Ask Bob: What’s happened to high school basketball?

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It’s time for a new round of ‘Ask Bob,’ where I answer questions on almost any sports-related topic posed by readers. Feel free to comment or to pose questions of your own for future columns:

Troy Flint, Oakland, Calif.: In a recent ‘Ask Bob’ segment, you reflected on some of the best WPIAL basketball teams you had the privilege of watching and I was impressed by the abundance of talent those teams contained. It seems the number of top-level players from Western Pennsylvania has declined dramatically over the years, even adjusting for demographic shifts -- many smaller areas now produce more D-1 players than the Greater Pittsburgh region. To what do you attribute this change?

Gary O’Shell: What's happened to high school basketball in Western Pa.? I've been gone since 1980 but there was a time when the ACC in particular, heavily recruited it. Is it just the population dip or something more?

As both readers suggest, this was once a fertile area for college basketball recruiting, including the prestigious ACC. It would not be unusual for more than a dozen players to be awarded Division I scholarships annually from WPIAL and City League teams. One year in the early 70s there were close to 20. Teams would have multiple D-I players. The 1971 Schenley state championship team had four D-I players. It’s arch-rival Fifth Avenue had three the year before.

It wasn’t just the City League. From Uniontown to Farrell and many points in between, college prospects were aplenty.

Many point to the declining population of the region as being the primary factor in the drop of elite players. But if that were so, how does that explain the number of girls getting D-I scholarships, which is high? Why wouldn’t the declining population affect the girls?

My answer may not satisfy some and may anger others, but it is this:

College basketball is a game played primarily by African-Americans. White players on the D-I level border on being rare. There are not a lot of African-American high school basketball players in Western Pennsylvania, particularly in the upper levels of the WPIAL. Therefore, the talent is thin.

Because college basketball has become so dominated by black players, some of the white players who once received scholarships from the area no longer are good enough. Not to be disrespectful, but two key players on Pitt’s great 1973-74 Billy Knight-led team that reached the round of eight in the NCAA tournament -- starting center Jim Bolla and reserve guard Ken Wagoner -- would not be D-I players today.

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Dan Peters: I know you covered the great Pitt football teams in the late 1970s and early '80s. Do you think Pitt violated NCAA rules – ala SMU - in collecting all that talent? Also, to what do you attribute the huge drop-off in on-field performance after Jackie Sherrill left Pitt? Did Foge Fazio lose control of the players and the program?

Any time a team is as talented as Pitt was in that era suspicion arises. I never looked hard into it, nor did I see anything that smacked of major illegality that would make me look. Boosters were around teams all the time during that era -- it was legal -- and I’m sure they did some favors for the players. If they did, those would be minor violations. I saw no flashy cars, no high living.

The fact Sherrill's teams at Texas A&M were nailed for some major violations might indicate there were more illegalities than met the eye at Pitt. But, again, I never saw it.

As for the decline after Sherrill left, I think the primary reason for that is pretty simple. Sherrill was an outstanding coach. They men who succeeded him, not saying there were not good coaches, but they were not outstanding.

I’m sure some would argue with my assessment of Sherrill but he was special in my estimation. He had rare qualities: The players respected him, feared him and also liked him. He was in complete command.

Sherrill was also a spectacular judge of talent, which helped both in recruiting and getting the best players on the field.

His greatest asset, though, was his willingness and ability to attract outstanding assistants. He staffs were filled with future head coaches like Jimmy Johnson. It was Sherrill who gave Dave Wannstedt his first full-time assistants job. He was smart enough to hire Joe Moore, a great line coach, away from Upper St. Clair High School.

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Dick McKibben, North Myrtle Beach, S.C.: Please explain how a beat writer navigates the slippery slope of reporting what is really happening? Doesn't the writer risk not getting future interviews from the recipient of a unflattering article? How did you deal with an unhappy player or front office executive after you wrote something they did not like? Does a beat writer ever use the sports feature writer to sometimes write about subjects that would cause him problems if his name was attached to such a story?

It’s not as slippery as you might think. I had one rule that I followed in my years as a beat writer (two on high school sports, one on the Penguins, six on the Pirates and five on Pitt football and basketball) and it served me well: My first obligation was to the reader. If there’s news -- and I say news as opposed to rumor -- the reader deserves to know about it. If you work under that principle, the slope is navigable.

A beat reporter should never -- never ever -- worry about offending an athlete. I’m not dismissing the importance of having a good relationship with the players. But not at the expense of compromising your obligation to the readers. If a reporter is fair and honest in his writing, if he is professional in dealing with the athletes and works hard to cover his beat, most players will appreciate that.

In one season with the Pirates, I had three players who would not talk to me. There were 22 others and the managers and coaches still available. I do not believe those players not talking to me detracted from my job in any way.

It’s not so much that a beat writer hands off opinion articles to a columnist, but more the case of that being the columnist’s job. Once, beat writers were not permitted to express opinions. That thinking is fairly archaic. A beat writer is the newspaper’s expert on his team. He needs to inject a certain degree of opinion into his story. But major opinions should be reserved for the columnist.

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