DATELINE: Mouth of Wilson, Va. If Wilson were alive and his mouth worked, his first utterance would probably be, "Huh?" For this little village, which has attracted more budding high school basketball talent in the past few seasons than Scalp of Tarkanian, Nev., is little more than a couple of two-lane roads that come to a T at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains.
At the top of the T stands Fields Motor Co. (est. 1922), a Ford dealership. Across U.S. 58 is the rundown woolen mill and the general store. Together, the three buildings make up Fields Manufacturing Co. Inc. (est. 1907). The store's proprietor, Jack Fields, and the car dealer, Red Fields, are double first cousins; their fathers, who were brothers, married the Phipps sisters. Jack's dad, J. Cam Fields, who died earlier this month at age 90, used to live next to the post office, which is about the only other business in town. Mouth of Wilson (pop. 100, or two pages in the telephone directory) seems to have belonged to the Fields family forever. Beyond the village are rolling hills the colors of lime and orange sherbet, where cattle graze and tobacco grows.
"Before things were settled, the trappers used to say they'd meet at the mouth of Wilson Creek," says Jack, 62. "That's how the village got its name. The Wilson empties into the New River. It hasn't changed much, the village."
To see what is really new, you have to drive half a mile west on 58. You then take a right and head another half mile up a hill. Three bored horses will be hanging their heads on your left. On your right is a weathered white church accompanied by a graveyard. At the top of the hill are the 13 prosaic buildings that make up Oak Hill Academy. In a redbrick structure called Turner is a basketball court. The school's colors, red and gold, contrast vividly with the floor, which is a mottled kitchen tile you wouldn't want to eat off of.
February 16, 1987
On that ridiculous court in that rundown building above that pitiful creek near the town that time forgot in Middle of Nowhere, Va., half a dozen Division I basketball prospects, including the most sought-after seniors from both New York City and Philadelphia, are joyously jamming away. They, like so many other coveted players nowadays, have elected to exchange a year or two in their hometown spotlight for a stint in a black hole. They have relocated not only hundreds of miles from friends and family, but also light-years from civilization as they know it. Or used to know it.
Oak Hill was founded by the New River Baptist Association in 1878. Originally a school for locals, by the 1950s it had evolved into a coed boarding academy catering to troubled teenagers, mostly from the South and East, who might benefit from a rigorous religious environment away from worldly distractions. There was nothing special about the school's basketball teams then. Only a decade ago, Oak Hill regularly dueled such local juggernauts as the Virginia Baptist Children's Home. By the 1970s enrollment had dwindled, and Oak Hill was having trouble meeting expenses.
One day in 1976, Chuck Isner, the athletic director, approached his father, Robert, who was the academy's president. Aside from basketball, gym classes and intramurals, the athletic department consisted of a baseball team that could squeeze in maybe three games a year when the weather broke right. Chuck Isner suggested to his dad that high-powered hoops might be just the ticket to spread word of the Mouth. "Give me four scholarships," he pleaded. "Let me go out and find four ballplayers that I think will fit into Oak Hill. Good characters, good citizens. Let's have a real program." The elder Isner went along, approving expenses he would have a hard time explaining to the board of trustees. Chuck headed to New York City, where he successfully recruited three players. On his way home he picked up a fourth, from Richmond, Va.
Since then Oak Hill's basketball team has gone 271-35. This season the 22-1 Warriors have traveled to five states taking on top high school teams, college jayvees or anyone else willing to give them a game. Most of their expenses are paid by tournament promoters or schools willing to throw in a gracious guarantee. In the past six years, 31 Warriors have earned major-college scholarships and 6 have been named high school All-Americas. The Warriors get less ink in The Declaration of Independence (Va.), their local paper, than they do in USA Today, which last week ranked them No. 5 in the land.
Before Oak Hill went for big-time basketball, it had 85 students and an operating budget of $200,000. Today the numbers are 190 and $1.7 million. With the extra revenue, much of it attributable to publicity and enthusiasm generated by basketball, the school has reopened an old dorm and is planning to build equestrian facilities. Says the senior Isner, now retired, "It's peculiar and strange how one thing led to another."
So it is. How could a school stuck in a pinprick of a Virginia village become one of the last words in high school hoops?
