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Chuck McGill: Spencer recalls Fleming fondly

INSTITUTE, W.Va. - So much of Betty Spencer's life has been spent inside Fleming Hall, it seemed such a shame she couldn't attend the final game played on the court named for her father.

Spencer, who is in the hospital, was born in 1946 - the year after her father, Mark Cardwell, began coaching basketball at West Virginia State. Her life has spanned eight decades, and until the past two seasons - when health issues began to mount - she'd missed few home games.

"Not many," she said. "Until the last two seasons, that's about it."

W.Va. State defeated the University of Virginia at Wise, 84-81, Tuesday night in the Yellow Jackets' penultimate regular season game. Saturday's season finale against the University of Charleston will be part of a ballyhooed weekend revolving around the debut of State's new hoops home: the Convocation Center at Fleming Hall. The $19 million renovation and expansion of the building, erected in 1942, will finally move the Yellow Jackets into a sorely needed 1,350-seat arena.

That means basketball games on the Institute campus will no longer be played on Mark Cardwell Court, a dedication revealed before the 2013 season. Spencer said she appreciates the name of her father - in script and plain font - on the old gymnasium hardwood instead of the new arena.

This is where most of her memories remain.

"It was just a fun building," she said Tuesday from her hospital bed. "We lived in Institute and seldom did we leave there back in the '50s; there weren't a lot of things to do. It was a segregated neighborhood and we didn't have skating rinks and we didn't have movie theaters. The gym was like our activity grounds."

While Mark Cardwell compiled 288 career basketball victories - still the winningest coach in program history ahead of current coach Bryan Poore, who earned win No. 279 on Tuesday - Spencer grew up with her brother and friends on campus. She'd pitch in by washing uniforms, folding them and making sure travel bags were ready for road trips. Because of the dearth of restaurant options, she'd help make sandwiches and pack apples and oranges for the coaches and players to take for away games.

Spencer experienced her own sports success, too. The 1967 W.Va. State graduate was a four-year member of the school's swim team and a three-year starter on the basketball team. She was a multi-year captain in both sports and even dabbled in tennis.

"She is a huge part of West Virginia State University and its athletics," Poore said. "Her father was such a great coach and person and led the college to extremely high places when he was here. Betty has always been around, always had a good word to say and always kept us fed.

"She's been here since Day 1."

In 1996, Spencer was inducted into the athletic department's Hall of Fame that already included her father.

"My Daddy was a real cool guy," Spencer said. "He never ranted at the ballgames; he was cool and calm, not real colorful like today's coaches screaming and yelling. He just wore a suit and did most of his coaching in practice sessions."

Spencer was always there to cheer her father and his players. She was but a few years old when Cardwell and standout player Earl Lloyd helped State to a 30-0 season in 1947-48.

Spencer hopes to be able to attend this weekend's events, which will include the unveiling of the Earl Lloyd Lobby in the new Convocation Center.

"I think it's going to be wonderful," she said.

Lloyd, 85, will make the trip to West Virginia for the weekend. He, like Spencer, only has fond memories of the old gym. He understands not everyone feels that way.

The last time he visited campus, he heard players make reference to the 900-seat gym that will now be used as a practice facility. He'd never heard it called "The Pit."

"I was talking to the players and they kept going, 'The Pit, The Pit, The Pit," he said this week from his home in Tennessee. "I was like, 'What pit?' They might not want to believe it, but at one time this place was the premier gym in the conference. We called it something very different. For us, it was Madison Square Garden."

Spencer said the the old gym is "outdated," so she isn't sad to see the basketball team begin a new chapter. She wants to see the new story unfold just as she's done since the '40s.

"This kind of needed to happen at West Virginia State," she said. "It opened just before my Dad came here in 1945 and it was the king gym around then.

"It was time," she said. "Really, it was kind of overtime."


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