One of the rites of spring in the state capital (at least until COVID-19 intervened) was for basketball junkies to gather at the Charleston Coliseum for the weeklong boys state tournament.
They came from all over West Virginia and included all sorts of observers — current and past coaches, active and retired sportswriters, veteran game officials, television and radio announcers, devoted longtime fans — anyone who’s been connected with the sport over a period of years.
And if you dropped by when they did gather, you’d hear the passionate discussions and arguments from one side of the court to the other as they debated the topics of the best players and teams they’d ever seen.
That, in a nutshell, was the genesis for the Gazette-Mail’s “Best Ever’’ feature published today, using the observations of the panelists listed elsewhere in this section. If that distinguished group of 50 voters got together today in the hallways and meeting rooms of the Charleston Coliseum, you’d be sure to hear a lot of spirited stories as they rehashed the merits of their favorite teams and athletes down through the years. So that’s what this endeavor became — a chance to get a lot of those folks involved in the discussion, and see what develops. This is the end result.
So to make it as well-rounded as possible under the circumstances, voters were procured from all corners of the state and from all perspectives of the game. Besides well-known names like Bob Huggins, Dan D’Antoni, Rod Thorn and Jay Jacobs, there are several current and past boys basketball head coaches, including the state’s top three active coaches in career wins — Martinsburg’s Dave Rogers (786), Ravenswood’s Mick Price (688) and Poca’s Allen Osborne (667).
There’s also veteran sportswriters and game officials, among others, from all over West Virginia to ensure a broader view.
The original intent of the project was to have each voter give the name of one player and one team — in essence, the best they’d ever seen — but it didn’t always turn out that way once the calls and emails started coming in. Some voters dutifully gave one response to each question, some opted to split their vote and a few — like Jacobs, WVU’s radio analyst, former Paden City coach Bob Burton and longtime Northern Panhandle game official Bob Montgomery — kept going and going, fondly reminiscing about dozens of accomplished players they’d seen.
So to be fair, the results were tallied this way: If a voter gave just one player or team, that counted for six points. If they couldn’t make up their mind between two, each received three points. And if they gave three (or more), then the first three they mentioned were awarded points in a 3-2-1 manner. So each vote accounted for no more than six points, though the mentions could be split up several ways.
Twenty-seven of the 50 panel members gave a single vote for the best player they’d seen (Jerry West got five of those, O.J. Mayo four) and the other 23 votes were divided in some fashion. In the team category, 34 panelists mentioned just a single team, with Huntington’s 2007 title team getting 18 of those votes, and Charleston’s 1968 champs coming in second with five.
Obviously, some voters were limited to seeing good teams in their particular areas of the state more often and perhaps didn’t witness each and every state tournament, where the best of the best usually come calling. And some panelists weren’t old enough to go all the way back to weigh the merits of players from the 1950s and ’60s, though several were, which got more names and teams in the conversation.
When offered the chance to vote, some respectfully turned it down, like Fairmont Senior coach Dave Retton, who has been coaching for 25 years. He said it’s especially difficult to pick out the best player he’s seen in that time.
“I like to joke around, needle our kids off the court, have a good time,’’ Retton said. “So there’s always arguments on who’s the NBA’s best player. Back more than 25 years ago, it was Magic Johnson or Larry Bird or Dr. J? Then it was Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan? Now it’s LeBron [James] or Michael Jordan?
“It’s so hard to answer a question like that because the eras are different and the styles are different. How do you factor in the 3-point shot? You hear older people say this kid would average 40 points per game [in high school] and there’s a lot of truth to that. Someone that’s older can go back further [comparing players]. I’m not dodging the question, but I truly believe it’s hard to compare.’’
Retton was leaning toward the 2007 Huntington team as the best he’s seen, but wasn’t entirely certain he wanted to go on record with that, either.
“I’ll ask a question with it,’’ he said. “How do you define ‘best team?’ Explosiveness? How much they beat teams — margin of victory? How they played together? I think that’s the great part of it — it’s a great conversation. It shows a lot about people who have pride in their respective schools and maybe their respective areas. ... A lot of times, we gravitate to the large schools, the triple-A’s, but my gosh, there have been some tremendous single- and double-A teams that have played in Charleston and had incredible seasons.
“I’m taking the fifth because there are a lot of teams [to consider]. You hear former players and coaches say this team was the best, or that team, but it’s so hard to compare because you can’t put that team from the ’50s against that team from the ’70s. I take that question very seriously. But it’s great to talk about different eras, and it’s great conversation with the interest we have in basketball in our state. We have an incredibly rich tradition in West Virginia that allows us to have this dialogue.’’
Jacobs, who has worked nearly five decades as a game analyst for WVU radio and television, played in the state tournament in 1956 for Morgantown and vividly recalls those days of competing in and watching the state tournament, where players and teams forge reputations that will remembered for a lifetime.
“It’s such a happening in the state,’’ Jacobs said. “You just lived for March and hoped you had a chance to go there. There was so much atmosphere and charisma around the teams, it was terrific. It’s a religion in West Virginia to go to the state tournament. Even at my age, it seems like yesterday.
“One of the biggest thrills of my life is not only working at WVU games for almost 50 years in radio and television, but the fact that I played in the state tournament. Isn’t that stupid? But it was a thrill for me to play in the state tournament. It’s an experience you really lived for. Could you get to the state tournament? It’s a huge thing in the lives for all of us from ages 15 to 18.’’