Oak Hill is one of a handful of rural private schools that draw topflight inner-city basketball talent. Young hotshots end up in Mouth of Wilson for several reasons: the oft-cited "rising tide of mediocrity" that plagues many of the nation's public schools; the flood of destructive forces that prey on city kids; the no-slack academic standards set by the NCAA to govern eligibility for college freshmen. At Oak Hill and schools like it, the rules are strong, academics are all-important, and college scouts come in droves.
Look around. Philly's finest, 6'7" power forward Brian Shorter, who has committed to Pitt, and New York's top gun, 6'5½" swingman Sean Green, who's bound for N.C. State, both go to Oak Hill. One of the top juniors in the country, 6'9" forward Kenny Williams of Elizabeth City, N.C., is prepping for North Carolina by spending an extra high school year at another Virginia private school, Fork Union Military Academy. Perry Carter, a 6'7" power forward and Washington, D.C.'s best player, is taking a postgrad year at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, Maine.
"There's no question that the prep and military academies are having a big impact on college basketball," says Arizona coach Lute Olson. "If I were the parent of a kid who had basketball ability and was not going to make it eligibility-wise in public schools, I'd send him there."
There are many theres from which to choose. There are all-male military schools that preach discipline. There are postgraduate programs that offer an outlet for the overaged and the underexposed; Fork Union (which handed Oak Hill its only defeat this season) is a prime example. A slightly different approach is followed by demanding Flint Hill, a tiny, tony, college-prep palace in Oakton, Va., whose team is rated No. 1 by USA Today. Flint Hill's most sought-after player is 6'7" do-it-all Dennis Scott of Reston, Va. Like many of his teammates, Scott has attended the school since his freshman year and has repeated a grade, getting in an extra year of ball. Morgan Wooten, coach of perennially powerful DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md., refuses to play Flint Hill because the team includes fifth-year players. "We'd be sending our 17-year-olds against the equivalent of college guys," says Wooten.
Another prep basketball stronghold is predominantly black Laurinburg (N.C.) Institute, which in the '60s produced such future college and pro stars as Jimmy Walker and Charlie Scott. More recently Laurinburg raised eyebrows by conferring a diploma on the NBA's troubled Chris Washburn, who had struggled at Fork Union for a year. Some basketball people say that Laurinburg is a haven for shortcutters. However, Laurinburg claims that 80% of its students graduate from college, and the principal, Sammie McDuffie, who's also the mother of the basketball coach, says, "I imagine there are a lot of questions in [recruiters'] minds, but we are doing the same things we've always done. When an athlete comes to Laurinburg, he's a student first."
In a catalog of prep hoop powers, Oak Hill belongs on its own page. Unlike Laurinburg, it is largely white; of its 15 black students, 7 are basketball players. Oak Hill doesn't have the trappings of the military schools (its dress code, if you can call it that, bans jeans with holes and shirts without collars), and it doesn't permit postgrads, although most players come just for their senior seasons, so the team turns over practically every year. The academy has a folksy faculty and the decor of a neglected rumpus room. It trades in rehabilitating the wayward, and for the most part it honorably discharges that mission. An average of 70% of the graduating class goes on to college. Many of those who do so would not have considered college had they not come to Mouth of Wilson.
"Our clientele is primarily underachievers," says Ed F. Patton, Oak Hill's current president. "But we are also working with another group, those students who are not really underprivileged, but the neighborhood they live in, the peer group they're with, the school they attend leave them no way they'll ever be successful."
Oak Hill, the team, has emerged out of the mandate of Oak Hill, the school. Most players go to there for the same reasons that the majority of nonathletes do, at $6,600 a pop: to improve their grades and study habits, escape a rough home life and get motivated. Basketball players are able to blend in quite well, even if they are enrolled only for a year.
That's why Shorter sacrificed a season in the sun to attend Oak Hill. At Simon Gratz High he stood 384 points shy of surpassing Wilt Chamberlain's Philadelphia schoolboy scoring record of 2,252. Had Shorter stayed for his senior season and remained healthy, he would have had Wilt's record by now and been assured of schoolyard immortality.
