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O.J. Mayo’s high school basketball career in West Virginia was a short one, but it will be long remembered.

Mayo, who led Huntington High to the 2007 Class AAA state championship in the only season he competed in his home state, is the choice of a blue-ribbon panel as the best boys basketball player the respondents have ever seen in West Virginia. That 2006-07 Highlander squad was also selected as the state’s top team.

The 50-man panel contacted by the Charleston Gazette-Mail included WVU coach Bob Huggins, Marshall coach Dan D’Antoni, former NBA executive and Naismith Hall of Famer Rod Thorn, legendary Logan High coach Willie Akers and current WVU radio analyst Jay Jacobs, as well as many other names familiar to state high school basketball followers.

The caveat, though, is that the panel responded to a question posed thusly: “Who are the best boys basketball player and team you ever saw in West Virginia, any class, any era?” That obviously made it difficult for state natives and celebrated stars such as Jerry West and Ron “Fritz” Williams to garner a lot of support, since a voter would have to be pushing 75 to have seen West play at East Bank in the 1950s or almost 70 to have seen Williams competing at Weir in the early 1960s.

Still, Mayo’s selection wasn’t a slam dunk by any means, as he culled 13 mentions from the panel of 50 and totaled 48 points in the voting process. West, who went on to stardom at WVU and the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, was second with 37½ points, followed closely by DuPont’s Jason Williams (33½) and Huntington’s Patrick Patterson (32½), two more NBA mainstays.

In the team category, Huntington’s 2007 squad, which featured four first-team All-State selections and eight college players — three of them Division I recruits — was first by a wide margin over Charleston’s 1968 AAA champion (124½ points to 47½), with a distant third place going to Dunbar’s 1966 AAA title team (23½ points), a squad that featured Wisconsin football recruit Melvin Walker, one of the state’s most-gifted athletes.

Mayo grew up in Huntington, but played two seasons of high school ball at Rose Hill Christian in nearby Ashland, Kentucky, as a seventh- and eighth-grader before moving to suburban Cincinnati and attending North College Hill High School for three years, twice winning the Ohio Mr. Basketball honor. He then moved back to Huntington for his senior season, leading the state in scoring at 28.2 points per game, capturing the West Virginia player of the year award and steering the Highlanders to the 2007 Class AAA crown.

He then played one season at Southern Cal before being picked third in the 2008 NBA draft. Mayo played eight seasons there for three different teams before being banned from the NBA in July 2016 for violations of the league’s anti-drug program. Now 33, he’s playing in his second season in the Chinese Basketball Association.

Jerry West’s legacy

West has long been revered as one of the state’s favorite sons, leading East Bank to the 1956 Class A (big schools) title, earning All-America honors at WVU, where he played on the 1959 NCAA runner-up team, and then became one of the greatest players in NBA history, and is still active in the league as a consultant for the Los Angeles Clippers.

Before he did all that, however, West helped change the basketball landscape in his native Kanawha County, taking East Bank to its only state championship by averaging a state-leading 34.3 points per game during a wildly successful senior season.

“West is by far the (state’s) most influential player,” said veteran high school and college coach Tex Williams, “because he put East Bank on the map. They had been overlooked, but he actually changed that and he did it in the state tournament against players like Willie Akers (Mullens) and some of the all-time greats.”

Akers, who also played at WVU during West’s heyday and later coached Logan to four state titles, didn’t hesitate to vote West as the best player he’s seen in West Virginia. After all, Akers’ Mullens team met West and East Bank in the state tournament.

“No doubt about it,” Akers said. “I played with him and I played against him. He’s the best high school player I’ve ever seen. We got beat by them in the state semifinals in Morgantown in 1956, and he scored 43 points and I scored (37). It was a heck of a game.”

Jacobs, who played for Morgantown in the 1956 state tournament, still recalls getting ready to play against East Bank in the finals the following day.

“I remember our coach said, ‘Don’t worry about what happened last night. Don’t worry about a thing. They’ve got a guy named West, but one guy won’t beat us,’” Jacobs said. “Well, he had (39) points and we lost (71-56).”

