(Ed. note: The basketball world was left with a huge void Sunday morning when Ray West passed away. His passing put to an end a 45-year career that left him second on the all-time list of wins in Oklahoma high school boys basketball games. For a detailed story on West and what many of the people he impacted thought of him, READ THIS STORY. It will provide context for much of what you will read below. Another note: If you don't like long stories, this might not be for you.)
February 2, 2000.
That was the day I truly gained Ray West’s respect.
Don’t get me wrong. Ray treated me with the utmost respect to that point.
Since the day I started as a sports writer at the Kingfisher Times & Free Press in August 1997, he welcomed me into the beat with open arms.
He always called in his scores. Gave me great quotes. Invited me to his practices. Even invited me to come to their games, you know, the thing I was paid to do.
And every time I showed up, whether at a practice or a game, he acted as if I was doing his team and Okarche a great service with my presence and he always had the same greeting:
“Well HI, Michael.”
Yeah, he called me Michael. One of the few to do so.
It was that way from the start. I was green. Probably not very good at my job yet, but Ray treated me like I was from The Oklahoman or the Tulsa World or even Sports Illustrated.
He was great and we had a great relationship.
But on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2000, it was solidified.
That’s because the night before Ray got as mad as I’d ever seen him to that point….or any time after.
In a home game with against a talented Minco team, Okarche was defeated 64-63 when the Bulldogs’ Scott Shinn knocked down a 12-foot jumper as time expired.
Ray lost 391 games in his career and hated every one of them, but this one lit him up.
Just moments before the buzzer-beater, Ray, his team, the Okarche fans and probably most of the visitors from Minco thought the game was over and the Warriors had won 63-62.
There was a mad dash for a loose ball that went out of bounds as the buzzer sounded. Game over. Okarche wins.
However, after a conference, the officials put a 1 second back on the clock.
That set up Shinn’s game winner.
Was it the right call to put time back on the clock? I don’t recall feeling one way or another about it. It was close.
Was it a call I expected a home team to get in its favor? Probably so.
Ray, on the other hand, wasn’t straddling the fence. He was upset.
Pissed, I believe, is the word.
He thought his players had been railroaded at home and he let it be known to me and anyone else in his office who would listen.
He went on a four-letter-word tirade for the ages. He said some other things, too. I took some handwritten notes, made some mental ones and I headed back to Kingfisher to write my story for the next day’s edition of The Times & Free Press.
Back in my early years, we printed first thing on Wednesday and Saturday mornings in El Reno. It was my job then to drive the plates (newspaper term) to the printer and then drive the printed papers back to
For those who are Google-maps challenged, Okarche sits between El Reno and Kingfisher. So, on my way back, I dropped papers off at the two convenience stores in Okarche.
By the time I got back to Kingfisher - and before I could get the papers unloaded - Ray had called and was on hold for me.
“Michael, I just wanted to tell you what a great story that was. I said a lot of stuff last night, but you didn’t go down that road,” he said. “I can’t tell you how much that means to me.”
It was obvious he’d been up all night (firstly because it was basketball season and he was up all night anyway) worrying about how much of what he said was going to wind up in print.
My lede probably didn’t help that anxiety:
“Forgive Ray West for being a little upset.”
But that was the lone reference to some of the words he introduced me to the night before. What I did quote him on were the positives:
“We’re better than we were two weeks ago,” he said. “I feel good about that.”
There was also the performance of Jarrod Mueggenborg, who was in the midst of an All-State senior season. He scored 31 points and had 19 rebounds, nine of them on the offensive end.
“Does he show up for big games or what?” West asked me afterward.
Those were the quotes I pulled from his 10-minute performance. That’s all I needed.
He blew off some steam and I allowed him to do that without burning him - needlessly - in my story.
So he made sure to let me know about it the next day after he, no doubt anxiously, read the story.
Ray did that often. He always made sure to compliment a good story or just thank me for “doing what you do for the kids.”
I would venture to guess in his 45-year career, nobody covered more of his games in person than I did. It’s probably not close.
