Before he was celebrated at Ohio State as an All-American, the NCAA rushing leader and the runner up for the Heisman, and then in a 13-year NFL career, where he was a first-round pick, made the Pro Bowl and scored in the Super Bowl, Keith Byars and his Roth High School basketball teammates were put on a pedestal and given such raucous support that it would rival and sometimes dwarf the adulation he’d receive later in college and the pros.
Byars played on the mighty 1981 and 1982 Roth High teams that won back-to-back state titles and this June will be inducted into the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame in Columbus.
Saturday afternoon several of those players from the 1981 team gathered at Frickers in Huber Heights for a 40th reunion celebration that was highlighted by lots of stories.
“We were treated like rock stars,” Byars told me the other day. “The atmosphere at our games was electric.”
Roth basketball was the hottest ticket in town from 1976, when the Falcons won the state crown with sophomore prodigy Dwight Anderson, arguably the greatest prep hoops talent this town has produced. The fervor only increased with two more years of Dwight and that gave way to the legacy of the 1981 team.
“I personally think it’s the greatest high school team of all time in Ohio,” said Byars.
“If we had a game at Roth on Friday or Saturday night the tickets were sold out by Wednesday or Thursday. They eventually moved a lot of our games to UD Arena because of the crowd.
“At home though it was just standing room only. Fans would literally be standing out on the court. In our little cracker box gym, if I took the ball out of bounds after a time out or a dead ball, the referee would be in the crowd going ‘Excuse me, Sir. Can you back up.’
“He’d back them off the court, but as soon as I inbounded the ball, they were back out there until the play came back down to their end.
“We had no balcony and literally some people would just sit out by the concession area and they’d have the door open so they could try to look in over other people’s heads.
“We never had pep bands like other schools had. They would have taken seats up. So we had a DJ at our games and he played the latest R&B hits. That was another part of the experience. Everybody was like, ‘Man, Roth’s got a DJ!’
“And the announcer was awesome. The starting five would come busting through that paper banner from the dressing room and you heard one nickname for us after another.
“I tell people, ‘You remember the Rocky 2 movie when Rocky is going against Apollo Creed? Rocky looks over and they’re calling Apollo The Master of Disaster, The King of Sting and on and on. Rocky was like: ‘Man how many names his guy got?’
“That was us. They called us Haley’s Comets, the Masters of Disaster, the Purple Crush, The Greatest Show on Earth.”
There might be some who debate Byars’ belief that the 1981 Roth team was the best ever in Ohio. There were other good teams in the Dayton area: The 1964 Belmont team went 26-1, won the state crown and featured Don May and Bill Hosket Jr., both who became college All Americans and won NBA championship rings.
And there where the Middletown Middies that were led by Jerry Lucas. They went 76-1, won two state titles and were runners up for another. Lucas was an All American at Ohio State, an NCAA and NBA champion and a 7-time NBA All Star.
And Byars admitted that statewide there were some especially good teams over the years.
“I know there was LeBron James and his (Akron) St. Vincent – St. Mary team. And LeBron would get his points, but it wouldn’t be enough. He couldn’t check five people.
“Clark Kellogg (Cleveland St, Joe) was awesome and Jerry Lucas would have been a problem, and there as Mike Giomi at Newark and Jimmy Jackson (Toledo Macomber) was special. There are a whole lot of great players in Ohio.
“But I’m talking an entire team. We had too many bodies coming at you. We could slow down your superstar and in our case we all could put the ball on the floor. And we liked to play defense. We didn’t care if we got in foul trouble because there was always another guy to come in.”
“From our first five to 7 or 8 on the bench, any one of us could come into the game and there wouldn’t be any difference,” said William “Willie C” Colston, who was a first team All Dayton Public League pick as was forward/center Fred Johnson. Colston went on to play college ball at Hawaii and Johnson went to Akron.
“We were a senior-laden team and our second team could have started anywhere else in the city,” said Chuck Taylor, who teamed with Colston in the starting backcourt.
The Falcons averaged 82 points in a 32-minute game and that was without a three-point line.
The team had 11 players who went on to play college basketball or football.
When they won the title in 1981, Roth was the smallest school in Class AAA, said forward Ike Thorton Jr.
