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Fritz Williams guarding Jerry West in this NBA game between the San Francisco Warriors and the Los Angeles Lakers in the early 1970s (AP photo).

Black History Month: Williams a key figure in Mountaineer basketball’s integration

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Weir Avenue is about a two-mile-long street in Weirton, West Virginia that runs parallel to State Route 2.

Sitting in between those two roads was once the massive Weirton Steel complex that, in its industrial heyday, employed as many as 13,000 workers in the early 1940s. Among those was Raymond Williams, the father of Ron “Fritz” Williams.

The Williamses resided on Weir Avenue, which has produced no less than eight professional athletes – Bob and Tony Jeter, Bob Trice, Bill Tucker, Kevin Miller, Bill West, Leon Jenkins and, of course, Fritz Williams, according to my good friend Doug Huff.

Purdue’s Tom Bloom would have made it nine, but he was tragically killed in an automobile accident after being drafted by the Cleveland Browns. Quincy Wilson’s mother, Kyle, and his uncle Kevin grew up on Weir Avenue. Kevin played football at Louisville, which is where Quincy’s mother met his father, Otis Wilson.

A strong argument could be made that Weir Avenue has produced more elite athletes than any other street in the state, and of them, Fritz Williams was THE guy. 

He led Weir High to a runner-up finish in the 1962 state championships against undefeated Beckley Woodrow Wilson in what is still considered one of the greatest state tournament games ever played. One year later, his Weir team claimed the Class 3A title with a 17-point win over Logan. 

Williams had more than 100 schools from across the country pursuing him, including home-state West Virginia University.

WVU enjoyed two decade’s-worth of hardwood success because it managed to sign the state’s best prep prospects such as Mark Workman, Hot Rod Hundley, Jerry West and Rod Thorn. Those four players represented the school’s decade-long streak of All-America performers from 1952 until 1963.

But by the early 1960s, West Virginia’s basketball fortunes were on the decline. It lost its stranglehold on the Southern Conference championship in 1961 when the Mountaineers were upset by William & Mary in the tournament semifinals.

Then, the year after Thorn graduated in 1963, West Virginia’s record slipped to 18-10 and coach George King was openly feuding with popular local sportswriter Tony Constantine. Tony didn’t like King’s zone defenses and King didn’t like the columns Tony wrote about his zone defenses.

“From that point on, George King’s name never appeared in any of Tony’s stories,” West Virginia’s late sports information director Eddie Barrett recalled in 2006.

It was clear to any West Virginian who listened to Jack Fleming on 50,000-watt WWVA that Mountaineer basketball needed a jolt of electricity, and the young man holding the plug was living up on Weir Avenue in Weirton, West Virginia.

Getting him to Morgantown was not going to be easy, however.

“The hardest recruiting project I ever had,” King, who later recruited Rick Mount to Purdue, once said.

Williams happened to be Black and West Virginia had never had a Black basketball player before. In fact, there were no Blacks playing in the Southern Conference at the time and the mere mention of the word “southern” was off-putting to those living above the Mason-Dixon line.

Back then, the first image any northern Black had of the South was Bull Connor’s dogs attacking peaceful protesters in Birmingham, Alabama. 

Morgantown was not Birmingham by any stretch of the imagination, but West Virginia University was considered southern because of its athletic association with the Southern Conference, and football coach Art Lewis always thought it killed his recruiting.

He tried unsuccessfully for years to recruit Black football players to WVU, each time getting turned down once players realized where they would have to go to play games. That’s a big reason why Dave Robinson chose Penn State instead of West Virginia, and how Purdue and Iowa developed such a strong pipeline of good West Virginia football players in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Toward the end of Lewis’ tenure, Mountaineer football was in dire straits while basketball was in much better shape because it had West and Thorn.

But the well was running dry.

Bucky Waters, who later followed King to West Virginia, was an assistant coach at Duke in the early 1960s and he occasionally recruited West Virginia for coach Vic Bubas. All coaches did their due diligence in the Mountain State back then in hopes of finding the next Jerry West.

“(Moundsville’s) Bobby Hummell was good, but they just didn’t come like West, Hundley and Thorn anymore,” Waters once recalled.

Yet Ron Williams WAS in their league, with weighty credentials to back it up. He was only the fifth player in state history to be named all-state three times, and his 30.9 points per game average during his senior season earned him Second Team Parade Magazine All-America recognition.

He was generally considered to be one of the nation’s 10-best prep players, joining a list that included New York City’s Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Louisville’s Wes Unseld, Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s Don Chaney and Dayton, Ohio’s Bill Hosket.

The Morgantown Touchdown Club twice named him its player of the year, and Williams’ second appearance at the state tournament in the Field House made it very clear where West Virginians wanted him to attend college. 

