If the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville had sailed to America in the early twentieth century to chronicle its love affair with the new sport of “Basket Ball,” he would have spent months ensconced in Indiana, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Nowhere was the game more a part of the popular culture than in these three roughly contiguous states that stretch from the beaches of Lake Michigan into the hills and hollers of Appalachia. As many of this passing generation have recalled, basketball was the perfect pastime for their modest rural lifestyles. The game was inexpensive, required just five stout men on each team, and produced more thrills than the annual town turkey shoot, once the highlight of the sporting year.
Today these basketball traditions survive in Indiana and Kentucky. But in West Virginia, the legacy has been on life support for decades. West Virginia University, the flagship team in the state, has not had a homegrown All American since Fritz Williams in 1968. In fact, “The University,” as many call it, rarely carries more than one or two in-state players, and the same holds for Marshall University, the state’s other major college.
Some attribute West Virginia’s fall from national hoops prominence to setbacks in its once-booming coal, glass, and steel industries. Since the 1950s, more than two hundred thousand people have moved elsewhere, which, factoring in changes in the state’s death and birth rates, translates to a net loss of nearly eight hundred thousand people. “Imagine two people packing up and leaving the state almost every hour of every day, and that would best describe West Virginia’s migration over the years,” noted the state’s Health Statistics Center. The unfavorable demographics led to high school consolidation, shutting down legendary basketball schools such as Normantown, Mullens, and North Fork, and ending most of the heated intra-county rivalries that fueled the sport’s popularity in scores of towns too small to field a football team. Many say that with only 1.8 million people left in the state, West Virginia will always produce an occasional pro player but will never yield the same bumper crop of NBA stars as did bygone eras that brought the likes of Hal Greer, Jerry West, Hot Rod Hundley, and Rod Thorn.