This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's July 12, 1999, issue. Subscribe today!
YOU WERE THERE, weren't you? No? Then catch the video. It's 11 a.m. on March 17, 1994, in Charleston, W.Va. A work day, but the coal fields and chemical plants stand a little quieter than usual. Nearly 13,000 hoops freaks (officially) play hooky to cram the Civic Center. It's the state tournament, quarterfinals, Beckley vs. DuPont. The tape's blurry, but as the DuPont Panthers are intro'd, some faces look familiar. First, a shaved-head Webber clone in gold-and-maroon warmups lopes out, elbows and legs akimbo. He's a junior, halfway to being two-time West Virginia basketball Player of the Year. Pals call him Otis. You know him as Randy Moss.
A minute passes as bit players cross the stage. Then, another Panther. With a towel tossed over one shoulder and a whitewall haircut, the point guard looks more Gomer than Stockton. Still, a buzz passes through the crowd. At 18, he's already a legend. Otis and the other black guys have stuck him with an affectionate, if non-P.C., nickname: Super Cracker. Today, the world calls him White Chocolate. In your program: Jason Williams.
You don't have to wait long. Shortly after the tip, Williams snags a loose ball. With a flick of the wrists that launched 1,000 assists, he hits Moss, cherrypicking a bit, at the free throw line. Moss rises. And rises. Bam. Freeze picture. Moss' elbows are nearly level with the rim. For a second, the crowd quiets, not sure what it's seen. Then, rapturous hollering.
On it goes. Beckley matches DuPont score for score, which seems impossible since every Panther basket is so NBA. In real time, Jason pops from 22 feet, 24, 27. He feeds Moss for more rim-rattling good times. A Williams feed for another Moss dunk with 1:20 left finally kills Beckley's momentum. Then two Williams free throws seal it, 85-81. His stat line: 17 points, 11 assists, 9 rebounds. Moss only goes for 33, on 14-for-16 shooting.
Okay, DuPont blows the final two days later. But ask any of the 50,000 who claim they were there: DuPont-Beckley was the greatest game in West Virginia high school history. Afterward, the Beckley players, who beat DuPont earlier that year, mutter,"How could we lose to these guys?"
Hey, Beckley. Now you know. Five years later, Super Cracker and Otis (two young men who grew up less than a mile apart) are the future of professional sports. But different towns, different colors, have led them on different roads to their success. One ride was forgiving, like the smooth superhighway that cuts through these Appalachians. The other was trickier, a pockmarked mountain-hollow curve that claims many careless drivers victim. Two roads, one school, where youthful glory and troubled memory intersect.
Built in 1962, Belle, W.Va.'s, DuPont High gym is marked only by its ordinariness. But look closely at the walls and you can see the smudges where Jason practiced behind-the-back passes to a taped square. Look up high, and you see, hanging from the rafters, giant photos of Moss and Williams, all-staters poised and forever young.
Soon, it will all disappear. The photos will come down, the trophy case will be carted away. Soon, there will be no evidence that Randy Moss and Jason Williams ever played on this dull DuPont hardwood. "I don't like it, but I was outvoted," says Jim Fout, Panther basketball coach. Middle-aged and linemansized now, Fout was a silky shooting guard in the '60s known as the Belle Bomber. He will always remain fourth on the school's all-time scoring list because next school year, DuPont High goes out of business. An old building and declining enrollment have forced a merger with Cabin Creek East Bank, forming a new creation called Riverside High School.
East Bank had some history too: Try to find a basketball fan over 40 who hasn't heard of Zeke from Cabin Creek. Up and across the Kanawha River, past the coal pyramids and chemical factories, is the turn-of-the-century brick building. Inside, a decrepit hoops court seats 400, maybe. No out-of-bounds. Part of the floor is the same unvarnished wood from 1956, when ZekeJerry Westled East Bank to a state title. The Wests, who lived seven miles from the school, had no car, so he thumbed it home. "You played for the love of it," West says, a world away in his Lakers office, where he runs basketball's most glamorous club. Nobody thought about a career. The gyms seemed as big as the Forum. It's strange there won't be another East Bank team.
Maybe not so strange. This state has always been caught between past and present, progress and preservation. Bumper stickers crying "Pray for Coal" and "Save Our Mountains" hint at the battle over the future of a majestic, poverty-stricken land.
So let the Kanawha County School Board obliterate two institutions. West Virginians don't forget their heroes so easily. Charleston native Hot Rod Hundley still blesses political candidates decades after leaving the state. Before he starred for the Mountaineers (and the Lakers), the orphaned Hundley lived in Charleston's Alderson Hotel, where sailors paid $3 for the company of a woman. But on Friday night, game night, he was royalty. "They love heroes," says Hundley, now the TV and radio voice of the Utah Jazz. "They always remember you."
