Willie Akers: A state treasure
If you are over 50 years old, you know the short list of the state of West Virginia’s basketball icons, an elite grouping of players, coaches or legends whose fame was collected through decades of on-court deeds and record-setting.
Jerry West is the unanimous choice as the leading legend on that list.
And then come the likes of player/coach Fred Schaus, Hot Rod Hundley, player/coach Bob Huggins and player/coach Willie Akers.
Willie Akers: Where does one start in describing the path taken by the now 79-year-old all-state high school standout, yeoman starter on some of WVU’s best-ever teams, ultra successful coach at Logan High for 25 years and member of athletic Halls of Fame wherever he went.
At Mullens High in Wyoming County, the 6-foot-4 Akers was an all-state player and was the focal point of Rebel teams that reached the state tournament under long-time Coach Lewis D’Antoni.
In the 1956 state tournament, Mullens lost in the semifinals to East Bank High and its stellar senior Jerry West. West scored 43 points against D’Antoni’s Rebels . . . and Akers scored 37 points in a losing cause. East Bank then defeated Morgantown in the championship game.
Akers and West knew each other. Both had attended Boys State at Jackson” Mill in the summer of 1955 after their junior years. They became almost immediate friends and talked of going to the same college to play basketball.
Both were successfully recruited by Schaus to play at West Virginia University.
They played on WVU’s unbeaten freshman team in the 1956-57 school year.
As varsity teammates for three seasons, they helped the Mountaineers to records of 26-2, 29-5 and 26-5.
West was two-time first-team All-America selection. Akers was a part-time starter as a junior and a full-time starter and team captain as a senior.
In their post WVU years West played 14 seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers becoming the NBA’s all-time playoffs scorer. Akers had a nondescript, two-year professional career outside the NBA and then in 1961 was hired to be the head coach at Logan High School, the place with a gymnasium that seated 3,000 and a population that dreamed of fast break basketball and winning teams.
Willie Akers and the Runnin’ Wildcats became synonymous with run-run, fan-favorite, excitement-to-the rafters high school basketball.
Willie’s first team had a 19-4 record in the 1961-62 season. He was just 24.
His second edition Wildcats went 23-4 and lost in the state championship game in 1963.
The third year was more of the same, with the hurry-up Wildcats going 25-1 en route to the state championship.
West and East Bank foiled the chances of taking a second straight state title.
Willie coached Logan High for 25 years, long enough to become a local hero of immense proportion and a state-wide folk legend whose teams were known for not having the state’s best players but having the best work ethic and the most crowded arenas/gyms/band boxes wherever they played.
Logan fans flocked to Charleston, once bringing nine school buses filled with rooters to an afternoon game at the state tournament in 1970.
When Willie’s 25 years of coaching were finished, his record might have been covered in 24-carat gold, it was so full of memorable wins.
There were 402 wins and 116 losses, a .778 winning percentage.
Four state titles (1964, 1977, 1978 and 1983). Four times a state runner-up, losing in the state championship game.
The off-court honors and accolades began mounting up. Willie went into the West Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 1991; then came enshrinement in the Logan High Hall of Fame in 1994. The West Virginia University Hall of Fame welcomed him in 2002.
The friendship with Jerry West that began at Boys State in 1955 continued.
When he stopped coaching, Willie became an assistant principal at Logan and then an assistant superintendent of schools in Logan County.
He even ran for public office and won by large margins.
About eight years ago Willie was in the Charleston Civic Center and had a fall while descending some bleacher steps. He was badly injured and took months to recover.
He lost considerable weight and had to use a cane to get around.
Just a few years back, his friend Tex Williams, another native West Virginian and long-time high school and college coach in the Kanawha County/Charleston area, opened a museum filled with sports memorabilia, newspaper clippings, and wide ranging nostalgia from Williams’ lengthy career.
Willie and Jerry West attended the opening of the museum in tiny Artie in Raleigh County.
Not long ago, Willie and his wife, Linda, endowed a $25,000 scholarship at West Virginia University.
From Mullens High . . . to Morgantown . . . to Logan High . . . and now nearing age 80, Willie Akers is a man known to most West Virginians who have even a nodding acquaintance with basketball.
Name five famous West Virginians associated with in-state basketball. Willie Akers will be on most of those lists.