“The thunderous ovations he received twice at the state tournament from the overflow crowd were tributes never accorded before at the Field House to a schoolboy,” Constantine wrote.

But the popular and personable Williams was very apprehensive about WVU, once recounting his thoughts to Morgantown author Norman Julian for his self-published book Legends. 

“My mom was unsure about me going to WVU. We had lost the state finals at Morgantown,” Williams remembered. “I got 35 points and could have got 50, but I fouled out and we lost the game. Most of the fouls were offensive, and mom thought they were maybe singling me out because the officials were from the southern part of the state.”

Southern. That word again.

Williams was also not too eager to be WVU’s first Black player and the immense burdens that came with it. Michigan, another school he was considering, had gone to the Final Four with Cazzie Russell, while Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson was considered one the game’s all-time greats. Two other schools on Fritz’s list, Iowa and Ohio State, were also multicultural campuses by the mid-1960s. 

King, more than anyone else, was profoundly aware of this, even if he claimed ignorance many years later in 2004 – a few of years before his death.

“I don’t remember there being any expressed idea from anyone, including my staff or I, that we were integrating the Southern Conference,” he recalled. “I never sat on any plan to actively recruit and integrate our program. If it happened I didn’t know about it. I must have been in my little shell because I don’t remember any of that.”

But King’s strategy to land Williams indicates otherwise. He had WVU athletics director Red Brown make numerous trips to the Williams home in Weirton to assure his family that their son would be treated fairly at West Virginia.

Brown told them he thought Williams could do for Mountaineer athletics what Jackie Robinson had done for Major League Baseball. Subtle pressure was also applied through Thomas Millsop, president of Weirton Steel and a big WVU supporter. It was Millsop who provided the funding to help construct the first electronic scoreboard at Mountaineer Field.

King also helped the process along by signing Jimmy Lewis of Alexandria, Virginia. He had found out about Lewis from former professional teammate Earl Lloyd, the Jackie Robinson of professional basketball. Lloyd, who played collegiately at West Virginia State, was the first Black player to appear in an NBA game for the Washington Capitols on Oct. 31, 1950 at the old Edgerton Park Sports Arena.

Lloyd and King became good friends when they were playing together in the NBA.

“I grew up in the early years of pro basketball when there certainly was racism,” King recalled. “You could see it lots of times in lots of places, but pro ball in those days a Black man was accepted like anyone else. There were no differences made. In fact, we got upset during those few occasions when they were treated differently like when we went to Baltimore. Earl couldn’t stay in our hotel and that made us all mad.”

King knew Lloyd understood the sensitivities involved in integrating a school that was competing in a southern basketball conference, and he trusted his judgment. Lloyd recommended Lewis, not only because he was a really good high school player who could jump out of the gym, but also because of his engaging, disarming personality. Lloyd was certain Lewis was capable of handling any situation that might come up, particularly when West Virginia played on the road down South.

So, Jimmy Lewis became the first Black to sign a basketball scholarship with West Virginia University, which also made him the first Black to sign with a Southern Conference school when his commitment was officially announced on Tuesday, March 3, 1964.

Now, King could go back to the Williams family in Weirton and tell them that Fritz wasn’t going to be the first Black basketball player at WVU.

And, he wasn’t going to be only the second, either. Plans were also made to sign Fritz’s Weir High teammate Ed Harvard as well as Norman Holmes, who was playing basketball in the Marine Corps. Holmes’ coach, Bucky DeVries (a former freshman coach at WVU), recommended him to King.

Holmes was taking college classes at East Carolina in hopes of becoming a Marine Corps officer when King extended him a scholarship offer. Norman was much older, more mature and also had a great presence about him, which would be very helpful to the other three.

All four would go on to live accomplished lives.

Therefore, despite George King’s modesty, a seemingly well-thought-out plan was in place to integrate West Virginia University basketball.

When football integrated two years prior, Dick Leftridge and Roger Alford were basically on their own when they got to campus. They were brought to WVU because Leftridge, much like Williams, was a state native considered one of the best prospects in the country.

What happened to them once they got here was basically on them.

When Williams committed to West Virginia in early April, roughly a month after Lewis signed, it was a major news story in the state. The fanfare Williams received far exceeded that which Leftridge got when he signed to play at WVU in 1962.

“You name almost any institution with a basketball reputation of any magnitude, and you can be certain it sought Ron Williams,” an elated Morgantown Dominion-News sports editor Mickey Furfari wrote when Williams signed with WVU. 

A relieved Williams broke the news of his decision to Weirton Daily Times editor Earle V. Whitpenn. “I’m glad it’s over,” he said. “It was a tough decision to make.”

