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Thursday, January 22, 2009
Virginia surprises skeptics on the court

By Ian R. Rapoport
Special to ESPNRISE.com

Boo Williams remembers arriving at a summer basketball tournament 15 years ago and meeting skepticism. His Amateur Athletic Union teams would show up in an arena in Las Vegas or Los Angeles or Orlando, and the looks would come there, too.

Allen Iverson
Allen Iverson is one of the versatile athletes who call Virginia home.

Virginia? Are they kidding?

"When we first started -- this is a true statement -- people from New York laughed at us," said Williams, a successful AAU coach for the past 26 years. "They'd say, 'Them country kids down in Virginia, ain't no players down there.' I guess they didn't know how good we were going to be."

That was then.

"Now, everybody knows who we are," said Williams, who grew up in Hampton.

Virginia isn't just for lovers. It's for ballers, too. The football, basketball and baseball kind.

For hoopsters like Hampton's Allen Iverson, Petersburg's Moses Malone, Chesapeake's Alonzo Mourning, Norfolk's Joe Smith, Virginia Beach's J.R. Reid and Roanoke's J.J. Redick. For football players like Williamsburg's Lawrence Taylor, Norfolk's Plaxico Burress, Virginia Beach's Percy Harvin, Richmond's Fran Tarkenton, and Newport News' Michael and Marcus Vick. For baseball players like Chesapeake's David Wright, Norfolk's B.J. and Justin Upton, and Virginia Beach's Ryan Zimmerman.

And some stellar athletes who played more than one sport, like Hampton's Ronald Curry, who starred as a point guard at North Carolina and now thrives in NFL stadiums.

Throw in Hot Springs golfer Sam Snead, boxer Pernell "Sweet Pea" Whitaker of Norfolk, NASCAR driver Ricky Rudd of Chesapeake and track star LaShawn Merritt of Portsmouth, and you have quite a list.

It's not just players. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, whose team is in the Super Bowl, is a native of Newport News, while University of Richmond coach Mike London, a graduate of Bethel, won the Football Championship Subdivision national title this past season.

Virginia might not be the biggest state. Far from it. With roughly 7.5 million people, it is dwarfed by hotbeds such as New York, California and Texas.

But for those who grew up there, they have no doubt how the state ranks among its peers.

"I don't think there is any better area," said Iverson, a former state-title-winning quarterback at Bethel High and current NBA star for the Detroit Pistons. "You just have to look at the history of players that have come from there, and I think that speaks for itself."

Clearly, he's not alone.

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Read more about the legends that call Virginia home. And watch Allen Iverson's high school highlights.

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Hampton High coach Mike Smith, a veteran football coach of 38 years and 402 wins, has seen a lot of prep heroics. He coached Curry-led teams to state titles in 1995, 1996 and 1997, three of the 12 Smith's teams have won.

Smith lauds the Tidewater area, which includes Hampton, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Portsmouth and more.

"Per capita, this is about as good as it comes," Smith said, "particularly with basketball and football, simply because there are great athletes coming out of both sports. There's great athletic ability and great speed. It'll stand up with Florida or Alabama, just not numbers-wise."

Smith has a pretty decent answer why.

"That's where the first boat landed, you know," Smith said, laughing. "It landed right up there in Hampton, then went right up and got out at Jamestown. I just think those genes stayed in that area right there. Or maybe they dropped something in the water."

As for Williams, 48, he began helping in 1982 by founding a four-team AAU program called the Boo Williams Summer League. Now, there are more than 165 teams with more than 2,000 athletes in the league sponsored by Nike.

His success at shepherding basketball talent to college has made him an legend. And he's just as clear as Smith in his view of the state's ranking.

"I'm a little biased, but it's got to be Virginia," Williams said. "There's never been a state that's had back-to-back number one NBA draft picks like Virginia did with Iverson and Joe Smith. There's always been talent here."

All of which begs the question: Who is the best?

"Other than myself," Iverson said, "I would say the best athlete out of that area that I have seen would be Michael Vick."

Vick, by the way, was the second-best quarterback in the area as a high school senior behind Curry, who now plays wide receiver for the Raiders. For Smith, that's where the conversation begins and ends.

"Ronald Curry was the best player down here," Smith said of the former national player of the year, who won state championships in football and in basketball. "We won three state titles with him [in football], and if I'd have done a better job coaching, we'd have won four. The thing about him was that he was just as good on defense as he was on offense."

Williams goes a different route. In an all-Virginia, all-time draft, he'd take Mourning, the former Indian River High star who was the second overall NBA pick in 1992 after a career at Georgetown.

"If he were coming up now, he would've never went to college," Williams said. "No question. Alonzo could dominate the game defensively. He could just do things that were unheard of -- blocking shots, controlling a game, with the toughness he had. But that was [the best] in my lifetime."

Williams wonders whether he'd think the same had he seen Malone, the NBA legend who won two MVP awards, as a prep player. Or Harrisonburg's Ralph Sampson.

"Everyone says Moses Malone was ridiculous," Williams said.

Regardless, Williams has noticed a change in opponents' attitudes at summer basketball tournaments.

"You say Virginia now," he said, "and people know you have good players."

Ian R. Rapoport covers University of Alabama athletics for The Birmingham News. He can be reached at irapoport@bhamnews.com.