— By Taylor Kennedy
Basketball has long resonated throughout West Virginia, with an abundance of teams and players having forever cemented their names.
Recently, the Glenville State women’s basketball team became the first college or university to win a national championship in college basketball.
But were you aware there was a team in 1977 composed of the top talent in the Kanawha Valley that won the National AAU Junior Olympics Tournament for 11-and-12-year-olds.
The team called themselves Charleston, W.Va., and was led by future VMI all-time scoring leader Gay Elmore.
Charleston came into the 1977 AAU season with a chip on its shoulder after it fell short in the 1976 national tournament.
“At the end of the game, in the locker room, Ron Cobb asked us if we were willing to come back,” said former St. Albans all-state selection Andy Spradling. “He looked at Gay Elmore, Randy Risher, and myself, and we all said ‘yes’, and that was the beginning of it becoming serious for us to win.”
“The ’76 team was a learning experience,” Cobb added. “It turned out to be an extraordinary group of kids, and we have been friends ever since I was blessed to be a part of it.”
Elmore, a member of the ’77 team, held the all-time scoring record at VMI for 21 years. He credits the success of the 1977 Charleston team for his recruiting blossoming.
“I think the big difference was that I burst onto the national scene following being named the MVP of the tournament,” Elmore said. “I started getting recruiting letters. It opened a lot of doors for a boy from West Virginia.”
The 1977 team consisted of guys from Dunbar, South Charleston, St. Albans and surrounding areas. There were familiar Kanawha Valley names, along with Spradling and Elmore, including, Boo Duiguid, Michael Calhoun, Joey Browles, Bruz Hicks, and Mike Reed to name a few.
Spradling credits the work put in by coaches Roger Monk and Cobb in the vigorous practices.
“We had standouts from different areas, and we were willing to blend and work hard,” Spradling said. “Our practices were super intense. When I was in the sixth grade, that is when I first started, I would hyperventilate from my nerves playing against guys like Craig Kay and Roger Littleberry. Since those practices were so intense, we were better players and head and shoulders above our peers.
Everything fell into place for Charleston in the ’77 national tournament. Charleston defeated Cincinnati, Utah, and Washington, D.C. teams by an average of 24 points.
Those three victories set up a date against Ashbury, New Jersey. Charleston fell behind by 14 going into halftime, but a strong second-half in which it outscored Ashbury, 42-24, was the deciding factor in a 69-65 victory. Elmore and Spradling combined for 57 of the team’s 69 points, including a 37-point performance from Elmore.
“It started with Coach Cobb and Monk,” Elmore said. “They did a wonderful job of integrating everybody. We had a unique group, and we came together and accomplished something that nobody did. It is one of the more fond memories I have in sports.”
Charleston’s 14 and under team changed its team to the Kanawha Valley All-Stars ahead of the 1979 national tournament. The team would be the host for the National AAU Junior Olympics Tournament following a disappointing outcome in the national final in Iowa the year before.
The tournament took place at the old Charleston Civic Center, and former Governor Jay Rockefeller and then-Mountaineer head basketball coach Gale Catlett were guest speakers at the opening ceremonies.
“It was a great experience,” Spradling noted. “We always enjoyed traveling because, as kids, you love traveling. Since it was at home, that might have put a little pressure on us. We expected ourselves to win. Did we have a home-court advantage? Not necessarily because we did not practice there, but it was nice to play in Charleston. They put on a first-class event.”
The KV All-Stars went through a difficult stretch to make it to the finals. In a semifinal, they went up against future NBA prospect Wayman Tisdale. Despite Tisdale’s 18-point performance, the Kanawha Valley team advanced to its third consecutive national final by defeating Tulsa, Oklahoma, 76-68.
The Kanawha Valley All-Stars would then defeat Washington, D.C. in the title game behind a 26-point performance from future Wake Forest standout Mark Cline, 55-53. Spradling gave the team the final lead after sinking two free throws with 15 seconds remaining.
Cobb still remembers the heart and commitment of his squads in the late-70s. He saw the pride each of his kids embedded, representing not only themself but their state.
“Back then, the kids would set team goals and work and sacrifice for the team,” Cobb noted. “All ten of our players probably could have started for most AAU teams, but they were OK because they felt like representing the state and not just themselves.”
The ’77 and ’79 teams consisted of three West Virginia first-team all-state selections in Elmore, Cline and David Bradley.
Cline remains an assistant for Marshall’s men’s basketball program today.