Unfortunately for King, West Virginia’s decline continued in 1965 while Williams was playing on the freshman team. The Mountaineers posted their first losing record in 21 years despite winning the Southern Conference Tournament and advancing to NCAA Tournament play.

For King, coaching Fritz Williams was enticing, but doing so at West Virginia University was not nearly as enticing.

“When George was hired at Purdue, he said to me, ‘Sit down, you won’t believe this. I got the job at Purdue, and I’m not going to make the same mistakes I made here,’” Barrett recalled.

Duke’s Waters was then tabbed to replace King and coach Williams at West Virginia – some say successfully while others say not so successfully.

Williams did have a tremendous college career, culminating with All-America honors in 1968, but the Mountaineers reached the NCAA Tournament just once in 1967 and his final game was an NIT opening-round blowout loss to Dayton.

Among West Virginia alums, Williams probably had the second-most successful NBA career behind only Hall of Famer Jerry West. He averaged nearly 15 points per game during his second season with the San Francisco Warriors in 1970, and played on the Milwaukee Bucks’ NBA finals team in 1973.

His eight NBA seasons consisted of 516 career games and an average of 9.3 points per contest.

Yet what made Williams so vital to West Virginia University – even beyond his playing days – was his continued involvement with the Mountaineer program. Fritz had a hand in every single Black basketball player who signed with West Virginia up until the time Gale Catlett took over the Mountaineer program in 1978.

When a phone call needed to be made, Fritz was always willing.

“I was recruited by all of the Pittsburgh schools and colleges all over the place,” All-America guard Wil Robinson once recalled. “Ron Williams was really the reason I went down there. When Fritz was a senior, he spent a lot of time at my house and we became good friends.”

Mountain State prep stars Levi Phillips, Warren Baker and Maurice Robinson … they all got calls from Fritz, too. All three had many offers, and Waters even tried to lure Baker to Duke.

“One of the things that was eye opening to me was I went on a recruiting trip down to Duke with John Lucas when Bucky was coaching there,” Baker once recalled. “The Blacks in the place all booed when John and I stood up for the national anthem. That was right after John Carlos and those guys made their demonstration at the Olympics, so Blacks at that time were not recognizing the national anthem.

“Of course, me being a country boy growing up in Greenbrier County, I was not aware of this,” he chuckled.

Baker also remembered getting struck on the back of the neck with small change being thrown from Duke students trying to hit Waters sitting in front of them. That certainly didn’t hurt West Virginia’s chances, either.

Two years later, Baker was one of five Blacks in coach Sonny Moran’s starting lineup when the Mountaineers opened the season against Pitt at the WVU Coliseum on Dec. 1, 1973. The other four were Phillips, from Charleston, Jerome Anderson from Mullens, Larry Carr from Charles Town and junior college guard Eartha Faust from Inkster, Michigan.

Not a single word was mentioned about it afterward and none of them realized the significance of what had happened, each expressing surprise years later when it was pointed out to them.

This occurred just nine years after Jimmy Lewis, Fritz Williams, Norman Holmes and Ed Harvard integrated West Virginia University basketball, which was five years sooner than the NBA saw its first all-Black starting five consisting of Willie Naulls, Tom Sanders, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones and Bill Russell for the Boston Celtics on Dec. 26, 1964. That happened 14 years after Lloyd broke the color barrier in 1950. And, it was 15 years sooner than Major League baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates fielded the first all-Black starting nine on Sept. 1, 1971 – 24 years after Jackie Robinson first played in 1947.

West Virginia’s basketball integration was also ahead of the curve compared to some of its other regional rivals. Billy Jones was the first to integrate Maryland basketball in 1966. C.B. Claiborne was Duke’s first Black player in 1967, the same year Mike Maloy signed to play at Davidson.

Charlie Scott broke North Carolina’s color barrier in 1968 and N.C. State’s Al Heartley followed a year later in 1969.

Seven-foot center Tom Payne was Kentucky’s first Black player in 1971, while Tennessee and Florida basketball didn’t become integrated until 1972. Mississippi State was one of the last major basketball programs to integrate in 1973 – the season before West Virginia fielded its all-Black starting five.

All of this must be factored in when considering Fritz Williams’ great West Virginia University legacy.

Williams, in a 1995 interview with Charleston Gazette sportswriter Rick Ryan, fondly recalled his four years spent at West Virginia University in the late 1960s during a tumultuous time in U.S. history.

“The thing I remember most,” Williams said, “was that I had good relationships with the guys I played with – Dave Reaser, Jim Lewis … on and on. And I met Jim Braxton there.”

Sadly, Williams died of a heart attack at age 59 on April 4, 2004 in San Jose, California.

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