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MILES FROM NOWHERE
Hank Hersch
February 16, 1987
Virginia's Oak Hill Academy is an unlikely wellspring of top basketball talent, one of a handful of out-of-the-way prep schools to which inner-city stars flock in hopes of improving their grades and games, thereby increasing their chances for college and NBA glory
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February 16, 1987

Miles From Nowhere

Virginia's Oak Hill Academy is an unlikely wellspring of top basketball talent, one of a handful of out-of-the-way prep schools to which inner-city stars flock in hopes of improving their grades and games, thereby increasing their chances for college and NBA glory

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DATELINE: Mouth of Wilson, Va. If Wilson were alive and his mouth worked, his first utterance would probably be, "Huh?" For this little village, which has attracted more budding high school basketball talent in the past few seasons than Scalp of Tarkanian, Nev., is little more than a couple of two-lane roads that come to a T at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains.

At the top of the T stands Fields Motor Co. (est. 1922), a Ford dealership. Across U.S. 58 is the rundown woolen mill and the general store. Together, the three buildings make up Fields Manufacturing Co. Inc. (est. 1907). The store's proprietor, Jack Fields, and the car dealer, Red Fields, are double first cousins; their fathers, who were brothers, married the Phipps sisters. Jack's dad, J. Cam Fields, who died earlier this month at age 90, used to live next to the post office, which is about the only other business in town. Mouth of Wilson (pop. 100, or two pages in the telephone directory) seems to have belonged to the Fields family forever. Beyond the village are rolling hills the colors of lime and orange sherbet, where cattle graze and tobacco grows.

"Before things were settled, the trappers used to say they'd meet at the mouth of Wilson Creek," says Jack, 62. "That's how the village got its name. The Wilson empties into the New River. It hasn't changed much, the village."

To see what is really new, you have to drive half a mile west on 58. You then take a right and head another half mile up a hill. Three bored horses will be hanging their heads on your left. On your right is a weathered white church accompanied by a graveyard. At the top of the hill are the 13 prosaic buildings that make up Oak Hill Academy. In a redbrick structure called Turner is a basketball court. The school's colors, red and gold, contrast vividly with the floor, which is a mottled kitchen tile you wouldn't want to eat off of.

On that ridiculous court in that rundown building above that pitiful creek near the town that time forgot in Middle of Nowhere, Va., half a dozen Division I basketball prospects, including the most sought-after seniors from both New York City and Philadelphia, are joyously jamming away. They, like so many other coveted players nowadays, have elected to exchange a year or two in their hometown spotlight for a stint in a black hole. They have relocated not only hundreds of miles from friends and family, but also light-years from civilization as they know it. Or used to know it.

Oak Hill was founded by the New River Baptist Association in 1878. Originally a school for locals, by the 1950s it had evolved into a coed boarding academy catering to troubled teenagers, mostly from the South and East, who might benefit from a rigorous religious environment away from worldly distractions. There was nothing special about the school's basketball teams then. Only a decade ago, Oak Hill regularly dueled such local juggernauts as the Virginia Baptist Children's Home. By the 1970s enrollment had dwindled, and Oak Hill was having trouble meeting expenses.

One day in 1976, Chuck Isner, the athletic director, approached his father, Robert, who was the academy's president. Aside from basketball, gym classes and intramurals, the athletic department consisted of a baseball team that could squeeze in maybe three games a year when the weather broke right. Chuck Isner suggested to his dad that high-powered hoops might be just the ticket to spread word of the Mouth. "Give me four scholarships," he pleaded. "Let me go out and find four ballplayers that I think will fit into Oak Hill. Good characters, good citizens. Let's have a real program." The elder Isner went along, approving expenses he would have a hard time explaining to the board of trustees. Chuck headed to New York City, where he successfully recruited three players. On his way home he picked up a fourth, from Richmond, Va.

Since then Oak Hill's basketball team has gone 271-35. This season the 22-1 Warriors have traveled to five states taking on top high school teams, college jayvees or anyone else willing to give them a game. Most of their expenses are paid by tournament promoters or schools willing to throw in a gracious guarantee. In the past six years, 31 Warriors have earned major-college scholarships and 6 have been named high school All-Americas. The Warriors get less ink in The Declaration of Independence (Va.), their local paper, than they do in USA Today, which last week ranked them No. 5 in the land.

Before Oak Hill went for big-time basketball, it had 85 students and an operating budget of $200,000. Today the numbers are 190 and $1.7 million. With the extra revenue, much of it attributable to publicity and enthusiasm generated by basketball, the school has reopened an old dorm and is planning to build equestrian facilities. Says the senior Isner, now retired, "It's peculiar and strange how one thing led to another."

So it is. How could a school stuck in a pinprick of a Virginia village become one of the last words in high school hoops?

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