Of his 25 years at Okarche, I’ve been covering sports either at the newspaper, for CoachesAid or for Skordle for 22 of those years.
So we had a history. And we had a relationship.
I cared deeply for Ray because he was one of “my coaches,” but it also went beyond that.
As the story linked above states, Ray cared about people in his world. He cared about their families. He asked about them. Greeted them. Showered them with compliments.
On the bench, he was a scowling, screaming, shirt-untucked ball of intensity.
But off the court, he was as gentle a man as there was.
And when you have 22 years of that kind of relationship, you take the news of his illness hard.
I wanted so badly to go see Ray, but I knew that as quietly as his sickness had been kept, that I needed to keep my distance.
When I caught word of his death, a dark cloud formed over me. Probably is still there.
I talked to tons of people when I wrote the story for the Times & Free Press. There were infinitely more I could have - and should have - talked to.
Guys like Bob Barnett and David Glover, former superintendents at Okarche.
Scott Hines and Garrett Mantle, just two of his former players who went on to their own coaching successes.
The list of former Okarche players I could have reached out to is endless. Same for coaches in Oklahoma who have talked basketball and scouting reports with Ray, but had no other connection.
But we only have so much space in the newspaper, so I kept it somewhat limited. The story was still too long for our space, but I didn’t care. In my mind, I’d cut it down enough as it was.
I had to cut it down because the people I DID reach out to had a lot to say. The quotes in the story were just small tidbits of what they sent me via text, email or in phone calls.
So I’m going to offer up just a couple more thoughts and memories of my own, then I’m going to share more of what those who I talked to had to say:
• Ray deserved to win a state championship. He got close or was good enough with teams at both Cordell and Okarche. There was the six-overtime loss to Wright City in the 1984 state quarterfinals while at Cordell, which is a still a record for extra periods. He got to the finals twice at Okarche, but the breaks didn’t go his way. All coaches say you have to be good AND lucky to win it. That holds true, unless you’re just that much better than everyone else. Sometimes Ray was good. Sometimes he was lucky. He just was never fortunate enough to get both at the same time at the right time.
• Some of my best memories of being a reporter were going to Ray’s office after his home games.
His parents would unfailingly bring him food to eat - packed neatly in an ice chest - because they knew the end of the game was only the beginning of his night (again, see story linked above for reference).
They usually brought sandwiches. After his heart issues in 2006, he started being more health-conscious, so the bread was replaced by lettuce (he was ahead of the curve on that one). On special nights, Scott and Debbie Winters brought in ribs.
But those were the best times. We’d sit, eat and talk basketball. We’d talk about his game, Aaron’s game (before Aaron joined him at Okarche), other county teams, other teams battling for top-eight position in his class. I needed to be back at the office writing, but I didn’t care. Too much was to be gained by sitting in there with Ray and soaking in the knowledge (and free food). Those are cherished, cherished memories.
• When Mike Dantoni took over as the Phoenix Suns as head coach in the mid-2000s, they had some of the best offensive teams of the decade. Dantoni was thought of as a revolutionary basketball offensive mind.
Ray loved what the Suns were doing and was someone ALWAYS trying to find a way to make his teams better.
So what did he do? He called up the Phoenix Suns office and I’ll be damned if he didn’t wind up on the phone with Dantoni.
The head coach of one of the hottest teams in the NBA was breaking down his offense with the coach of a Class A boys basketball team in the middle of Oklahoma. That was Crazy Ray.
• Ray never said “I” or “me” when talking about Okarche. It was always “we” or “the kids” or “the guys” or “the team.” He ALWAYS told me to “make it about the kids” even if it was a game where he won for the 500th, 600th, 700th or 800th time.
I think that mindset was what drove him to keep his illness quiet as long as he did. He didn’t want it to be about him, as it inevitably would have been. He didn’t want the focus to be on Ray.
• Ray always wanted other people to be recognized. He’d give me as many stats as possible to get as many names in the story.
