Editor’s note: Bob Lutz is retiring from The Eagle in April after 43 years at the paper. He’s writing about some of his best memories covering Wichita and Kansas sports.
I wanted the world to witness Darnell Valentine playing basketball. So in my early years at The Eagle, I told all of my friends about what a marvel he was.
My father, who introduced me to City League basketball in the 1960s by taking me to tripleheaders at the Roundhouse, was an easy target. I remember him being with me when Heights, Valentine’s team, played at Winfield during Valentine’s junior season.
Also in the stands that night was then-North Carolina assistant coach Eddie Fogler, whom I had come to know a little bit because of his determined recruitment of Valentine, who ultimately ended up at Kansas.
Valentine was 6-foot-1 of pure muscle. He could run and jump like no athlete I had ever written about. He was so strong, so athletic, and he took over games defensively, at the point, with sheer intimidation.
And, as it turns out, Valentine was just Act I during a remarkable run of City League basketball that produced five McDonald’s All-Americans in a stretch of five seasons from 1976-77, Valentine’s senior season, through 1980-81.
Following Valentine were Ricky Ross (South) and Antoine Carr (Heights), two remarkable players whose rivalry simmers to this day. Most of the games South and Heights played in those days were played at Levitt Arena, formerly the Roundhouse and currently Koch Arena, because high school gyms couldn’t hold the crowds. They could barely hold the talent.
Then, after Ross and Carr left in 1979, Greg Dreiling and Aubrey Sherrod followed. They, too, were iconic City League players — Dreiling a 7-foot-1 giant and Sherrod a 6-3 southpaw sharpshooter.
The level of talent coming through the City League in those days was dizzying and it wasn’t just those five guys. Chris Boyd and Jeff Konek (East), Calvin Alexander and Doc Holden (Heights), Mike Boushka (Kapaun Mount Carmel), Greg Williams (Southeast), Karl Papke and Les Pace (West) and Mike Sims and Eddie Smith (South) are also among the best players to come out of the City League and all played in the same period.
Heights won the Class 5A championship in 1977 in one of the most remarkable blowouts. The Falcons scored the game’s first 25 points against Kansas City Wyandotte, whose 20 titles are the most in the state’s history. Heights led 58-17 at halftime and won 92-52. Valentine, as you would expect, was a beast.
South proceeded to win the next four state championships from 1978-81 — one in 5A, three in 6A — while Kapaun, led by Dreiling, was winning back-to-back 5A titles in 1980 and 1981.
City League dominance was on display, thanks in large part to once-in-a-generation-talent times five.
Valentine ranks as the No. 16 scorer in City League history with 1,253 points, but scoring was down the list of what he brought the Falcons. He was tenacious. Valentine spoke softly but the way he played defense screamed in the ears of those he was guarding. Few could withstand his attack.
Carr showed up at Heights as a skinny 6-7 sophomore, joining Valentine, Alexander, Holden and James Carr, Antoine’s older brother. That’s the team — the 1976-77 Falcons — that is the best to ever play high school basketball in Kansas. And Carr, so young, was a key contributor. That kid loved to dunk, a skill that would carry him through a great career at Wichita State and a long run in the NBA.
Ross could do everything. He is one of the best shooters I’ve seen and, at 6-4, could jump as well as any player. Ross had a tremendous basketball IQ and was so unselfish. I saw him set the City League scoring record by scoring 47 points at Southeast in 1979 and it felt like he never shot the basketball.
Dreiling overwhelmed with his size but had a soft touch with both hands and he could get up and down the floor. There was nothing lumbering about Dreiling’s game.
Finally, there was Sherrod. It was a habit of mine to focus on Sherrod during pregame warmups when I covered his games and count the number of shots he missed. I rarely needed fingers on both hands.
City League basketball was strong before the Big Five arrived, but they took the league to another level. And to national recognition.
Carr and Sherrod played college basketball at Wichita State. Dreiling started there before transferring to Kansas, which is where Valentine became one of the greatest Jayhawks. Ross took a circuitous route through KU and the junior college ranks in California before finishing his career at Tulsa.
They combined to score 7,800 points in the City League.
Heights was 60-6 during Valentine’s career and 52-13 when Carr was a Falcon.
Ross led South to a 62-10 record during his three seasons.
Heights was 57-12 when Sherrod played there and Kapaun went 66-28 with Dreiling at center.
It was a great time to be covering the City League. The talent was enormous.