The Distinguished Dozen

By Keith Morehouse

Meet the 12 best basketball players to ever play at Marshall University.

Trying to pick the 12 best Marshall basketball players to ever lace up the high-tops is a lot like trying to anticipate where a Mike D’Antoni pass was headed, or fighting Charlie Slack for a rebound, or standing in front of John Taft and attempting to take a charge. In other words, this task was daunting. But with the help of HQ Editor Jack Houvouras, Marshall Athletics Director Mike Hamrick and Marshall Hall of Famer Greg White, we gave it our best shot. Here is a list of the distinguished dozen, in no particular order.

Hal Greer (1956-1958)

Hal Greer

Hal Greer was a trailblazer in more ways than one in Marshall’s basketball history. A graduate of Huntington’s Douglass High School, he was the first African-American scholarship player ever at Marshall and the first to play intercollegiate athletics at any college in West Virginia.

Greer was a 6-foot-2-inch, 175-pound guard who could morph into a forward or a center long before players were referred to as a “1” or a “2.” He averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds in his three years at Marshall and was accorded honorable mention All-American honors his senior year.

However, it was in the NBA that Greer really made a name for himself. Drafted as the 13th overall pick in the 1958 draft by the Syracuse Nationals, he was a model of All-Star consistency in the league. He made 10 NBA All-Star teams, helped lead the Philadelphia 76ers to the 1967 NBA Championship and was named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. He averaged 19.2 points per game in his 16-year career and stands at No. 3 on the all-time NBA scoring list. Greer also appears in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

You can’t drive in or through Huntington without seeing Hal Greer’s name. What used to be 16th Street was renamed Hal Greer Boulevard in his honor, and his jersey number, 16, hangs in the Cam Henderson Center, a number never to be worn again.

 

Leo Bird (1957-1959)

The Marshall record books are full of entries next to the name Leo Byrd. What’s not in the record books is Byrd’s story of being stricken with polio as a 12-year old boy and recovering to later become a basketball legend.

A product of Huntington High School, Byrd became the first Marshall player to lead the Mid-American Conference in scoring, accomplishing the feat in his junior and senior seasons. Fellow Marshall University great Sonny Allen called Byrd the greatest shooter he’d ever seen. Byrd still holds the highest single-season scoring average in Marshall history, averaging 29.3 points per game his senior season. That same year, he was named a second team Consensus All-American. The first team All-American squad was pretty well stocked with two guards named Jerry West and Oscar Robertson.

Byrd was drafted as the 25th overall pick of the 1959 draft by the Cincinnati Royals. His final hurrah in basketball was making the Pan American Games team with West and Robertson and helping win the gold medal for Team USA.

 

Russell Lee (1970-1972)

Russell Lee, the “Boston Bomber,” would likely be the first player chosen in a Marshall pickup game at the YMCA. Russell Lee’s name is synonymous with the heady days of Marshall basketball. He led the Herd to that magical season of 23 wins and 4 losses in 1971-72, when Marshall finished the year ranked 12th in the nation.

At 6 feet 5 inches tall, Lee played center, forward and guard – and he could score from just about anywhere on the court. He’s the fourth leading scorer in Thundering Herd history, and his career average of 23.9 points per game is the best ever at Marshall. He also averaged nearly 11 rebounds a game for his career. In 1972, Lee was named to the Converse All-American team.

Lee was drafted as the sixth overall pick in the 1973 draft by the Milwaukee Bucks, famously six spots ahead of one Julius Erving. Lee’s jersey number, 55, has been retired to the rafters of the Cam Henderson Center.

 

Mike D’Antoni (1971-1973)

How you get from the basketball-crazy town of Mullens, W.Va., to the NBA is a story only Mike D’Antoni could author. The self-proclaimed Italian hillbilly made his mark in the early ’70s, a time still warmly remembered as one of the heydays of Herd hoops.

D’Antoni, a 6-foot-3-inch, 175-pound guard, spurned offers from bigger schools like Duke and West Virginia to play basketball in Huntington. He was the point man on the fast-breaking Marshall teams of the early 1970s, which also included Russell Lee and Randy Noll. The 1971-72 squad vaulted to as high as No. 8 in the nation.

D’Antoni still holds the assist per-game record at Marshall, with more than eight assists per game, and he is second to fellow Mullens native Greg White for career assists. D’Antoni made 659 assists during his time at Marshall; White made 701.

D’Antoni was drafted in the second round of the 1973 NBA draft by the Kansas City Kings. He played in the NBA and ABA, and he later became a star player and coach in the Italian league. D’Antoni was named the NBA Coach of the Year with the Phoenix Suns in 2005 and recently stepped down as the head coach of the New York Knicks.