Off the court, though, Shorter was struggling. Something of a loner, he had been living with his mom in a house in Nice-town that sometimes didn't have running water. He also was having trouble maintaining the 2.0 grade point average he needed to be eligible as a college freshman under NCAA Bylaw 5-1(j). So Shorter looked for an alternative. He had read about an Oak Hill player from New York, Chris Brooks, now a West Virginia freshman, who had portrayed the school not only as a good place to learn but also as ascetically chic. "Blackboards and backboards," was the way Brooks put it. Shorter contacted Oak Hill coach Steve Smith, who encouraged him to come. A month later Shorter went packing off to boarding school. Boarding? folks would say. You already do that 16 times a game.
"People kept telling me I should stay," Shorter says. "They kept telling me all this stuff, but they forget my academics. If I break Chamberlain's record, but then I don't make it through college, they'd say they knew I was going to fail."
Places like Oak Hill don't work academic miracles. "I don"t see how they can undo in one year what it took a youngster 11 to do," says Temple coach John Chaney. Indeed, of Oak Hill's seven Division I signees last season, four, including Brooks, came up short of the 700 combined SAT score required for them to play as freshmen.
Oak Hill officials acknowledge that they can do only so much for athletes who spend just a year on campus. And they concede that they have admitted some students who don't belong. One was Lloyd Daniels, the New York City player who recently enrolled at Nevada-Las Vegas. Daniels had two stints at Oak Hill and also attended three other high schools, including Laurinburg. "We don't want a kid who has only a snowball's chance of making a 700," says Smith. He and other school officials say that although they screen players' academic records before admitting them, there is no way to be sure how well a student will do before he enrolls.
"You always get kids calling who just want to play basketball, and they think by coming here to a small, closed environment they're going to get bailed out academically," says Smith. "It doesn't work that way. I want to win for my personal pride, for the players, for the tradition here. But that's not the end of the line. The most important thing is for them to go to college and make it."
That last sentiment alone is enough to make Oak Hill an oasis of hope for the academically deficient. The small classes (the teacher-to-student ratio is 12 to 1) ensure that truancy or unfinished homework doesn't go unnoticed. Lagging students are required to attend extra sessions. There is a mandatory two-hour study period every weekday. The school offers two four-hour seminars on the SAT before each testing date. Shorter took the seminars last fall but scored only 540. He'll try again next month. "It'd be my fault if I don't make it," he says. "They teach you the right things here. It'd be because I didn't listen or didn't comprehend what was on the test."
To be sure, academics aren't every Warrior's reason for going to Oak Hill. Green had the books licked, but his mother didn't think that Long Island City was a safe environment for a 17-year-old, even one so tough that he has calluses on his fingers from hanging on rims. Mike Rodgers, a 6'4" guard from Ocean, N.J., who has signed with Fairfield, wanted stiffer basketball competition. Keith Swanston needed the exposure to college recruiters he wouldn't get in his native Virgin Islands. And Harkeem Dixon, of Mattapan, Mass., whose brother, Zachary, is a former NFL running back and whose sister, Medina, was an Old Dominion basketball star, thought he could improve upon the Division II offer he received last year. He's repeating his senior season and already has had a few Division I feelers. "Going Division II is not living up to the family name," Dixon says.
Dawn Cawthon was a chronic truant on the verge of failing her junior year in Hayes, Va. Her parents sent her to Oak Hill; now Dawn wants to be a math teacher. "Everyone gets helped," she says. The mostly middle-class student body operates at a docile hum, as if it has been either soothed with love or intimidated with threats. The hottest issue the student advisory committee has taken to the administration lately is a plea to make large tables out of the small tables in the cafeteria.
At Oak Hill, success comes from structure. Breakfast is at 7 a.m., and school is in session till 3:25. Lights—and TVs—go off at 10. Outgoing phone calls are limited to one a week. All campus activity is monitored, and there are strict Baptist prohibitions against kissing in public and entertaining students of the opposite sex in dorm rooms. Both offenses are grounds for suspension or expulsion. Students must get permission to head "off Hill," and the academy's jurisdiction doesn't end at the Mouth. A basketball player from New York City found that out last fall. He had spent part of his weekend leave with a coed in a Wytheville, Va., motel room. He and the girl were expelled. Some speculate that they were thrown out because he is black and she is white. But another black player says simply, "He knew the rules."
