Derek Taylor: Wilbur Jenkins, his strength in positivity, will be missed
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Parkersburg High School junior guard Brooke Litton stepped forward to challenge an overwhelmed Riverside opponent late in a 2000 game at the Big Reds' Memorial Fieldhouse.
Litton stole the ball and raced the length of the court for an uncontested layup, giving her team its 99th and 100th points of the night in a game that had been a blowout by the end of the first quarter.
I was there that night and so was Wilbur Jenkins, who was sitting on the bench as the Warriors' coach in their inaugural season.
I wasn't covering the game, so I didn't speak to Jenkins, who passed away Saturday.
In fact, it wasn't until last year that it dawned on me we were both in attendance that night.
We were standing in the wings of the Charleston Civic Center before a State Tournament game, and he had mentioned his coaching past to me when the connection was made. I asked him about that game and Litton's play and in classic Jenkins fashion he let his face go blank.
"Thanks. Thanks a lot. I'm recovering from a stroke and you wanna go kicking me while I'm down. Real nice," he said.
The big man then immediately broke out into a laugh as large as his 6-foot-4 frame could bear.
As his health failed him in his late 40s, Jenkins remained an often-unrecognized pillar in the sports community not just of the Charleston area, but of the state thanks to his interactions with players and teams from across West Virginia at the boys and girls state tournaments. He did so with an uncommon friendliness, speaking with those players, coaches and media members alike as if he'd known them all for decades.
That's a rare trait in a person: the ability to make a stranger comfortable in a high-pressure situation. Few, if any, people I've ever met have done it better.
It is commonplace for a 16-or-17-year old kid who just finished playing what was often the biggest game of his or her life at the State Tournament to be more than nervous upon being thrust into the interview room at the Civic Center.
There, they are seated at a dais and faced with bright lights from television cameras and looking down on unfamiliar reporters asking questions that - in at least half the cases because for every winner there's a loser - they don't want to answer.
It was almost as common for Jenkins to say something to one or all of those players that elicited a laugh, immediately diffusing the tension.
Former West Virginia Conference associate commissioner Will Prewitt, now the commissioner of the Great American Conference, said Sunday in remembering Jenkins that the sports community in West Virginia is a family unto itself.
As a whole, the family felt the loss Sunday morning. It is an uncommon sadness, the kind only felt when you lose a member of your closest group of friends.
That speaks to the enormity of Jenkins' personality. In general, I saw him two weeks a year, at the state tournaments.
Prior to the last couple seasons he was a fixture in the press box at University of Charleston Stadium, running the clock for Capital High School football games.
I'd see him an average of 10 days a year, and he had a tremendous impact on me because of the manner in which he conducted his business and the way in which he made our business pleasurable.
He coordinated post-game interviews, ran stats out at halftime to writers on press row, did player introductions at press conferences, and did it with happiness.
After consecutive weeks of all-day basketball coverage, covering the state tournaments gets tiring. But during those two weeks it didn't matter what was going wrong in the bowels of the Civic Center (and just like any show, there's plenty that can and does go wrong) or how chaotic a situation was. Jenkins was always calm, positive and jovial.
He was an irresistible force of good.
In a variety of ways, Christopher Wade can be seen as a Jenkins' protege. Not only does he work as a part-time sportswriter here as Jenkins did more than 20 years ago, but Chris involves himself in the administration of as many Charleston-area sporting events and activities as he can find time in the day to fill.
Looking for a real-life Charley West? Chris Wade - affectionately known as Swade - is your man.
Sunday morning, Chris took to Facebook like so many others to express his reaction to the news of Jenkins' passing. His wasn't a long note, but at the end was a sentence that said it all.
"Everybody loved Wilbur and he will be so missed," he wrote.
Chris is right and his succinct message was true to its target. Wilbur Jenkins was family to all of us in the prep sports world of the Kanawha Valley and well beyond, and he was a positive influence even to those who never knew him by name.
Contact Preps Editor Derek Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5170. Follow him on Twitter @ItsreallyDT.