He’d try to give me his JV scores (sorry, Ray, I still don’t have the space).
He gave out tons of trophies and awards and shirts at his camps.
He took clippings from every newspaper story about his team during the season, put them in a book form, had them printed and gave them to each of his players at the end of the year.
He wanted them to share in the memories as well.
• Ray was a TERRIBLE loser. That’s part of what made him a winner. He hated losing.
He worked so hard to put his team in a position to win before and during the game that it ate him up to not see that victory through.
He took some losses harder than others. His handshakes with opposing coaches after losses weren’t always cordial. But, as Cashion’s John Hardaway expressed, there almost always was a text or phone call after the fact.
There are some coaches out there that probably don’t like Ray (I assume most still respect him). I can tell you there are some out there that not even Ray cared for. He swore they taught their kids to play dirty (I’m taking those names with me to my own grave).
I don’t know if any or all of those relationships were repaired eventually, but I know that Ray didn’t take the losses well. Losing drove him to work even harder.
• Ray was so happy for me when he found out I was getting married a couple years ago. Maybe he’d lost hope, but for whatever reason, he acted so happy for me and continued to gush over my bride. (No doubt he knew she was a lucky lady who had out-kicked her coverage when she landed me.)
• I got to see Ray with his elementary P.E. kids a few times the last several years. Man was he great with them.
• Before HUDL, Ray would drive to the ends of the earth to get game film. His road trips to collect VHS tapes were legendary. He never could have enough film to watch and he’d go anywhere he had to in order to get it.
• RAY WEST COULD SHOOT A BASKETBALL!!! I got to one of Okarche’s practices several years ago just after it ended and, like most days, players were sticking around to get in some extra shots.
One of them challenged Ray to a 3-point contest. I’d seen Ray coach. I’d never seen him touch a basketball.
On that day, I was amazed at his form and his inability to miss a shot. He torched his player in that contest and gained an even larger respect from yours truly.
• Sundays at On the Border. When teams make the state tournament, coaches gather at State Fair Arena the Sunday before to go over brackets and other info with the OSSAA. I generally attended these meetings. If the Okarche boys made it, it was Ray’s tradition to eat at On the Border after the meeting. I got invited to that as well. Ray and I, apparently, ate a lot of food together.
• Some of the hardest losses were those at the state tournament when the ultimate goal was actually within reach.
There were a number of years when both of Okarche’s teams would reach state. The Lady Warriors got to the state finals eight times in Cherie Myers’ tenure alone.
In talking with her about Ray, we both recalled that - no matter the level of his disappointment - Ray would be standing on the rail for the Lady Warriors’ quest for gold. His heart no doubt ached for his own team, but he still wanted to see his other Okarche kids succeed.
• Cherie made some changes when she took over at Okarche in the 2001-02 season. Among them was moving girls’ practice from before school to after. That meant the boys and girls teams had to split practice time on the main gym’s floor.
That was one of the reasons many felt Cherie and Ray would never co-exist at one school. They both wanted their programs to be the best and worked to attain things that would help make that happen.
However, Ray and Cherie had one of the best working relationships I’ve ever been around. I’m sure they had disagreements in their 16 years together, but it never went public. See some of Cherie’s thoughts on that below.
• Cherie also won more than 800 games in her career. So, at one time, Okarche had two head coaches with more than 800 career wins. Has that happened anywhere? Ever?
• Jayme and Tony Williams worked with Ray for years, keeping stats and doing so much more for him and the team. He appreciated their help probably more than he could ever show them. Jayme ALWAYS provided me with my extra copy of the stats, which made me feel like I was someone. That was a quality she shared with Ray. Tony could always be found on the bench with Ray and the Warriors, keeping his own stats and notes. I know you two are hurting, too, but I also know Ray loved you both.
• Ray West, somehow, is not in a coaching Hall of Fame. I know that will change, but he deserved at least one acceptance speech.
• If you want to hear some great Ray stories, talk to David Glover or Bob Barnett or B.J. Karr. They’ll be able to keep you entertained for a while. The stories are endless.
