MORGANTOWN — Willie Akers of Logan, W.Va., excelled as a forward, who also saw some action as center, for West Virginia’s men’s basketball team from 1957 through 1960.
Jerry West was one of his teammates and emerged as a lifelong friend. The two will tell you that they are still the best of buddies.
West, who is 77, spends part of the year in Los Angeles, Calif., and the rest in West Virginia.
Akers resides most of the time in Logan with his family.
“I played forward in college most of the time,” Akers said. “Jerry played mostly guard, but he could really get up there with spring in his feet.”
When Willie and Jerry moved up to the varsity after a required year on a freshman team, both were instrumental in helping the team to rank No. 1 in the nation in the 1958 season.
It was the first time in school history that both Willie and Jerry were in that spot as Mountaineers.
Akers earned more state recognition as a superstar at Mullens High School than West did at East Bank High School.
However, records show during West’s junior year of high school that he gained considerable ground not only on Akers but all other state leaders. Eventually West wound up as No. 1 in both scoring and rebounding – as Willie is well aware.
But let’s talk about Akers, who was so kind to pick up the phone in his Logan home and reminisce with this old guy.
The late Fred Schaus, WVU’s most successful ever during his six-year stretch as men’s head basketball coach (1955-’60), told Akers that he wanted him to worry more about rebounding than scoring because of his size advantage.
“So I said I’m going to do what he tells me to do,” Willie recalled. “So I played exactly the way Fred told me to play.”
He added that he had great respect for the coach and really enjoyed playing basketball for Schaus.
His three-year record on the varsity team shows Akers played 93 games for a total of 2,288 minutes, scored 241 field goals (42.3%) and made 187 of 262 foul throw attempts (71.4%).
Lewis D’Antoni was Akers’ basketball coach at Mullens High School, where Akers became an anchor of the school’s 1954 record-setting team.
Willie Akers had other outstanding coaching friends to consult after taking over the reins at Logan High School.
He held that role for a highly successful job for a total of 25 years. His teams captured four West Virginia Class AAA championships.
Akers helped WVU post outstanding records of 26-2, 29-5 and, in his third varsity year, 26-5, as a Mountaineer standout. In 1958-59, the team lost to California, 71-70, in the NCAA finals in Lexington, Ky. The team ranked second nationally and first in the Southern Conference.
The following season, 1959-60, the Mountaineers went back to the NCAA finals and finished third in the East Regional. They fell 82-81 to NIU in overtime in the second round but defeated St. Joseph’s by a score of 106-100 at Charlotte, N.C., in the third-place game, capping off a 23-4 season.
What’s more, 10 of the wins to which Akers contributed are listed as greatest victories for the period 1946-1960. Ten sounds like ordinary for their varsity seasons.
Willie and his lovely wife Linda have been married for most of this wonderful career.
They have two sons, Darren and Chad.
“They weren’t basketball players,” he said of his sons, although they did play some basketball just for fun.
Akers recalled that Hot Rod Hundley joined Jerry West, Akers and assorted other WVU graduates for a series of All-Star basketball games on their own.
That started after Jerry returned from winning an Olympic gold medal as part of the 1960 U.S. team that defeated Russia in the finals, he said.
In closing this interview, Willie Akers said he is delighted that his grandson, Connor Akers, is enrolling as a student at WVU this fall.
He is the youngster Willie went to see play basketball at the Charleston Civic Center some time ago when he fell. He happily has recovered.