But some memories are better forgotten. This is also a place caught between North and South, black and white. The Charleston capitol grounds have statues of Confederate hero Stonewall Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, who, as the inscription says, created the state during the Civil War. The youthful indiscretions of white kids are dismissed as boys being boys. An African-American makes those mistakes and he's trouble. Here Hot Rod grows up in a whorehouse and is considered a legend. Here Randy Moss gives a wassup to a ref and is labeled a thug. Here, in the mountains of West Virginia, it's not always easy to be a hero.
Fourteen miles from the capitol dome, an exit off I-64 onto the cracked, two-lane Route 60 jolts more than your shocks. Pull over and sample the cuisine at Biscuit World. For a couple bucks you get coffee and the Mountaineer, a cholesterol bomb of egg, sausage, cheese and a giant mound of hash browns slapped between two doughy slices of buttery bread. Here, truckers bitch about Clinton and go mushy over their hunting dogs. Three miles later you're in downtown Belle, a row of sad stores selling mufflers, insurance and $5 haircuts. A little farther, beyond the always-open DuPont factory, chemical engineers live in Cleaveresque homes.
But cross the road and you're in the West Virginia that makes you cry. Every few hundred yards there are hollows, small communities nestled between hills. One-way roads are not for the meek, norjudging from the glaresfor strangers. The farther you venture, the shabbier the trailers and homesNFL bedspreads are the curtains, and front yards double as landfills. These hollows provide many of the students for DuPont High. But one kid grew up in a neighborhood all his own. Right on school property sits a beige house outfitted with a wooden porch, a grill and a satellite dish. It's bracketed by the forlorn gridiron of Douglas Field and a parking lot. And there, 40 yards away, sits the gym. This is where state trooper Terry Williams raised two kids, Shawn and Jason. "We had vandalism problems at high schools, so they housed troopers on the grounds," says Terry. "Jason had the keys to the gym. When you wanted him, you knew where to look."
Randy Moss actually found Jason Williams long before high school. "We were in fourth grade, playing midget football on different teams," Moss recalls during a break at Vikings minicamp. "He was quarterback and ran a bootleg. Next thing we knew, he was high-stepping into the end zone like Walter Payton. We wanted to kill him. But we never caught him." By eighth grade, Moss was on the business end of Williams bombs. "I'd throw it as far as I could, and Randy would get it," Williams says, echoing the strategy that resurrected Randall Cunningham. But roundball was Jason's obsession, and by high school his only game.
For hours, Williams worked alone in the DuPont gym. Sometimes he'd wear gloves so he'd have a better feel for the ball when he took them off. At midnight, Dad dragged him home. But ask Jason where he picked up his Quik moves, and he'll give you a modest hem and a haw. "Always been there," he says. Friends agree. "I'd take him to find games with older kids," says Alva Fuzzy Page. "One time, I'm covering Jason. He tells me, 'I'll make you look like Superman.' I was like, 'What?' He dribbled with his left hand, faked me into the air with my arms straight up. Then, he did his crossover, scored and said: 'See, just like Superman.'"
DuPont's gym held 1,000 people, but if you weren't there an hour early, you were home watching Urkel. In Jason's senior year, all the starters could dunk, and once all did in the same game. "People would drive from miles away to see them play," Fout says. "We pulled them from ESPN and TNT. The kids were better entertainers." Fittingly, Jason's most otherworldly move came up at East Bank. Fout recalls it like holy oral history. "It's late in the game," he says, "and we're blowing them out. Jason gets the ball, foul line extended. He whips a behind-the-back pass to Randy 60 feet away. Hits him in stride, and Moss dunks it." Fout snaps his fingers. "Just like that."
"I don't remember that," drawls Williams, shyly. "Doesn't mean it didn't happen. I did a lot of things. It's hard to keep track of all of them."
Magic on the court. Beavis in the classroom. "I always did just enough to get by," Williams says. Enough didn't cut it in college -- first at Marshall, then at Florida -- where he played fewer than 50 games combined. He almost flunked out before he became eligible at Florida and, eventually, mentor and Gators coach Billy Donovan (he also had Williams at Marshall) had to give him the boot after two positive marijuana tests. Don't look for Jason to go back for his degree. "Since I was little I wanted to play in the NBA," he says, "where you didn't have to deal with foolishness like homework."
