By Brian Hoffman
Can it possibly be 50 years ago? It seems like yesterday.
It was 1972 and I was in the second semester of my sophomore year at Roanoke College. I was good friends with many of the basketball players because I worked on the stat crew for home games and was the sports editor of the school paper, the Brackety-Ack. Plus, I tend to gravitate toward people who love sports, and basketball is one of my favorites.
The late Charlie Moir was coach of the Maroons and his son Page, who would go on to coach the team himself for many years, was a little kid running around old Alumni Gym during practice. Back then there was no Cregger Center or Bast Center, and all the home games were played at the Salem Civic Center. Crowds of two or three thousand weren’t unusual, and even more when the Maroons were playing someone like arch-rival Old Dominion.
The 1971-72 season was expected to be somewhat of a rebuilding year for Roanoke. Frankie Allen, who still holds state records for scoring and rebounding, had graduated the year before along with Gene Luna, a crafty point guard who could also shoot. Salem’s own Hal Johnston returned and there were high expectations for the sophomore class, led by forward Jay Piccola.
The season didn’t start out like this was going to be a national championship team. They were 9-4 at Christmas, but then they caught fire. The Maroons won their next 19 games in a row to go on and win the NCAA College Division championship. In those days it was University Division and College Division, and the Maroons had full scholarship players on the team.
It was a time I remember vividly. Senior Dickie Adams, who came off the bench in prior years, was inserted into the starting lineup and played lights out. I’m pretty sure he was MVP of the Mason-Dixon Tournament, and the Maroons had to win that tournament to make the NCAA field.
The Roanoke Civic Center opened that winter and the South Atlantic Regional, with Roanoke, Mercer, Biscayne and Florida Southern, was the first basketball tournament played in what is now the Berglund Center. A player from Mercer, Jake Scott, kneed Piccola in the groin and a near brawl broke out, and that was a foreshadowing of what was to come.
Winning the regional earned the Maroons a trip to Evansville, Indiana for the eight team national championship tournament. Tennessee State, with a couple future NBA players, was the pre-tourney favorite but was upset and Eastern Michigan, led by future NBA Hall of Famer George Gervin, was the big favorite at that point. However, the Maroons beat Eastern Michigan in the semifinal, 99-73, then beat Akron University in the championship game, 84-72, for Roanoke’s one and only national basketball championship.
I wasn’t at the championship game. I didn’t have a car and had plans to return to my home in Pennsylvania for spring break. I couldn’t even get the game on the radio in Pennsylvania, so I had a couple friends of mine tape the game, which was broadcast here, on a cassette tape. They did tape the game, but the whole time they were drinking and commenting over the play-by-play so it was often difficult to understand. That aggravated me at the time, but 50 years later I enjoy their banter as much as the game.
Last weekend those ‘72 Maroons returned to Salem to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that championship. The team was officially put into the college Hall of Fame on Friday night. Up to that point, only individuals were inducted into the Hall of Fame but the policy has since changed to include teams, and there will be others. But, fittingly, this one was the first.
Every player who suited up in Evansville returned for the celebration except two. John Lang, a senior forward, lives in Arizona and recently broke his foot. Steve Ragsdale, a junior guard who would go on to local fame coaching Giles High School football, had a family issue to deal with. Of course, coach Moir has since passed but son Page did a great job filling in. Assistant Don Brown lives in North Carolina and could not attend.
It was great fun to relive that season with my good friends from that team. Johnston, who recently moved to North Carolina, was the MVP of the national tournament and probably the best athlete Salem has ever produced. I’m sure he could still hit a 20 footer if he could get open. Hal had a long career as a recruiter for Roanoke College and is legendary in the department for getting students to come to Roanoke.
Piccola went on to become President of PUMA North America, the athletic shoe and apparel company. His story at RC is an interesting one as Jay will forever be tied to one of the all-time NBA greats, Gervin.
In the national semifinal game Piccola, who was a relentless defensive player, frustrated Gervin to the point where the “Ice Man” hauled off and punched Jay, setting off a melee on the floor. Cooler heads prevailed for the Maroons, who knew they were headed to the championship game at that point and didn’t want to risk disqualifications. However, it would be the last college game for Gervin and several of his teammates.
As fate would have it, Piccola and Gervin have become friends over the years. They text back-and-forth and Jay showed me a Christmas greeting he received from Gervin this past holiday season. And, get this, Gervin was a surprise guest at Jay’s retirement party from PUMA.
Piccola told me about a documentary that is currently in the works about Gervin’s life. It should be interesting, as he came from humble beginnings in a bad section of Detroit to become one of the NBA’s all-time great players. And, Jay is going to play a prominent role in the documentary.
That’s a good story, and I’ve totally flipped on my opinion of Gervin. For the past 50 years every time his name came up I thought of him sucker-punching my friend, but what a great story that the two have become friends. I kinda like the “Ice Man” now.
Going back to the early ‘70s, the Maroons went back to Evansville the next year but couldn’t repeat, losing to eventual champion Kentucky Wesleyan in the semifinals. I was able to attend that tournament and even had my picture taken with Fats Domino in the lounge of the hotel where we stayed. Not a great consolation prize, but I guess you can’t win every year.
That success propelled Moir to a job as head coach at Tulane the following year, and he eventually came back to Southwest Virginia to coach Virginia Tech, where he once served as an assistant. Charlie was recognized as an ACC legend for his very successful stint with the Hokies, but upon retirement he was a regular at old RC, working out in the weight room and attending Maroon games. Page is always quick to point out the days at Roanoke were among his dad’s very favorite.
My days hanging out with those guys were among my favorite as well. It was a very special time and a very special team, and it was wonderful to hear them swap stories against for their 50th anniversary.
HALL OF FAMERS
Five other Maroon greats were also inducted into the college athletic Hall of Fame last Friday, three lacrosse players and two track greats.
Former teammates Sam Love and Stephen Simmons from the class of 2010 along with Zach Thomas from the class of ’09 were all inducted in a ceremony at the Cregger Center.
In addition Robin Yerkes, maybe the best female runner ever at RC, was in the class of 2010. Her former track teammate, sprinter Jaleesa Osbourne, was also in the class of 2010 at RC and the two went into the Hall of Fame together. Jaleesa was also a standout for coach Susan Dunagan on the Roanoke College women’s basketball team.
CONNER SHOOTS A GOOD SCORE
Salem High grad Garrison Conner, a member of the Virginia Tech club golf team, finished second in the Club Golf National Championship. The Hokies finished third as a team in the club tourney and Garrison shot one over par, 74-71, in Hot Springs, Arizona.
ANOTHER MILESTONE FOR MORAN
Salem’s Hannah Moran, a graduate student at Radford University, took down her ninth school record last week with her 15:54.32 performance in the 5,000m at the Virginia Challenge in Charlottesville.
Moran’s time made her the first Radford runner ever to break 16 minutes in the event and just the second in Big South history. The Big South record is 15:48.63 and was set by Ednah Kurgat in 2016. Kurgat would go on to win an NCAA individual crown in cross country representing the New Mexico Lobos.
Ironically, the race was run on the UVA track and that time would place Moran second on the UVA all times list. Hannah ran four years at UVA before graduating and joining Radford University as a graduate student.
HARVEYCUTTER GOES INTO THE HALL
Salem’s Carey Harveycutter was officially inducted into the Virginia High School Hall of Fame last Sunday in Charlottesville. The native Salemite went in as a contributor for his many years of service to high school sports through the Salem Civic Center and Taliaferro Complex.