Editor’s note: “Remember When?” is a series highlighting the area’s most memorable performances, whether it be a game, season or individual player performance.
Very rarely does a storied program or player get a storybook ending, but it does happen.
Michael Jordan ended his Bulls career by hitting a game winner in the NBA Finals. Peyton Manning, John Elway and Ray Lewis retired as Super Bowl champions.
In 1998, Mullens High School closed the book on 70 years of basketball excellence with a run to the Class A title game. For a program that won seven titles, sent Jerome Anderson to WVU and then the Boston Celtics, produced NBA Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni and Marshall coaches Greg White and Dan D’Antoni, it was arguably the sweetest season in school history.
But it was one that was heavily anticipated.
In 1995, it was announced Pineville and Mullens would be consolidated to form a new school — Wyoming East. From that point forward Mullens knew the pressure was on to get one last title before closing, but the road to doing so wasn’t easy.
Losses to eventual Class AA champion Bluefield in ‘95 and Oceana in ‘96 in regional and sectional play ended the Rebels’ final stint in Class AA.
“Of all the teams I’ve coached, those were two of my three best,” former Mullens coach Gene Reid said. “I had another one at Baileysville that didn’t get there, but I felt like those three were probably my best. That just goes to show how tough it was to win here and get to the state tournament.”
In ‘97 Mullens dropped back to Class A and punched its ticket to the state tournament, but fell in the quarterfinals. With only one year left, the Rebels knew there wouldn’t be another chance. Still, they were optimistic.
“It was one of those deals, where given the storied history of the school, everybody knew that was the end and was passionate about it,” Reid said. “It all started early in the season. We knew we had a shot. We put the state tournament championship date on the chalk board in the locker room and told them we wanted to be playing that day. The community was torn up about the school. We knew consolidation was necessary, but it was a trying situation for everybody. I can’t think of anywhere I’ve known of where the high school was more important than it was for Mullens.”
The Rebels came out of the gates firing that year, winning their first 10 games with quality wins over rivals Oceana and Pineville, before suffering their first setback at the hands of Independence, a team the Rebels beat by 31 points to open the season.
“They upset us there for our first loss,” Reid said. “But it was probably a good thing. They went with a triangle-and-two defense against us and it was the first time anybody had done that. I guarantee we saw that defense for 10 of the next 15 games. That was when coach (Chad) Perkins was one of the young guys, but it was a great strategy by him and we learned a lot from that experience.”
As the season went on though, pressure mounted on the team to win.
Because it was the last season, every game was played in front of a sold out crowd and every game was likely to be the last against each opponent.
“It added extra pressure,” Mullens center Kevyn McBride said. “Everyone in the community talked about it. John Campbell, who was my uncle, played on those teams in the ‘80s that won, so he’d always talk to us about it. Coach (Don) Nuckols was still the principal at Mullens at that time, so he’d always talk about how he wanted to see us win it too. Everybody was talking about it. You felt the pressure as much as you could as a high school kid, but it was a positive.”
“It was like a version of Hoosiers,” Reid said. “Everybody followed us around each night, hoping to be a part of what they thought would be a special season.”
Whatever pressure the team felt, it rarely manifested on the court. The Rebels took an 18-1 record into their final regular season game in school history, which would also be their final game against Oceana.
The end result was disappointing for the Rebels because of how the game unfolded, but it served as a reality check for a team that was cruising.
After trailing 51-20 at halftime, the Rebels made it a game in the second half, but were unable to complete the comeback.
“We had some big wins during the season but lost to Oceana there,” Reid said. “At halftime were were down 51-20. The last thing I wanted to do was get somebody hurt before the sectional tournament, so I subbed the starters out with a few minutes left in the game when it didn’t look like we’d be able to come back. All the kids got so mad at me. Kevyn was screaming because it meant so much to them to beat Oceana in that packed gym one last time.”
The game served a the perfect reminder of what was at stake for the Rebels as they claimed the section championship with an 86-48 win over Montcalm and a 91-46 win over Mercer Christian for the title.
Next up was the Region 6 championship against another heavy favorite to win the Class A title, No. 5 Baileysville.
“They were the best team we played on our state tournament run,” Reid said. “That probably was the state championship game. At one point in the third quarter we trailed by 12 points and cut the deficit down to three at the end of the third quarter. During the break between quarters I told the kids ‘You’re eight minutes from Charleston or eight away from taking the uniforms off for the last time.’ They kicked it into gear. We wanted to take those uniforms off on our own terms.”
After trailing 53-44 in the third quarter, McBride went on a personal 6-0 run to make it a 53-50 game in favor of Baileysville heading into the fourth. The Rough Riders maintained the lead until the middle of the fourth quarter when an 8-0 run gave the Rebels an advantage they never relinquished.
Behind McBride’s 33 points and 11 rebounds, the Rebels won 72-64, ensuring one last trip to Charleston.
“I don’t remember anything special in particular happening to cause those performances,” McBride said. “I remember Soup (John Campbell) telling me and Michael Thomas before the sectionals that we were weren’t tough enough to win the state championship. He did it to kind of fire us up, and I think it worked, but outside of that we just went out there and played basketball.”
When Mullens arrived at the Civic Center, the farewell tour picked up a few extra fans along the way.
