The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

July 20, 2013

Legends gather in Beckley

5th annual reunion attracts biggest crowd to date

By J. Daniel Rollins
Register-Herald Sports Writer

BECKLEY — Lewis D’Antoni. Dave Barksdale. Don Nuckols. Lonnie Warwick. Bob Pruett.

Those are just a few of the names that live on in the lore of West Virginia sports, and on Friday night they all gathered in the same building to honor each other, and about 90 other former local high school standouts, at the fifth annual Sports Legends Reunion at the Beckley Moose Club.

Legends from Woodrow Wilson, Shady Spring, Mullens, Oceana, Stoco, Marsh Fork and a host of other schools gathered to reminisce about the good ol’ days and share stories.

“This originally started with just a few of us getting together at Shoney’s a few years ago and now this is the biggest crowd we’ve had,” event organizer Jack Lilly said.

Lilly, seated at the front of the room with Clear Fork legend Tex Williams, watched and listened as each man stood up and discussed his time playing high school sports in West Virginia.

Perhaps the most talked about man in the room was someone whom many were surprised to see.

West Virginia basketball Legend Willie Akers was present, just six months removed from a terrible accident that left doctors wondering if he would ever walk again.

“I was at the Charleston Civic Center watching a middle school basketball game and I fell on the court,” Akers said.

The 76-year-old Akers fractured his C6 cervical vertebra and broke his nose in the process, and was told by doctors he had a 50/50 chance of ever walking again. He spent over 90 days in the hospital in Atlanta, and returned home to Logan County in March.

“He’s able to walk on a walker now, so we’re on the good side of that 50,” Akers’ wife, Linda, said.

“I’m hoping I can get up and walk without any trouble in a couple of months,” Akers added.

Akers is part of basketball royalty in southern West Virginia. He played for coach Lewis D’Antoni and the Mullens Rebels before going on to co-captain the West Virginia Mountaineers to a 81-12 record during his time there, along with Akers’ best friend, Jerry West.

Akers then went on to coach Logan High School to four state championships and a 402-116 overall record. The Logan High School gymnasium is now named in honor of Akers.

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Joining Akers at his table were former Mullens coaches Nuckols and D’Antoni.

The spry D’Antoni, who will soon celebrate his 100th birthday, was happy to be joined by Akers.

“He was a great ball player,” D’Antoni said. “I’m happy to be here with W.D. and Gene Miller. It’s great to be here.”

“Well, it’s great to be anywhere at my age,” D’Antoni added with a grin.

D’Antoni said he hopes to see his son Mike, now coaching the Los Angeles Lakers, in the coming months, before he begins preparing for the next NBA season.

“Mike’s doing a tremendous job out there, but he’s had a tough time,” D’Antoni said. “He’s got a lot of players to deal with.”

When asked if the elder D’Antoni would enjoy coaching Lakers star Kobe Bryant, he simply smiled and said, “He’s got a lot of talent, doesn’t he?”

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Emceeing the activities was legendary “Voice of the Flying Eagles” on WJLS, Bill O’Brien.

O’Brien, who has been retired for five months, was honored to share the room with so many living legends and hall of famers.

“This is really incredible, isn’t it?” O’Brien said. “To get this many people together in one room is pretty special. There’s a lot of incredible people here and a lot of incredible stories.”

By O’Brien’s count, 18 state basketball championships were represented in the room.

“That’s a lot of wins,” O’Brien added.

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While many of the luminaries in the room were well known for Beckley and Mullens basketball traditions, Jimmy Farmer was known for his days at Stoco High School.

Farmer graduated in 1945, after a season that saw the Indians lose only two games, on the road to South Charleston by one point and against to Beckley in the state tournament.

“Beckley beat us after we beat them 50-34 during the regular season,” Farmer said. “Not a lot of teams did that back then.”

Farmer then was rewarded with a basketball scholarship to WVU and attended the university for one semester, before he went on to serve his country.

“I came home from practice one Wednesday night and I had a letter from Uncle Sam telling me to report on Saturday,” Farmer said. “I came home to Beckley and went off, ’cause the big war was winding down.”

Eventually, Farmer attended Beckley College and was married. He has four daughters and one son. He then went on to become a basketball referee.

“I did a lot of West Virginia basketball games with Willie Akers and Jerry West were there,” Farmer said. “I even refereed some of Jerry West’s games in high school.”

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As the night drew to a close, the smile on Lilly’s face was evident. His plan for a reunion had been a mighty success.

“We got together and said we need to make these things regular before they become funerals,” Lilly said. “And this was our biggest one yet. We hope next year’s will be even bigger.”

— E-mail: jrollins@register-herald.com and follow on twitter @JDanielRollins.