Looking Back... Virginia's Buzz Wilkinson
Jan. 23, 2008
Former University of Virginia basketball captain Dave Cooke is a native of Charlottesville. Except for two years in the Army, Cooke has lived his entire life in the area, as a coach, teacher, and businessman. He's seen them all. "Parkhill, Lamp, Sampson, everybody," he says. "But I've never seen anybody better than Buzz Wilkinson; One of the best players that's ever been here, no question about it."
It's been more than a half century since Buzz Wilkinson last played college basketball. He never played on television and Charlottesville wasn't exactly a major media market in 1955. But don't confuse name recognition with accomplishment. Wilkinson was a marvelous player at the dawn of the ACC, one of those legends who helped the young league grow and thrive in the 1950s.
Richard Wilkinson grew up in Pineville, West Virginia, the son of the town physician. He attended nearby Greenbrier Military Academy. Wilkinson got his distinctive nickname from a grandmother, who was reminded of a cartoon character named Buzz.
Adolph Rupp wanted Wilkinson to come to Kentucky and not many recruits said no the Baron of the Bluegrass in the 1950s. But Wilkinson had his doubts. "Rupp seemed to stockpile lots of players but didn't play lots of players. It was almost like he was running tryouts."
Then there was the academic side. Wilkinson was a superb student, and had ambitions beyond basketball. "My father told me I would be a man a lot longer than I would be a boy and I had better prepare to be the best man I could be."
Wilkinson spurned Kentucky for Virginia, a school with a modest basketball tradition but a stellar academic reputation. He says, "It was one of the better decisions I ever made."
College basketball was undergoing a transition in the early 1950s and Virginia and Wilkinson were among the pioneers. The patient, ball-control offense that had characterized the sport since its inception was being replaced by an uptempo, fast-break game more appropriate for the emerging jet age. Under coach Evan "Bus" Male, Virginia ran as often as it could. One of the reasons was necessity. "We never seemed to have much size," says Wilkinson. "We couldn't match big teams inside so we tried to beat them down the floor and score before they could set up."
Virginia was an independent in those days. Wilkinson averaged 22.7 points per game as a sophomore in 1952-53. Virginia went 10-13.
That May seven schools left the Southern Conference to form the Atlantic Coast Conference. The search for an eighth lasted into the summer. By the time Virginia was added to the league, it was too late for them to get anything close to a full complement of conference games. They were automatically assigned to the eighth spot in the first ACC Tournament.
Virginia played only five ACC regular-season games in 1953-54, winning one. But Wilkinson emerged as a star. Wilkinson was 6'2" and a superb athlete, having been timed in 9.9 seconds for the 100-yard dash.
Cooke was one year ahead of Wilkinson at Virginia. "Buzz could run all day and had great hands. His first step was extremely good. He had great fundamentals. He was certainly a great shooter with great range. He had the best change of pace of anyone. If you played up on him, he would go by you and be on his way to the basket. He could dribble with either hand and used the backboard very well."
Bob McCarty was a year behind Wilkinson at Virginia. He adds, "Buzz could score in so many ways. He could shoot from the outside but he loved to put the ball on the floor and challenge the big guys inside. He always found a way to get the ball in the basket. He was so versatile and you couldn't stop everything."
Wilkinson had a little flash to his game. He could dribble behind his back or between his legs, although Cooke notes, "That sort of thing was frowned upon in those days, but the fans loved him."
Two of Virginia's five conference games that inaugural ACC season were against Frank McGuire's North Carolina Tar Heels. The first meeting was in Chapel Hill and McGuire devised an ingenious strategy to stop Wilkinson. "They put a man in front of me and one behind me every chance they could," Wilkinson recalls. "I got called for several charges and fouled out in a few minutes."
Wilkinson scored nine points, the only time in his college career that he failed to reach double figures.
Payback came three weeks later, in Charlottesville. Cooke says, "Buzz was really motivated. He wanted to show them. It might have been his best game."
Wilkinson avoided the fouls, split the double teams and lit up North Carolina for 45 points. Virginia won 83-69.
Wilkinson continued his rampage, scoring 30 or more on a regular basis. Virginia drew top-seeded Duke in the tournament opener. Duke surged to a 48-26 lead at intermission. Male told Wilkinson that he should shoot as often as possible for Virginia to have a chance at a comeback. Wilkinson attempted 44 field goals, making 13 and adding 16 foul shots. His 42 points didn't help much as Duke won 96-68.
Wilkinson says, "I felt bad shooting that much. But against better teams, I just had to score. I even had teammates tell me not to throw the ball to them."
McCarty says that any criticism that Wilkinson shot too much is unfounded. "I never saw him take a bad shot. He never forced anything. I wish they had kept statistics on assists in those days because he would have been at the top. Most of the baskets I scored in the two years we played together, I got on assists from Buzz. He was a very unselfish player."
Virginia ended the 1954 season 16-11. Wilkinson's 30.1 points per game led the ACC and was third in the nation behind Furman's Frank Selvy and LSU's Bob Pettit. The trio became the first players in NCAA history to break the 30-point-per-game barrier.