Williams, Patterson and Brooks

Jason Williams caught the attention of state basketball fans playing point guard for DuPont in the early 1990s with unbridled intensity and a lot of flash — no-look and behind-the-back passes being the norm. With future Pro Football Hall of Famer Randy Moss running alongside him and throwing down dunks, they led the Panthers to the 1994 AAA finals before losing to Martinsburg. Williams later played one season each at Marshall and Florida for Billy Donovan before being picked No. 7 in the 1998 NBA draft.

Williams ended his DuPont career as that program’s first player to reach 1,000 points and 500 assists.

“I thought he could make the game better for everybody else,” said longtime Ravenswood coach Mick Price. “He had unbelievable eyes and could see the court and had such a passion for playing. All the kids watching him couldn’t wait to go home and emulate the things he was doing. He elevated the game of high school basketball with his style of play and his passion of play.”

The 6-foot-8 Patterson tends to be one of the state’s most overlooked superstars in high school basketball, since Highlander teammate Mayo grabbed much of the spotlight in that 2006-07 season. Still, Patterson played on three Class AAA title teams at Huntington, was selected as the state’s player of the year in 2006, had a stellar three-year career at Kentucky and is now competing in his 13th NBA season, his second with the Clippers.

“Arguably, he’s the one who could do it all on the court for a big guy,” said Clinton Giles, a longtime Kanawha Valley basketball official and former Capital principal who saw Patterson average 14.5 points, 11 rebounds and 4.4 blocks during his player-of-the-year season. “The fact that he was surrounded by other talented players and still stood out is, in my opinion, a great measure of his talents.”

Finishing fifth in the player voting was Mullens star Herbie Brooks, who led the Rebels to three straight Class A titles (1982-84) and still holds the state tournament record with a 50-point game against Parkersburg Catholic in 1983. He also later played at WVU.

Behind Brooks was another state native who blossomed into a college and pro standout: Ron Williams, who led Weir to three straight AAA title games (1962-64) and the 1963 state championship.

“The best West Virginia player that I ever saw in person was Fritz Williams,” said Huggins, a Morgantown native. “We moved to eastern Ohio when I was 9 years old, but I remember my dad and I drove to Weirton one time to see Fritz play a game at Weir High. He was one of the most prolific players in the Ohio Valley, then of course went on to have a great career (at WVU) and then in the NBA.”

Highlander ‘Dream Team’

Huntington’s finish as the state’s top team by the Gazette-Mail panel was far more decisive than Mayo’s.

That 2006-07 Highlander squad went 25-2, with losses only to New Jersey champion St. Patrick by two points and Kentucky champ Scott County by four points, a loss it later avenged. The Highlanders, who finished in the top five of three national high school polls, could play only six high-profile out-of-state games because of Mountain State Athletic Conference scheduling regulations. They went 21-0 against West Virginia opponents with an average winning margin of 30 points, and beat South Charleston 103-61 in the state finals.

“The Huntington High Dream Team,” said WSAZ-TV sports director Keith Morehouse. “We covered them like a college team. We went to their tournament at Duke.”

With talent such as Mayo, Patterson (17.2 points per game), Jamaal Williams (14.4), Michael Taylor (11.9) and Chris Early (8.4), the high-flying Highlanders put on a show everywhere they went, dazzling and dunking their way to victory in front of packed houses across southern West Virginia.

“Wow, they were good,” said Wheeling Central coach Mel Stephens. “Bishop Donahue got us in the (sectionals) that year, so my wife and I went down and watched the state tournament. Watching that finals game was unbelievable.”

Akers, 83, is considered almost a walking encyclopedia of West Virginia basketball knowledge, and he didn’t hesitate to peg the Highlanders as the best team he’s ever seen.

“That had to be the best high school team I ever witnessed,” Akers said, “and I’ve seen a lot of them. They were big and they were good. They were the No. 1 team that I can remember.

“There were a lot of other good teams before that, like Northfork, Mullens and some of those Kanawha Valley teams. But what happens is it changes because the kids are better, bigger and stronger than they were during our time, and that accounts for a lot. It’s hard to say which teams could beat which.”

