As the saying goes, better late than never.
No one knows that better than the members and staff of the 1979 and 1980 Wetumpka Indians basketball team, who received their championship rings on Sunday after a 43-year wait.
Surrounded by friends, family and community members, the men and women of Wetumpka High School’s only two basketball championships finally earned their AHSAA championship rings.
Why teams never originally received their rings is widely disputed, but that’s all a thing of the past as former players and coaches now have their jewelry to celebrate their historic achievements.
“We wanted to bring some excitement and joy to Wetumpka,” said ’79 team member Curtis Mitchell. “That was our only goal.”
As attendees entered the Wetumpka Civic Center, a slideshow played, displaying images and memorabilia from those legendary seasons.
Crowds murmured after each photo, as people remembered their friends, classmates and former team members as they once were.
“Look at him…”
“I forgot you had hair like that!”
These days, afros are long gone and the days of gaming are over, but the memories accumulated along the way remain the same.
“The experiences we had have impacted my life forever,” said ’80 team member Charlie Crenshaw.
A nearly 20-minute documentary was made of back-to-back championship teams. While the documentary highlighted some of the greatest moments in Wetumpka High School’s history, it also showed how difficult it was to get there.
43 years ago was a very different time than the one we find ourselves in now. Besides the fact that the three-point line had not been implemented and dipping was not allowed, the majority black members of the championship teams had to fight for their right to even be on the teams.
At the end of the 1970s, the Wetumpka high school had just been integrated.
The first real testament to Wetumpka’s basketball prowess in the late 70s was the 1975 team, which was one of the school’s first integrated teams and was nearly the first championship team.
This team was one win away from playing for a championship in Tuscaloosa, now called “Title Town” for the 1979 and 1980 teams.
The 1975 team was about five men deep, just enough to have a full squad but barely enough to survive a long playoff run.
Kenny Marshall, a member of the 1975 team, said his team paved the way for future championship runs and lamented that if his team had gone deeper, he too would have earned his ring.
“It didn’t work for us,” Marshall said. “We set the tone for these guys. They had the same kind of identical team that we had.
At that time, for the 1975, 1979 and 1980 squads, they mostly played on makeshift bases in their backyard or on the outside grounds of the old Wetumpka Rec.
All that’s left of the playground is asphalt, now a parking lot.
Ed Jackson of the 1975 team said playing at the Rec that summer was what gave him a love of basketball. Bill Franklin said the memories he and his buddies made there could not be taken away by anyone.
With the precedent set by the team in 1975, the 1979 team found their groove early and did what no team before them had ever done: go all the way.
The 1979 team finished the year 29–1, in what is widely considered one of the best basketball seasons in Alabama State history.
Winfred Wise, a member of the 1979 team, said adjusting to playing at an integrated school was a challenge before the season.
He said he and other black players needed to play what he called a more “organized” ball, but said when things happened he and his teammates just “did it on our own “.
The biggest aspect of the 1979 squad was exactly what the 1975 squad lacked. Depth.
The 1979 team was so good in fact, and so deep, that Bernard Mack made the 1979 All-Tournament team, despite never starting a game.
Mack was a bit ahead of his time in this regard, as the term “sixth man” wasn’t in the basketball vernacular until the ’80s.
Wetumpka didn’t blow up every team on his way to the history books and almost didn’t win at all. With the championship on the line, it was up to Danny Williams to land a pair of free throws to give the Indians a lead late in the title game.
As for what Williams was thinking before going for his shots?
“I didn’t want to go home empty-handed,” Williams said with a laugh.
With the big blue trophy in hand, the goal for the 1980 season was simple. Earn another. Why not?
“The pressure was off by 1980,” Lewis Washington said. “We never felt like we could lose a game. We never lost a game at home. Those seasons made a big difference in our lives.
1980 assistant coach Charles Johnson said it took very little motivation for his team at the time to try and come back back to back. The team was returning strong players and adding the best talent the school had to offer.
“It didn’t take much motivation in 1980,” Johnson said. “We tried to stay focused because we knew we had something special.”
Something special they had indeed, as the team went 28-4 on the year, coming home with a second trophy in hand.
This team was so good in fact that every senior on the team was offered a one-team college scholarship, although no one remembers exactly which school it was.
University scholarship or not, rings or not, the teams met and still know each other today. Their mark on the town of Wetumpka will last long after they are gone.
On the Civic Center stage, the men and women of Wetumpka’s most heralded basketball teams finally received their rings. Some almost in tears, many hugging, the day had finally come when both teams were recognized for just how great they truly were.
Each ring is inscribed with “back2back”, to forever commemorate one of the greatest runs in Alabama basketball history.
Players would have waited another 43 years if they could. But Sunday was the ultimate day for these chosen few to be recognized for who they are and always will be. Champions.