Certainly basketball hotshots no longer get the preferential treatment they once did. The principal, Steve Cornett, says that when the school first went big time, it admitted players who could read on only a "first-or second-grade level." Some subsequent Oak Hill officials, ego-bent on assembling the nation's best team, accepted postgrads who would quit school as soon as the season ended. According to Smith, then-president Isner even objected to players' making early commitments to colleges because that meant fewer coaches would pay recruiting visits. Clearly, the tail was wagging the dog.
Smith's predecessor, Larry Davis, now an assistant at Delaware, says, "When I got to Oak Hill I would call schools for scheduling, and the first thing I got was, 'You guys are a bandit school.' [Isner] saw basketball as a way to promote the school. He was willing to do what it took to have a good team." Says one rival coach of Oak Hill's in-and-out personnel in those days, "You could scout one team in October and see another team in December."
Not to mention another coach. Smith, 31, is the latest in the whirr of Warrior chiefs; there have been six in the past decade. Even before Davis's departure in 1985 was officially announced, the school got 25 calls from high school coaches and college assistants interested in the Oak Hill opening.
"Smitty's the most caring, the most down-to-earth of the coaches we've had," says Cornett. "He's one of the family. He works in the system. He does his job as a teacher first." Behind a stark, green-eyed gaze, Smith is acutely aware of the responsibilities of his position: accepting players who need help but who aren't helpless; distinguishing needy players from needier ones for the $30,000 he is budgeted anually for scholarships; glad-handing recruiters without promising them anything; supporting teenagers living far from home without overindulging them; instilling unselfishness in a flock of young stars. "I don't want to roll into gyms and have people say, 'Here come the renegades,' " Smith says.
"The emphasis was to build the program," Cornett says. "Now it's to maintain it."
Once the school used basketball as a calling card; now Oak Hill is, if not a household word, a playground one. After asphalt gods like Calvin Duncan (VCU), Glenn Mayers (Wake Forest), Rodney Strickland (DePaul) and Mike Jones (Auburn) headed to the Mouth, others followed. Now, Smith swears, recruiting is a thing of the past. "I can sit here and answer my phone in the summer, and we'll have a real good team in the fall," he says, sitting at the desk in his brick-walled office. Indeed, much of his life is spent at a 90-degree angle, his head twisted toward the speaker phone on his left, answering calls from aspiring players and inquiring college coaches. It's not unusual for the 45-minute cassette in his answering machine to fill up in a day.
The prep school player has several advantages over his public school counterpart. He's getting that first year of a) being away from home, b) sharing the ball and c) learning to spend time on the bench. He's already facing college-level competition and playing the position he'll probably play in college. College coaches find schools like Oak Hill to their benefit, too. Although a recruiter may lose a particular player, he's likely to find another on display at the same time. For that reason, such schools are, in the words of one college assistant, "an easy recruit." The rickety bleachers in Turner are often top-heavy with hungry scouts on one-stop shopping missions.
While some college coaches encourage players to spend a year or two at a prep school, others view it as a personal risk. Says Louisville's Denny Crum, "The problem is, if you send a kid to one of these schools, you have no guarantee you're going to get him back."
North Carolina coach Dean Smith takes another view. "When I was an assistant at the Air Force Academy way back in the '50s, high school graduates went to prep schools for a year to qualify for the Ivys and the [service] academies," he says. "Another year of education didn't hurt anybody."
Oak Hill engages in no interscholastic sports other than basketball; it dropped baseball in the mid-'70s. The school's second most competitive endeavor may be rooting for its first. The cheerleading squad—eight boys, eight girls—represents 8% of the student body. Because of the prestige and money to be gained on the road, home games are infrequent, and students are required to attend. While the kids affect an ACC rowdiness, the brass sits on hardbacked chairs by the gym door, making sure things don't get out of hand.
Says president Patton, "We wouldn't have basketball if we didn't have academics. And we wouldn't have academics if we didn't have structure." No one can say whether Oak Hill will keep sports in perspective; it has lapsed in the past. But for now the blueprint for basketball is simple: bring in good players, schedule good teams, and turn out good students.
Who can complain? "The basketball players are really looked up to here," says senior cheerleader Wendy Nester. "They're the ones that put us on the map."