By Dave Morrison
The games were, on a whole, about as competitive as a game of basketball could be, both beautiful in their skill and talent and brutal in their sheer competitiveness.
It was Mullens, in another era.
Bygone, probably, yet the legend of those days remains. It was kind of a Rucker Park, Appalachian style.
Like the others that grew up on that playground asphalt, Rob Fulford looks back with fondness on those days of his youth, when he found out what it was like to be a man on the basketball court.
“I grew up 100 yards from the main playground,” Fulford said. “At a pretty early age the one thing you wanted to do was get in those games. We’d go over there and guys like Greg White (former Marshall star tuned Marshall and Charleston coach) would show up. Herbie (Brooks) was playing at WVU and he’d bring down teammates like Steve Berger (the former Valley/WVU star). Tracy Shelton and P.G. Greene (both from Oak Hill and WVU fame) would come down. It was just an amazing amount of talent.”
It was a ritual, a rite of passage. Before those days, it was where guys like Mike D’Antoni (just hired as head coach by the Los Angeles Lakers ) and his brother Dan, Jerome Anderson, who played for the Boston Celtics, Shawn Finney, an assistant at Central Florida and on into Brooks, honed their basketball skills.
“Those pickup games were legendary,” Fulford said. “The thing about it is, they would let us play. You got picked, you played. They never took it easy on us either. You make a bad pass, those guys would let you have it. You were expected to be able to play. Yeah, they shoved us around. You had to earn what you got. And you better not lose. If you lost, you might as well go home because you weren’t going to get back in the game.”
As he grew up, and became a regular on the court, Fulford and his peers past the torch down to the younger players who were eager to get on the court.
“Guys like Kent (McBride, head coach at Concord) and Rory (Chapman, head coach at Wyoming East, the school formed when Mullens and Pineville consolidated) would show up and we would do the same thing,” Fulford said. “We didn’t take it easy on them. We’d bully them and push them around.”
It was on the asphalt courts of Mullens where Fulford learned about hard work. Mullens is basketball, with D’Antoni its most famous resident. The talent pool of coaches from a small, rural southern West Virginia community is noteworthy and, frankly, amazing.
Fulford is one of those.
The former pharmaceutical salesman is head coach at Huntington Prep. The Express is, no matter what poll to which you subscribe, one of the top schools in the nation.
It boasts the best prep player in the nation, Andrew Wiggins, a sure-fire NBA lottery pick – likely the No. 1 pick and a plethora of Division I talent.
Huntington Prep picked up its first win of the season when it beat Evelyn Mack (NC) 73-51 at Wyoming East, a hop, slip and a few curves from the asphalt court where it all started.
To understand how basketball gets in the blood, consider Fulford’s road to Huntington Prep, what he gave up and is thankful he did.
“I just love what I’m doing,” Fulford said. “I made a ton of money selling pharmaceuticals. It was a situation where there were a lot of days that I hated getting out of bed and having to go to work. I don’t make much money now. But there is not one day that I don’t get out of bed ready to go to work.”
One day, with the itch to get back into basketball gnawing, that Fulford wrote to every coach in the nation, asking if there was anything he could do to get a job, no matter how meager the position.
Several responded with subtle thanks, but not now notes. One, however, came back affirmative. Bob Bolen at national power Mountain State in Beckley, near where Fulford was based, told him to come on over and talk.
Impressed, Fulford was given what amounts to a graduate assistant position and he jumped on it.
“To this day, I am grateful to coach Bolen for giving me that shot,” Fulford said. “And I have told several people, he is one of the great coaches in the state. It was a great place to learn, a great place to be at the right time.”
It led to the head coaching position at Mountain State Academy, a prep school that started out as a small Single-A program that had aspirations of going national. Fulford started at ground zero and built the program into a winner, eventually leading to a win over prestigious Oak Hill Academy. By then, with money the root of an eventual folding of the program (and later, MSU all together) Fulford took up roots and moved to Huntington.
It’s not a typical school, or really a school at all. Huntington Prep is the name; the players actually attend St. Joe’s High School, a small school in Huntington.
He enjoys a multitude of contacts in the college basketball coaching fraternity and he loves the recruiting aspect of bringing kids to Huntington.
“I enjoy recruiting Top 10-15 talent,” Fulford said. “I enjoy recruiting kids like Andrew Wiggins and it’s a good feeling when you can see these kids grow into outstanding citizens and outstanding players.”
One thing Fulford won’t do is cheat on his players. He recently helped Wiggins get reclassified from the Class of 2014 to 2013. Because of his advanced workload in school, Wiggins can graduate this year, play one year of college basketball and be eligible for the 2014 NBA draft.
Obviously, other opportunities have come around.
“It would have to be the right situation and the right fit,” Fulford said. “I’ve had some opportunities but right now I can get kids on the phone I couldn’t approach at other places. I enjoy doing that. If you love what you’re doing why change that. I enjoy recruiting and I am pretty good at it.”
Indeed, the talent is seemingly endless, led by Wiggins, the 6-foot-7, 210 pound shooting guard. Wiggins has been called the next LeBron James. He is wanted by every Division I program, including national champion Kentucky.
“He’s easy to coach,” Fulford said. “He is eager to learn and he is a genuinely good person. He was brought up in a good home. When guys see a player his caliber that listens and wants to learn, it trickles down.
Wiggins is hardly alone.
Moses Kingsley, a 6-10, 220 center/power forward, is headed to Arkansas. Point guard Travon Landry (6-0) is going to Tennessee. Big man Dominic Woodson, 6-10, 290-pound center, has his choice of Baylor or North Carolina State.
Former Fulford players include Deniz Kilicli (MSU Academy), a senior at WVU and Gorgui Deing a junior at Louisville.
“I’m doing what I love doing,” Fulford said. “I really can’t see myself doing anything else. When you can get out of bed every day and look forward to going to work, it’s a great feeling.”
Not much different that the feeling of getting in that first pick-up game back in Mullens.