“Everybody knew we were closing,” Reid said. “It was such a great story that we picked up a lot of the neutral fans because they wanted to see us go out with a win.”
Of course with a history as decorated as Mullens’ nobody forgot the wins, and they certainly didn’t forget the losses. They used those final three games to exercise the demons that haunted the program.
First up was Bishop Donahue.
“Mullens had lost to Bishop Donahue in the state championship in 1981,” Reid said. “We played them first and it was a big game for us. Our kids were ready for the game and a lot of former players came back for that one. They wanted it as much as we did. I remember Kevyn got his eye smashed in the game and was bleeding. He came back and we played well.”
The end result was a 32-point win for Mullens and trip to the semifinals for the first time since 1990.
Up next was the closest game of the tournament, and another banner performance for Reid’s squad.
Facing a 12-point deficit in the second half against Marsh Fork, McBride poured in a game-high 30 points as Mullens advanced to the championship.
“We were in a similar situation in the Baileysville game,” Reid said. “I basically gave them the same talk about taking those jerseys off for the final time under our own terms and it clicked again. Marsh Fork broke a state tournament record with 13 3-pointers in that game. I told our kids they can’t keep making those, just hold your cool. At the start of the fourth quarter, one of their kids shot from the wing, and banked in a 3-pointer and one of our kids looked at me like ‘Coach, are you sure?’ That was one of the great games I’ve ever been involved in.”
Finally, Mullens was back in the title game, but there were even more narratives as they faced a good Burch team.
“Going into that game, we were tied for the most Class A titles in state history,” Reid said. “If we won, we’d go out holding the record and if we didn’t they’d have those bragging rights. There was a lot that went into that game and we were nervous throughout it.”
Burch gave the Rebels good reason to be.
After Mullens opened with a 17-4 lead, the Bulldogs fought back, eventually taking a 36-33 lead with 2:43 left in the third quarter, something that spelled trouble for Reid and the Rebels.
“I told my assistants that we couldn’t let them get a lead,” Reid said. “Burch had a reputation at the time for holding the ball when they got leads, so we knew we couldn’t let them get too far ahead. That’s when Jason (Blankenship) really stepped up for us.”
Blankenship came down the court, nailing two straight threes, scoring 11 straight points for Mullens which answered with an eventual 19-0 run to turn the tide for good.
“Jason came down the court and just launched from 25-feet out,” Reid said. “I was on the sideline screaming ‘NO! NO!’ but it went in! He came back down the court and pulled up from the same exact spot and launched it again and I had the same exact reaction. He made that one too and I sat back down.”
“I think at that point in the third quarter is when it popped into my head we might win,” McBride said. “We didn’t think it would get away from us at that point.”
The third quarter run was an exclamation point on a 67-46 win that served as the curtain call for one of the state’s most storied programs.
“That was special,” McBride said. “It means even more now than it did then. Growing up, that’s what you wanted to do. You watched those legends like Herbie Brooks and John Campbell. Those were our heroes. I saved the state tournament stubs from when I was younger and put them in a scrapbook. I didn’t want to be a Mountaineer or a Chicago Bull, I wanted to be a Mullens Rebel, so winning that was like fulfilling a dream.”
Following the season Reid, who suffered from a heart attack earlier in the ‘90s went to the doctor to check on some chest pains he was suffering from during the season. He elected to wait until after the season to have the issue addressed, in fear he wouldn’t be able to finish the season.
“I felt a lot of pressure and I wanted to win for the town,” Reid said. “That town wanted it so bad and I was an outsider. I graduated from Oceana and lived in Glen Fork. In ‘94 I had a heart attack and during the season in ‘98, I started getting chest pains again around midseason and I hid it from everybody. I told myself I’d get through the season and get it taken care of.
“Sometimes I’d go to my office and rest for a few minutes to calm it down. It continued all the way through that tournament run. After the state tournament was over, I went back to my doctor, but I wasn’t going to miss this. After the tournament they examined me, and when they did it, they came in my room and the doctor says, ‘You’re not going home.’ I had five blockages, all over 80 percent. I had open heart surgery not long after that.”
After 21 years, Reid still remembers not just the season, but the players that made it special. He acknowledges that they weren’t just a talented group, but a smart one.
“I thought I was great coach because of what I was able to do with that team,” Reid said. “But it turned out, and something needed to knock the arrogance out of me, that they were incredibly smart kids. Amos Lane was a doctor, Kevyn got an engineering degree, Robert Gunner became a lawyer and John Chapman and Jason Blankenship were coach’s sons.”
Following the school year, Mullens and Pineville both consolidated to form Wyoming East. Reid, who contemplated stepping down, elected to lead the Warriors, serving as Wyoming East’s first boys basketball coach. Before the 2001-02 school year, Reid announced he would retire from teaching and coaching following the conclusion of the year.
He had his own farewell tour, winning the 2002 Class AA title with a group led by Kevyn’s younger brother, Kent McBride.
“You’re super happy when it happens, but you can’t get the full impact until later,” Reid said of the titles. “The good lord really blessed me. I’ve talked to so many people and just to know what that Mullens title meant to them after all these years, it’s special. The two big comebacks, the chance to get vengeance and beat Burch, it was a storybook ending and gets better with time. Emotionally, nothing could ever match that.”
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