Giles was impressed by Huntington’s focus.

“What struck me was the genuine team chemistry they had,” Giles said. “Unselfish. All they wanted to do was win. They didn’t argue among themselves; they were pretty quiet, didn’t have much to say, didn’t question calls. That’s the sign of a good team. Good teams don’t concern themselves with nonsense. They’re not distracted. They go about their business in workmanlike fashion and lock up wins.”

Mountain Lions perfect in ’68

Huntington’s reputation as the best ever produced in West Virginia isn’t unanimous, however. Bob Dawson, who coached the South Charleston team that fell to the Highlanders in that 2007 title game, still regards the 1968 Charleston team as the best he’s seen. He said so immediately after the 2007 finals, and said the same thing recently.

“I know a reporter from out of state got on me (after the game),” Dawson said. “How could I say that? Is Huntington High the best team ever in West Virginia? I don’t think so. I believe Charleston High was, with Levi Phillips and Curtis Price. I thought they were (the best) because I knew how they played. I’ve known all those guys and I’ve been around them. Huntington, to me, was not as good a team as it could have been.”

Charleston’s Mountain Lions were also the top pick of panelists such as Huggins and veteran Poca coach Allen Osborne, among others. They capped a perfect 25-0 season in 1968 with a 78-64 victory over Woodrow Wilson in the Class AAA championship game.

They were led by Price, Phillips, Larry “Deacon” Harris — all of whom went on to play at WVU — plus Skip Mason, Sonny Burls and Charles Rush. Since the AAA division began in 1959, just five teams have won that title with unbeaten records — Woodrow Wilson (25-0 in 1962), Charleston twice (25-0 in 1968 and 1973), Stonewall Jackson (26-0 in 1985) and Morgantown (27-0 in 2016).

What about Northfork?

Another of the anomalies of this project is that some schools hurt their own cause by having so much success over a long stretch of time, instead of one or two dominant teams, that it splintered their own votes. Cases in point: Woodrow Wilson (16 state titles), Northfork (10 titles, including a then-national record of eight in a row) and Logan (seven championships in six different decades).

Northfork is the most curious case in that group, as the Blue Demons received voting support all over their eight-year run of Class AA crowns from 1974-81 (their record was eventually broken by St. Anthony, New Jersey, in 1991).

“When Russel Todd was playing for Northfork (1976-79), I thought they could have won any division,” said Pat Fragile, a longtime game official and the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission’s current basketball clinician. “I thought that was a pretty special team.”

When Mick Price made his first state tournament trip with Class AA Ravenswood in 1980, he noticed a couple of things when he arrived at the WVU Coliseum in Morgantown.

“Everybody kind of understood they were playing to see who would be playing Northfork,” Price said, “and the triple-A teams were tickled to death because they didn’t have to play them.

“I hope there’s some place, some caveat for Northfork because the dominance they had may never be equaled, setting a national record as a West Virginia team. Now, were they the best team ever in West Virginia? No, that’s probably O.J. Mayo and Huntington. But were they the best basketball program in West Virginia in those years? Would they have won triple-A a lot of those years?

“They beat many of those same triple-A (state tournament) teams. And such a team of class, coach Jennings Boyd and his staff. They came in very businesslike in what they did and their actions on the court. They’re the closest thing an ideal basketball program could be in West Virginia.”

Northfork’s 1975 team went 26-0, its only unbeaten title-winner. But the 1981 team may have been the program’s best. It featured nine seniors and tackled perhaps its toughest schedule ever with 11 games against AAA teams. The Blue Demons won two of three that season against eventual AAA champ Princeton, which had Jimmy Miller and Mike Eades, split two games with Logan and Woodrow Wilson and beat Wheeling Park.

“Triple-A teams would not play them (much),” Akers said. “I became good friends with Jennings Boyd and we played them every year, but it was on my terms where we played. For four, five years, it was strictly played in Logan. Then we got to the point where we played on a neutral floor in Bluefield, Welch and several places, then come back to Logan.”

Contact Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or rickryan@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @RickRyanWV.