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West Virginia, fans have bond that truly might be almost heaven

The funeral service was everything you would have expected. A touching tribute to a lifetime spent in the company of good friends in Morgantown, W. Va. And when the silence took hold after the final notes of Take Me Home, Country Roads, the Rev. Ken Ramsey stood before the mourners. Looking out at the friends and family of bookstore owner John Fleming on Tuesday afternoon, Ramsey began in a singsong voice: "Let's go …" And without missing a beat, more than 100 voices replied: "Mountaineers." If you find this odd, you have never really known a devoted fan. And if you find this inappropriate, then you have probably never been to West Virginia. Not that the folks in West Virginia are any less reverential or, in this particular case, their loss was any less real. It's just that the bond between West Virginia University and its followers is maybe a little more complicated

than one with the typical bumper sticker booster.

"Growing up as a child in West Virginia, all of your attention is directed to the college sports programs, because we don't have any of the professional sports teams like a lot of other areas," said Ramsey, who is the United Methodist Church Wesleyan District superintendent and was a longtime friend of Fleming's. "I don't know, maybe there is an Appalachian element to it. A connection between the land and people. I do know relationships are very important to people in West Virginia.

"West Virginians are a resilient people. Very committed. And when they see that kind of commitment and resilience in their teams, there's a bond. They identify with those kind of teams."

There is a lot of that going on these days, considering the way West Virginia has arrived at the Final Four. For this is not a flashy team. The Mountaineers do not have a lot of great shooters, nor a lot of recognizable names.

Instead, they are a pretty accurate reflection of their coach. Passionate. Relentless. Maybe a tad frumpy, but filled with pride. And it all fits, because Bob Huggins is a Morgantown native who came home with the promise that West Virginia would soon win a national title.

Of course, that seemed a bit misguided in 2007. West Virginia was about 50 years removed from its last Final Four appearance. It was a basketball program that had no natural recruiting base, and it was competing in a state near the bottom of the scale of median household incomes.

Yet, three years later, here it is. Drawing players from Brooklyn, Newark, Memphis and even Istanbul, Turkey, the Mountaineers are marvels on the court. They are smart and tenacious. They are tough and clutch. Beginning with the regular-season finale against Villanova and going into the Big East Conference tournament, West Virginia won four consecutive games by three points or less.

And it has earned the devotion of a fan base that has been waiting for this since the days of sock hops.

"There's nothing like it anywhere else," said Huggins. "The bond between West Virginia fans and these players is completely unique. And the best part is that the kids understand it and appreciate it."

Huggins can do snide very well, and it comes out best when he talks about recruiting in West Virginia. The first generation of Mountaineers stars — Hot Rod Hundley, Jerry West and Rod Thorn — were all local boys who remained instate. This team has pulled a lot of players out of cities with larger populations than the entire state of West Virginia.

"Devin (Ebanks) was being recruited by Indiana. Are you telling me Bloomington is any different from Morgantown?" Huggins said. "West Virginia is a great college atmosphere. Morgantown is a great college town."

In some schools, you are the big man on campus. In West Virginia, you are the big man everywhere. In malls. On street corners. In the corner booth at McDonald's.

"I swear, I've run into people at home who didn't even know West Virginia was a state," said guard Wellington Smith of New Jersey. "They just thought it was some mountains in the western part of Virginia. You have some people say, 'Where do you shop?' or 'Where are you going to get your hair cut?' But I'm telling you, it is a great college town. The people around town treat us like we're their kids.

"I spoke to a young man the other day who had cancer. He's sitting in a hospital room, not knowing whether he's going to live or die, and all he wants to do is talk about West Virginia basketball. He had a Da'Sean Butler poster on his hospital room wall.

"There's a lot of people in West Virginia who don't have a lot, but they have this basketball team."

And for the first time since 1959, they have a Final Four team. This is what the mourners at John Fleming's funeral understood.

He died of a heart attack at age 66 last Friday, one day before the Mountaineers upset Kentucky in the East Region final. So it seemed only natural to his friends that his service included a final cheer he had missed.

And when the casket was closed, a West Virginia pennant was visible within.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

West Virginia, fans have bond that truly might be almost heaven 04/01/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 2, 2010 1:25am]

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