Brawls leave black mark on basketball

sports@macon.comMarch 3, 2014 

It’s unfortunate that sometimes athletics competition brings out the worst in people. The axiom “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game” should always ring true, but for some that is not the case.

One of the most infamous events in sports history took place in 1972 in a Big Ten basketball game between Ohio State and Minnesota. With the Buckeyes holding a 50-44 lead with less than a minute to play, Ohio State center Luke Witte was fouled and went to the floor. Gophers guard Corky Taylor offered a hand to help him onto his feet and in the process kneed Witte in the groin and punched him in the head. While on the floor, Witte was kicked in the head and knocked unconscious by Minnesota player Ron Behagan.

The Buckeyes’ Dave Marchant, coming to Witte’s aid, was struck in the face several times by Jim Brewer, and future baseball Hall-of Famer Dave Winfleld, playing basketball at the time for Minnesota, got into the act by attacking Mark Wagner from behind, striking him four or five times.

In all, three Ohio State players were taken to the hospital, with Witte being the most seriously injured. He received 29 facial stitches and a scarred cornea. Witte did not pursue legal action as a result of the incident but instead tried to achieve reconciliation.

Just last week, a brawl broke out between fans and players following Utah Valley’s 66-61 overtime win over New Mexico State. It started when a New Mexico State player threw a ball at a Wolverines player, hitting him in the leg after the game ended.

Locally, a postgame fight involving fans and a coach impacted the Perry-Fort Valley high school basketball rivalry for more than two decades.

It was the second meeting of the 1949 season between the Panthers and Green Wave, with the game being played at Perry. Fort Valley had won the first game on its home floor 20-18 but came up short this time around, 41-32. When the game ended, fans flooded the floor. One Fort Valley supporter, who thought the team had been hosed by the officials, questioned the birthright of Perry assistant coach Jim Shuler, who took offense and cold cocked the Fort Valley fan, breaking his jaw in three places and causing him to lose six teeth.

Shuler, a decorated military veteran, and Fort Valley were placed on probation for a year by the GHSA as a result of the incident. Fort Valley was sanctioned because the GHSA felt that Fort Valley’s fans were the school’s responsibility and that the fans’ abusive language was the cause of the altercation.

Peach County superintendent Ernest Anderson took it a step further, making the decision that Fort Valley would not play Perry except in tournament competition, a decision that remained in effect up until integration.

Between that 1949 season and the 1962 season, Perry and Fort Valley were the dominant teams in Class B. The Panthers won state titles under the legendary Eric Staples in 1949, 1953, 1956, 1959 and 1962, while Fort Valley, playing under Norman Faircloth, won titles in 1952, 1954 and 1961. After both schools moved to Class A in 1963, Perry won state titles in 1963, 1964 and 1966.

Both Staples and Faircloth are members of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame.

Perry and Fort Valley met just eight times between 1949 and 1969 following the postgame incident, with the Panthers winning six of the encounters.

One of the Panthers’ and Green Wave’s most epic postseason battles came in the 1962 Class B semifinals at the Macon City Auditorium. It was Macon’s first televised high school basketball tournament game and was billed as Lee vs. Tee, highlighting Perry sharpshooter Lee Martin and Fort Valley standout Tee Faircloth.

Faircloth won the scoring battle with Martin 30-25, but Perry took the game 52-44 to advance to the state championship game, where the team defeated Clinch County 72-45 to complete an unbeaten season.

Perry and Fort Valley are separated by just 12 miles. It’s a shame they didn’t play more for some 20 seasons because of out-of-control emotions.

Bobby Pope is the executive director of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. Email him at bobbypope428@gmail.com

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