The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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March 1, 2014

Irish win on special day at Mullens High

MULLENS — The Great Pyramid of Giza. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The Statue of Zeus at Olympia.

Each place is full of history. Each place is full of wonder. Each place is full of legend.

While not quite one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the gymnasium of Mullens High School, now operating as Mullens Middle School, is the mecca for many who love high school basketball throughout the coalfields of southern West Virginia.

Saturday afternoon, hundreds of Wyoming countians packed the hallowed walls of the beloved sanctuary of hoops to witness one of their own coach a super team of college prospects.

USA Today’s No. 7-ranked Huntington Prep, coached by Mullens High School alum Rob Fulford, defeated Bull City Prep 115-75.

But even though there was a game going on, the competition on the court seemed almost secondary to the legends who gathered around it as they walked through the halls one more time.

Legendary Mullens coaches Lewis D’Antoni, Don Nuckols and Gene Reid were in attendance, as were former Mullens basketball standouts Jeff “Bubblegum” Mullins and Herbie Brooks, all of which were honored in a ceremony at halftime, along with former Mullens girls basketball star and professional boxer Christy Martin.

While the family reunion-like atmosphere was enough to make everyone comfortable, there was a certain reverence paid by those who have run that floor in the old gym.

“When I walk in here, I still get goosebumps all over me,” Nuckols said. “My arms — they’re covered in chill bumps. When I walk in here, I can just think of all the great players that played here. I think of the many, many games that we’ve had in here. And so many great memories and many great teams that played in here. There were guys that went on and played in the NBA and many, many, many colleges. It’s just awesome.”

Nuckols wasn’t alone in being choked up by the emotions of returning to his old stomping grounds. Reid, who served as the final coach for the Rebels and coached Fulford during his time at Mullens, only echoed those sentiments.

“There are a lot of ghosts roaming this hallway,” Reid said. “Even when I coached here, I would often come out before practice or after practice when there was nobody here but me. I can remember standing in the gym, and I can say I’ve stood there with tears running from my eyes just thinking that I’ve had the opportunity to be part of Mullens High School. It’s really special.”

Fulford recalled a humorous moment from his senior year involving Reid. The Rebels were ranked preseason No. 1 in Class A and had just defeated Independence 119-50. But following the win, Mullens fell to a four-game losing streak, losing to Woodrow Wilson in a holiday tournament game. Following the game, Fulford, who served as the point guard, decided to take matters into his own hands.

“We got into the locker room, and I kind of went off on the team,” he said with a laugh. “I was cussing and yelling and screaming. Coach Reid just kind of sat to the side not saying much. He didn’t have to. I could see the look on his face with the way he looked at me that what I said was somewhat the right thing to do but the wrong way to do it. So afterward he approached me and said, ‘You should probably apologize to the guys for that.’ It was a good lesson, but we went undefeated from that point forward and made it to the state semifinals. So I think the point was kind of taken by everyone. It was what he didn’t say that was the biggest thing.”

The Rebels were a staple of West Virginia high school basketball, winning seven state championships before consolidating with Pineville to form Wyoming East in 1998. Brooks, the former West Virginia Mountaineer star, holds the state record for points scored in a state tournament game with 50.

“This is where it all began for myself and my teammates,” said Brooks, still legendary in Wyoming County. “We won multiple championships at Mullens High. It’s a big deal for me to even be in here.”

Brooks wasn’t the only southern West Virginia native with WVU ties in the building. Former Liberty Raider Levi Cook, now playing for Huntington Prep, has committed to play for the Mountaineers. Brooks offered his words of advice for the junior center.

“Work hard,” he said. “That’s really all it is. He’s at a good place now, and I know Rob is going to work him hard and get him in shape and get him ready to play at the next level. I hate that he had to leave his teammates and his friends, but he’s at a better place now.”

Cook hopes to follow in Brooks’ footsteps in representing southern West Virginia at the next level.

“I hope I can go up there and have as good of a career as he did,” Cook said. “Hopefully, I can do the same thing he did.”

The prospect of being from West Virginia and playing for WVU — and possibly beyond — motivates the young Raleigh County native.

“It’s humbling to think about,” he said. “Only a few guys have ever done it. Guys like Jerry West and Herbie. I want to show kids that it doesn’t matter where you come from — I mean, I’m from Arnett; there’s like 50 people in that town — but you’ve just got to bust your butt a little bit and do work with what you’ve been given.”

And while the game ended up decisively in favor of Huntington Prep, and will likely be forgotten in the record books in years to come, the moment of returning home is one Fulford won’t forget.

“This is my first game coaching here, so obviously it means a lot to me,” he said. “This is obviously a special place for me. I went to school here, and I grew up coming to games here. There’s just so many great players that have played here. Just to be back and coaching here is very special.”

— E-mail: jrollins and follow on Twitter at @JDanielRollins.

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