MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WV News) — The tweet went out on Feb. 6, when you think of it, not that long ago. It was a WVU Basketball tweet, a picture of Levi Phillips in the Hall of Traditions at the WVU Basketball Facility, looking at a basketball from another era … a “Jet” basketball that was autographed.
His name was not the featured name, that belonging to the great Wil Robinson, the top scorer ever to play in the Coliseum, but the basketball was his, for it was the one 50 years earlier he had used to score the first basket in the history of the Coliseum, which is the most iconic building on the West Virginia campus.
Phillips, who died in Charleston at age 69 on Tuesday after a long illness, had donated the ball to the Hall of Traditions after much prodding from his longtime friend and Mountaineer coach Bob Huggins.
It took Huggins almost as long to get the donation as it did get his car back, the car he had loaned to Phillips in the year he sat out after transferring from Ohio University to West Virginia.
Huggins was a sophomore and Phillips a senior then and the way Huggins told the story when they were celebrating 50 years of the Coliseum that Phillips said he had some errands to run and asked Huggins to borrow his car.
While running errands, Phillips ran into a lovely young lady, probably a coed, who needed a ride to Fairmont.
“Why not?” thought Phillips, and this is where Huggins’ version of the story differs from Phillips.
Phillips, both agree, was late returning the car.
“Two hours,” Phillips insisted.
“Two days,” countered Huggins.
And so it stood over the years, the two close friends who could laugh over it.
Huggins, of course, returned to WVU, Phillips evenutally returned to Charleston, where he was a star at Charleston High School on a team that won 48 consecutive games from 1967 to 1969, something that obviously gave Phillips as much pride, or more, than scoring the first basket in the Coliseum.
In fact, he saw that he brought it up when interviewed by the late sportswriter Mickey Furfari about six years ago.
“We set a state record winning 48 straight games and the record still stands,” Phillips told Furfari.
But when you think of Levi Phillips, you think of the Coliseum basket.
“It’s my claim to fame,” he admitted.
Clearly, the team belonged to Robinson, who averaged 30 points a game with 838 points in just 28 Coliseum games He reached 30 or more 15 times and 40 four times, including his final two games of his senior season.
But if the team belonged to Robinson the first big moment in the building that WVU still calls home belongs to Phillips … and he scored it, if you can believe it, following up a missed shot by Robinson.
“Wil was our shooter,” Phillips said on MetroNews “Talkline” this past winter. “He shot it and it bounced out to the free throw line and I put it back in.”
In all, he made five shots in that 113-92 win over Colgate on Dec. 1, 1970.
Robinson scored 39 points in the game.
But back to Huggins, Phillips and the basketball.
When Huggins returned to WVU to coach, he went on a statewide tour to make contact with the fans. In Charleston, though, he would not miss out on his old friend, Levi Phillips
After warmly embracing, Huggins asked Phillips “You still got the ball, Levi?”
“No hello, nothing … ‘Where’s the ball?’ Phillips said, telling the story. “He wanted that ball.”
Two years later, Phillips donated the ball to West Virginia.
One final Levi Phillips story that was related by WVU historian John Antonik and it’s about how Phillips wound up at WVU. In 1969 he was the school’s No. 1 recruiting target
Sonny Moran, with his top recruiter, Gary McPherson, were trying to land Phillips but Purdue was also hot on him and the coach there was the former WVU coach George King a big-time recruiter who helped bring in Hall of Famer Rod Thorn, Fritz Williams and who got All-American guard Rick Mount to Purdue.
Moran and McPherson made a late home visit to Phillips in Charleson and at a moment when Phillips had left the room, his mother let the two coaches know how she felt on the matter.
“I just love that man, George King,” she said “He’s such a gentleman, but I don’t want my son to leave the country to go play basketball at Peru.”
McPherson saw an opening and said, “You know, Mrs. Phillips, Peru is an awfully long way from Charleston.”
When Phillips returned to the room, she asked him why he would leave the country to play basketball?
“I said, ‘Mom, it’s in Indiana,’” Phillips remembered, laughing.
Didn’t matter, she was having her son go to WVU.
And so it was he was in position to score the historic first basket in the Coliseum, although he revealed that after the game, when athletic director Red Brown presented him with the ball, “I didn’t even realize I had scored that first basket.”
Phillips was a solid player, sometimes spectacular. He is one of only three Mountaineers to ever have recorded a triple double, getting his in 1974 against Virginia Tech.
And, on Dec 1, 1973 against Pitt, he joined Eartha Faust, Jerome Anderson, Larry Carr and Warren Baker to make up the first all-Black starting lineup at WVU.