His senior season was even better. Sophomore point guard Billy Miller joined the varsity and relieved Wilkinson of some ball-handling obligations, while McCarty was another gifted fast-break player. Again, Virginia lacked the quality size necessary to defeat the ACC's top clubs. Wilkinson laments, "We could go up and down the floor pretty good as long as we could get the ball. But getting the ball was always a problem. We just didn't have any size."
Wilkinson was the team leader. McCarty says, "He led by example. I never saw him get in anyone's face or lose his composure. He had a quite strength."
Wilkinson opened the 1954-55 season with a career-high 48 points in a 110-63 win over Hampden-Sydney. This is still the second-highest single-game scoring total in Virginia history, surpassed only by Barry Parkhill's 51 points in 1971. He added a 45-point game against Clemson and 43 points against VMI.
Virginia finished the ACC regular season at 5-9 for sixth place. Another win over McGuire and North Carolina highlighted the regular season. Virginia opened the ACC Tournament against third-seeded Maryland, who had defeated the Cavaliers twice in the regular season. Virginia pulled off the upset 68-67, in overtime, as Wilkinson scored 30 points. He was one of three Cavaliers to play the entire 45 minutes.
Duke was next. Top-seeded NC State had won its semifinal game. The Wolfpack was on probation, so the winner of the Virginia-Duke game was assured of the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The game was tied at 74 with about a minute left when Virginia's Austin Pearre scored on a lay-up. But Virginia had called a timeout and the basket was disallowed. The Cavaliers held for the final shot. Wilkinson drove and Duke's Ronnie Mayer "blocked my shot. I thought he fouled me but it wasn't called." Overtime.
Virginia wasn't very deep under the best of circumstances. This wasn't the best of circumstances. "Two overtimes in two nights was just too much," recalls Wilkinson. "We were just out of gas."
Duke outscored Virginia 16-3 in overtime for the 90-77 win. Wilkinson again played all 45 minutes and scored 32 points. Wilkinson played 130 of a possible 130 minutes in three ACC Tournament games over two seasons, averaging 34.7 points per game.
Wilkinson again led the ACC in scoring, this time with a mark of 32.1, second nationally to Selvy, who played a much weaker schedule. This remains the highest single-season scoring average in ACC history. Other than Wilkinson, only South Carolina's Grady Wallace in 1957 and Wake Forest's Len Chappell in 1961 have averaged over 30 points in a season in the league. Thus Wilkinson owns two of the ACC's four best single-season scoring averages. Converse named Wilkinson first-team All-American: AP, third team.
He ended his Virginia career with 2,233 points and an average of 28.6 points per game, the latter still an ACC record. Wilkinson scored 40 or more points in college 10 times and 30 or more points 35 times. This was all accomplished well before shot clocks and three-point shots. "With our tempo, a shot clock wouldn't have mattered much for us," maintains Wilkinson. "The three-point shot is a different story. I think I could have added six to eight points per game to my average with a three-point shot."
Red Auerbach and the Boston Celtics selected Wilkinson in the third round of the 1955 NBA draft. NBA salaries in the 1950s were a fraction of what they would become and with only eight teams, job security was tenuous. Wilkinson remembered his father's words and turned down the Celtics for law school at Virginia. He then was in a serious automobile accident, puncturing his lungs and breaking seven ribs.
But Auerbach kept after him and he decided to give the NBA a shot. Wilkinson took a hard shot in an exhibition game and re-injured his ribs. "I always kind of regretted going to law school right away," he says. "The injuries ended it. The difference between a world-class basketball player and just a good basketball player is a thin hair."
Wilkinson's draft board figured that if he could try out for the NBA, he could serve in the military. After two years in the Army, he returned to law school, where he earned his degree.
Ironically, Wilkinson never actually practiced law. Instead, he went into a long and distinguished banking career in his native West Virginia. "I took lots of business and accounting courses at Virginia and have taken advantage of continuing education courses at numerous schools. Banking is all about working with people. Nothing prepares you better for that than basketball. There's definitely a carryover."
Wilkinson is 75 and is Chairman and CEO of First Century Bank in Bluefield, W.Va. Numerous surveys and magazines have acknowledged him as one of West Virginia's most influential businessmen. Wilkinson doesn't see retirement on the horizon. He says, "I'm as proud of my business career as I ever was of my playing career. I've tried to be a good citizen and give back to my community."
That community includes his alma mater. Wilkinson served on the committee that raised funds for the new John Paul Jones Arena, served as president of the Virginia alumni association, and has been a member of numerous advisory boards for the law school, the medical school, and the business school among others.
McCarty, now retired and living in California, feels that Wilkinson "has never received the recognition he deserves. I never played with anyone as good or against anyone as good. Buzz could play any position on a basketball court, do anything that could be done with a basketball. He put Virginia basketball on the map."
That may be Wilkinson's greatest legacy. He says, "When I came to Virginia nobody came to games. By the time I left, people were waiting in line to get in. I like to think I had something to do with that."
Jim Sumner's articles on southern sports history have appeared in the ACC Handbook, the ACC Area Sports Journal, Blue Devil Weekly, Inside Carolina, the Wolfpacker, Baseball America, Basketball America, and other publications. His latest book, Tales From the Duke Blue Devils Hardwood, was published in 2005. In his bimonthly column "Looking Back... by Jim Sumner", he will examine the rich history of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
This article can not be copied or reproduced without the express written consent of the Atlantic Coast Conference.