an education as they did in smaller schools.
“I don’t see anything backing up [the idea that] bigger, larger schools are giving up a better product. And that has to be the bottom line — the type of education kids are getting. I’m very adamant in my feelings about the consolidation issue. We’re denying kids the best education possible, which is what we’re supposed to be providing them.’’
Boyd died in 2002 at the age of 68.
Bill Campbell (2013)
In the summer of 2013, I got the chance to talk to Bill Campbell, the 90-year-old state golf icon and World Golf Hall of Fame member, who had just reluctantly retired from his job selling insurance with John Hancock Life in Huntington, a position he held since the late 1940s.
“I hated to do it,’’ Campbell said, “but I really had no choice. I’ve decided it was too much to ask my friends and family, let alone this old body itself.’’
Campbell was battling a condition called neuropathy in his legs, a nerve disease that affected his balance.
At the time, Campbell was regarded as the state’s ambassador of golf, greeting players at the first tee at both the PGA events at The Greenbrier as well as recent State Amateurs.
“I’m presentable,’’ Campbell said. “I’ll attend parts of [those events] as I always do. It’s nice to do [but] I’m not taking any chances.’’
He competed in 37 U.S. Amateurs (winning the title in 1964) and captured 15 West Virginia Amateur championships.
Campbell, sadly, died about two months after our conversation.