Mission accomplished. And today, Jason junkies have a new gathering place: the Athletic Club in the lobby of the Embassy Suites in Charleston. For every Sacramento Kings game, the diehards come in to watch their boy play. Pregame, there's talk of whether Moss, West or Williams should spring for a fieldhouse at Riverside. "I think they should let Jason save his money first," says John, a local who won't give his last name because he's not quite 21. "He'll do the right thing." Williams makes a double-pump pass that leaves Clippers announcer Bill Walton speechless. "That's nothing -- I saw him do better his junior year," says John.
Despite his multiple screwups, Williams is universally loved in his hometown. As the hour hits midnight, John dons his Kings cap and prepares to head out. "Watching Williams hit one more jumper," he says, "West Virginia doesn't have that many famous people. When Jason made it, we all made it. It feels good."
In that other West Virginia, the keys to the gym aren't as handy as your daddy's dresser top. Sam Singleton Sr. pulls his battered truck up to a chainlink fence at the south end zone of DuPont's Douglas Field. "This is where most of us watched the games," says Singleton, a retired coal miner and Moss confidant. "We called it the Dawg Pound. Everybody would have fish fries. It was great except you couldn't see the clock. People would walk by, and we'd scream, 'How much time is left?'"
Welcome to Rand, a half-mile from Jason's boyhood home but, judging by the local preference for all things purple and gold, it could be Minnesota. Two kids in Vikes caps slide by on bikes, heading for the 7-Eleven. There you can buy a cute Randy Moss bear for $14.99. But DuPont coaches use the hangout as motivation: "You want to be All-America or All-7-Eleven?" Randy was raised here without a father, in a small house on Church Street. A hardscrabble place, but everybody looked out for one another, and no one hesitated to discipline someone else's kid. They're still looking out for Moss. On fall Sundays, you can follow the smell of fried chicken and corn bread to the half-dozen homes with DIRECTV. Under framed and autographed Moss posters, they cheer for the star who learned his craft outside their windows. "We'd play ball wherever we could in the streets," says Moss. Razzledazzle, below-the-waist tag football. You score, you get the ball back. Randy's team got the ball back a lot, but he wasn't the only guy with game. There was Bobbie "Hub" Howard and Sam "Man" Singleton. By the time the trio had finished at DuPont, they had won two state championships. Howard was a bruising fullback; Singleton, the stud tailback. Moss, though, was The Show. Opponents watered their fields into swamps to slow him down. No dice. The only question was whether the QB could reach him. It was a familiar pattern: Moss outraces defense. Stops. Waits for ball. Outjumps them. TD. "We'd be so far ahead, we'd be signing autographs at halftime," says Sam Jr. "And not just kids. Adults, moms, everyone."
Football star. Basketball star. And baseball. He played only one year, as a junior, but they can still see him in centerfield for the playoff game at Watt Powell Park, retreating Mays-like, back to the plate, on a sure extra-base hit. Actually, he overruns the ball and has to catch it off his neck. "Everyone was real quiet," remembers Fout. "Like, 'Did we just see that?'"
Oh yes, and track. Didn't know Moss ran track? "Before the states, there was all this talk about one kid," recalls Sam Jr. "Randy said, 'I'm faster than him.'" And then he proved it, winning the 100- and 200-meter titles.
If only Moss' story ended here, with athletic brilliance. But you wonder: Why do Rand folks watch games from the other side of a fence? Many of Moss' neighbors believe Rand's boundaries were changed so the high school would sit in predominantly white Belle. In the spring of 95the year after Jason graduateda racial fight broke out at the school. Moss was convicted of misdemeanor battery. After the arrest, vandals scrawled "Hang Moss" on the school's side. He lost the chance to attend Notre Dame with Howard, and he wasn't allowed to graduate from the high school. A year later, a positive drug test landed him in jail for a probation violation. The incidents affected his draft status in 1998, when he slipped into the Vikings' lap as the 21st pick. To a person, folks in Rand feel Moss received harsher treatment than Williams because of his skin color.
Moss does too. "It wasn't the people of Rand who railroaded me," Moss says without bitterness. It was the people of West Virginia. Despite starring at Marshall, an hour away in Huntington, his relationship with the state has been glacial. So it was a surprise last fall when Singleton Sr. heard a familiar voice in the Dawg Pound: "Hey, Sam Bam, what's up?"
"It was Randy," beams Singleton. "He stopped by and talked with everybody. Later, I had him over for my fried chicken. You opened my door, and it was just kids. Kids waiting to meet Randy. He talked to all of them."
"Rand stood up for me after I got in trouble," says Moss. "I go back and show love to the people who showed me love. But as far as walking through the gates of the school, you're not going to see it."