 

 

Walt Walowac (1951-54)

For 30 years, his name adorned the Marshall record books as the leading scorer in Marshall basketball history. Walt Walowac, at all of 5 feet and 11 inches and 175 pounds, was a scoring machine for Coach Cam Henderson in the early 1950s.

Walowac, a product of the coalfield hoops hotbed of Logan. W.Va., scored 1,982 points in his time at Marshall, making him the university’s third all-time scorer. His average of 29.1 points per game in 1952-53 is the second-best all-time single-season average. He was twice named a Small College All-American by the Helms Foundation.

“He was the best shooter I ever saw at Marshall,” said the late Ernie Salvatore. “I saw him hit 13 straight jumpers one night. With the game on the line, he wanted the ball.”

Walowac was chosen as the 29th overall pick in the 1954 NBA draft by the Milwaukee Hawks. His jersey, number 20,  has been retired at Marshall.

 

 

Cebe Price  (1953-1956)

Cebe Price came to Marshall from Kanawha County, where he and teammate Paul Underwood waged many a battle with West Virginia All-American Hot Rod Hundley. Price and Underwood became known as the “Gold Dust Twins.” Price played in a golden era of Marshall basketball with Charlie Slack and Hal Greer. He helped run the famed Marshall fast break and also finished as the 15th leading scorer in Marshall history. He led Marshall with 27 points in the Herd’s 1956 NCAA Tournament game against Morehead. Three years in a row Price was named first team All-Mid-American Conference. The late legendary Huntington sports writer Ernie Salvatore named Price the best ball handler in Herd history.

Price was selected as the 61st overall pick in the 1957 NBA draft by the Syracuse Nationals.

 

John Taft (1988-1991)

John Taft only knew two ways to play basketball – hard and fast. With 2,332 points, Taft is the second leading scorer in the history of Marshall’s basketball program behind Skip Henderson. Taft accomplished the feat with slashing, hard-nosed drives to the hoop and a dependable jump shot.

Taft had an uncanny ability to play above his 6-foot frame. He averaged 27.3 points per game in his senior season, good for eighth in the nation. In one of the more memorable games at the Henderson Center, Taft dropped 43 points in front of a sellout crowd against No. 13 East Tennessee State. It was the same night his jersey was retired.

Taft was named All-Southern Conference three years and Southern Conference Player of the Year twice. His three-game total of 109 points in the 1989 Southern Conference Tournament is a record that still stands.

 

Skip Henderson (1985-1988)

He’s the most prolific scorer in Marshall basketball history. James “Skip” Henderson had an offensive game to marvel over and a left-handed jumper that seemed effortless and precise shot after shot. He made 1,000 field goals in his career.

The 6-foot-2-inch, 175-pound guard set a Southern Conference Tournament record with 55 points versus The Citadel. Henderson made first team All-Southern Conference all four years he played at Marshall, including being named Southern Conference Player of the Year in 1988. His 2,574 points remain the career record at Marshall. His total was also the career record in the Southern Conference until Stephen Curry broke it when he starred at Davidson from 2006-09.

At Marshall, Henderson holds the distinction of having the top scoring marks in a single game (55), single season (804) and career (2,574).

 

Tamar Slay (1999-2002)

At 6 feet 8 inches and 215 pounds, Tamar Slay has to be the tallest guard to ever play for Marshall University. He turned out to be a matchup problem for virtually every opponent.

Slay averaged 15.7 points per game during his four-year career at Marshall. He’s the sixth leading scorer in Marshall history with 1,792 points. His 251 made three-pointers are the best of all time at Marshall, and his 650 attempts are the most ever. His ability to play inside and out made him a unique offensive weapon.

Slay was named first team All-Mid American Conference and was drafted as the 54th overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft by the New Jersey Nets. He currently plays professionally in Italy.

 

J.R. VanHoose (1999-2002)

Playing alongside Tamar Slay, J.R. VanHoose provided the inside game to complement Slay’s outside game. A high school sensation in Paintsville, Ky., he was named Mr. Basketball in Kentucky in 1996.

The 6-foot-10-inch, 245-pound center received numerous D-1 scholarship offers but eventually chose Marshall over Vanderbilt and Notre Dame. VanHoose could have been named Mr. Consistency at Marshall, nearly averaging a double-double (an individual basketball performance in which a player accumulates a double-digit number total in two of five categories) for the Herd. He was good for 16 points per game and 9.6 rebounds. His 1,803 points rank fifth of all time at Marshall and his 1,086 rebounds trail only all-time rebound leader Charlie Slack. VanHoose led Marshall in field goal percentage for all four seasons for the Herd.

He was an All-Mid-American Conference performer and is now a high school girl’s basketball coach in Kentucky.

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