The following year – even as the school’s enrollment dropped and the team lost seven players from the 1981 team – Roth went 24-4 and won the state’s Class AA crown.
Some two months later, Roth High closed its doors for good.
‘They were my heroes’
Chuck Taylor, the former City League Coach of the Year at Dunbar, the longtime bailiff for Dayton Municipal Court Judge Dan Gehres and a Howard University football player after leaving Roth, remembered back when he was an eighth grader.
“I can remember sitting in the stands saying, ‘One day I’m going to be on the team. I looked up to those guys. They were my heroes.”
Roth was a neighborhood school with most of the players growing up in the Westwood area or Residence Park across Gettysburg Ave. With some of them the connections went back to their dads. Taylor’s dad and Thornton’s dad played industrial league basketball at the Fairgrounds Coliseum.
When they were small, a lot of the Roth players were involved in the First Dayton Little League program. Later their Westwood fifth grade team won the county basketball title.
When integration was instituted in Dayton Public Schools, a couple of the top players – Johnson and Thornton – were bussed to Wilbur Wright High.
Senior year they got back together and under the demanding guidance of Mike Haley they became a true team, said Taylor: “We weren’t selfish. We didn’t care who scored. We were brothers.”
The only glitch on the season came in a January game up at the Celina Fieldhouse. The Bulldogs, who were 5-7 compared to Roth’s 10-0, pulled off the monumental upset thanks to a few Roth miscues in the final minutes, Mike Hoyngs’ 41 points for Celina and an inordinate number of fouls called on the Falcons.
“I think they shot about 40 free throws,” Taylor said.
Celina won 75-73 in overtime.
“I remember in the locker room how we felt,” Thornton said. “We looked at each other and said, ‘We’re never gonna feel this again.”
There was one close call against Fairborn Park Hills, Thornton said: “Our starting five fouled out, but Keith Byars came in and hit some clutch free throws at the end.”
The Falcons beat the powerful Hamilton Big Blue in the regionals, then Newark in the state semifinals despite Giomi scoring a state-record 39 points.
In the Class AAA title game they got a combined 30 points off the bench from Wesley Jones and Rick Lacey and downed Wadsworth, 73-66.
Ike Thornton said his dad and Haley had played AAU ball together and that gave him a relationship with the coach.
“It was really unique for me,” he said. “In middle school I became the ball boy for Roth. I used to go to the gym every day of basketball season. Coach Haley would say I was his ‘future.’”
Thornton and is teammates gave Roth a wonderful future, but before that happened, Ike got a meaningful lesson in the past and present.
“When I first started as a manager, we had a guy who was the head manager,” he said. “He had come with Coach Haley from Roosevelt.
“We were folding up uniforms and all of a sudden he says: ‘Oh no! You got to fold it up better than that. You got to fold it with pride!’
“And later that meant something to me when I finally got to put on the uniform.”
Haley – who is being inducted individually to the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame, as well as with his two Roth teams -- made sure his players also showed that pride on the court by playing pressure defense and fast breaking every chance they could.
A few of Haley’s players from that 1981 team became basketball coaches themselves: Taylor and Willie Colston coached at various programs around the city of Dayton and Thornton first took Trotwood Madison to the state tournament in 2006 and now coaches in San Antonio, where he played his college ball at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
He didn’t want to miss Saturday’s gathering.
“One of the beautiful things about this team is the closeness and bond we had back then,” he said. “And that bond is probably even closer now.”
Taylor said he has a different appreciation now, too:
“It’s unbelievable. As a youngster, when you’re playing ball for one of the best coaches around and you’re on a team that’s truly is a team, sometimes you don’t realize the significance of it.
“It took 40 years for all that to sink in.”
Thornton, though, did realize some things when he was a kid at Roth.
“When I was a ball boy, it would get so hot in the gym during games that the condensation used to leak down from the ceiling onto the court.
“My job was to go out there and keep wiping it up. And people would laugh at me and some of my friends would tease me.
“But I’d say I got the last laugh on that.”
After all, it was on that same court where he and his teammates became “rock stars” and where they were nicknamed “The Greatest Show on Earth” and as of this June, because of their feats, they will be forever known as Ohio Basketball hall of famers.
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