I covered high school sports for The Eagle in the mid- to late-1970s. What a time to be thrown into the fray as those years were – argue if you want, but you’d be wrong – the best in City League sports history.
I’ll re-visit this era in future MOAS posts, but today I want to focus on the Heights basketball team that
went undefeated and won a 5A state championship in 1976-77.
That team included starters Darnell Valentine, Calvin Alexander, Doc Holden, Antoine Carr and James Carr. It was 25-0 and was really tested only once all season, by South in a game the Falcons still won by nine points, I believe. Heights jumped to a 25-0 lead over Kansas City Wyandotte that season in the state championship game.
Heights’ coach was Lafayette Norwood, and he didn’t really trust me or anyone in the media for whatever reason. Norwood was a friendly enough man and someone I got to know much better as years passed. But he was protective of that Heights team and the players followed his lead by being somewhat stand-offish.
It was an intimidating bunch, especially considering I was just getting started in the business at the time and was 21 years old.
Obviously, I was around that Heights team a lot. And I did my best, green as I was, to develop relationships with Norwood and the players. Valentine was the focal point of that team, the unquestioned leader. You really had to go through him to get to anyone else. And he wasn’t an easy guy to go through.
It’s interesting writing all of this because now I consider Valentine to be one of the most friendly and approachable people I have occasion to write about. Our conversations in recent years have been more than cordial. Valentine, who has mostly lived in Portland since his NBA career came to an end in the early 1990s, appreciates his legacy at Heights and has been involved in reunions when that team has gotten together.
The bond of that Falcons team is strong. There is a camaraderie among the players unlike any other high school team I have been around. It makes sense because of its success and because I believe the Heights basketball team of 1976-77 is the best team, in any sport, I’ve ever seen relative to its competition.
The rest of the City League was no joke in those years. But the Falcons blew the doors off.
Valentine, whose thick thighs were his defining feature, dominated games defensively and could also score.
Alexander later became a professional boxer and was built like a brick house, with apologies to the Commodores for stealing their song title. This is going to sound ridiculous and it’s a little embarrassing, but I’m pretty sure I stopped approaching Alexander for interviews because of the scowls he consistently gave me.
Doc Holden was a really friendly guy with crazy jumping ability. He went on to play at Cincinnati.
James Carr, who I saw just the other day after a Wichita State basketball game, was another intimidating, big guy. I might not have interviewed him much, either, come to think of it.
And Antoine Carr was just a pup, a 6-7 sophomore with incredible skills and athletic ability. I remember watching Carr fly all over the court.
Heights had a bunch of other good players, but the Falcons’ starting five is one for the ages. There hasn’t been one close to as good before or after in City League history.
Yet as good as this team was, it wasn’t all that enjoyable to cover. Heights’ games were always blowouts, which meant the starters rarely played more than a half or, at the most, three quarters. Because no teams were even in the same stratosphere as the Falcons, there were no interesting angles to cover, no potential showdowns to highlight.
Heights wrecked one team after another. They were tough and aggressive.
And it was up to me, some kid from Derby, to try and tell their story.
I remember setting up a picture at Cowtown. It might have been an All-City picture, or it might have been a picture of the Falcons’ five starters. I just know that at least a few of the Heights starters were there, and that they weren’t happy with the concept. Valentine, especially, thought it was ridiculous to be taking a picture at Cowtown and he wasn’t shy about expressing his opinion.
Eventually, though, the picture was taken. We got through it. And I think Valentine ended up thinking it wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
What a great experience for me. Covering that Heights team, and high school sports as a whole during that era, had a lot to do with my education as a sports writer. I had to step outside of my comfort zone and discover the real world. It was scary.