OK, so those were just a few of my thoughts and memories. Here’s an extended - and I do mean extended - version of what others had to say, most of which did not appear in the story linked above:
Cherie Myers, former Okarche girls coach
“Everyone thought we would have problems, but we never did. He was so good to me and he always supported our teams. We made a lot of changes when we got to Okarche and he made a lot of compromises. Not that he should have, but he never gave us a problem with it. A lot of people just assumed he would or did. Never. We would laugh about that all the time. He concentrated on his program and I did on mine, too, but he was always there for me and supported our girls.”
Jarrod Mueggenborg, former All-State player who is now a doctor
“Little did I know how my life would change in seventh grade when Coach West began his career at Okarche Public School. His work ethic was tenacious. No one was more prepared than Coach West. We would strive to work as hard on the court as he did and he pushed us to do just that. He also coached, mentored and groomed many of us beyond a basketball court to become better men, fathers and productive citizens. I will never forget the six years I had the opportunity to be coached by this man. I can confidently say that coach impacted the direction of my life, and his influence will continue to impact his students for years to come. It goes with out saying there’s a huge void in my heart as I not only loss my coach, my mentor, but a very dear friend.”
Kevin Lewallen, Lomega girls coach who also played against West-coached teams in the 1990s
“I think he loved the game of basketball more than anyone I know. I heard him speak last year and had even talked to him about it in the past and what I think he enjoyed the most was watching kids grow and get better. He was as competitive as anyone I have ever been around. I had talked to him a lot about retirement and he always told me it was the only thing that he did. Basketball was not only his job, but his hobby. I think you can tell a lot about a coach by how many people follow in their footsteps and Ray coached a lot of kids that grew up to be coaches.”
Craig Patterson, former Kingfisher boys basketball coach who, in his career, coached Jason White, Kevin Bookout and Curtis Lofton in their “other” sport
“I loved watching his teams play because they played so hard and with so much passion, just liked he coached. He was such a kind man and was so good to me and my family. When my dad died in 2011, Coach West was one of the first people to call me. It’s a sad day for Oklahoma basketball and he will certainly be missed.”
Patterson also has this memory:
“When I was coaching at Tuttle in 1999, we went to the Best of the West team camp. I had a guy by the name of Jason White playing and the game was getting a little chippy. Jason gets undercut on purpose, in my eyes that is, and I go crazy and I just wouldn’t stop. Finally, Coach West has to get me in a bear hug to calm me down. He started to squeeze the life out of me! I’ll always cherish that memory.”
Ric Meshew, longtime blower of the referee’s whistle who called West’s final win in March
“I don’t think Ray ever thought of coaching basketball as going to work. No doubt he was one of my all-time favorites. He was a little contrary when he was younger, but he mellowed out over the years. I always looked forward to working his games. I was really glad I got to call his state tournament game this year, which turned out to be his last win.”
Eric Smith, Dale girls coach who spent the 1999-2000 season as a student-assistant under West
“How do you talk about a legend in Oklahoma basketball? It’s impossible. I got the opportunity to do my student teaching under Ray West. Never in my life have I been so tired and learned so much. This man would watch film/scout till 2 or 3 in the morning, maybe sleep an hour or so and then go throw the paper route! Then he would go to school and teach and coach. Crazy! He was always looking to improve and learn more about the game. He was one of the smartest coaches I have been around. He showed me what it takes to prepare a team the details it takes to win.”
Roman Owen, former player and now a women’s assistant at the University of North Texas
“Coach West, in my eyes, went from being larger than life to my coach to a good friend.
“He taught me so many things over the 21 years I knew him. He was a winner. That is
easy to see. The basketball accomplishments would take days for me to talk about. It is his life
as a whole that has impacted me greatly.
What I learned from Coach West in relationship to basketball:
The will to win is not nearly as important than the will to prepare to win. I have taken that in
every are of my life from being a college basketball player to being a college basketball coach to
wanting to impact those I am around more and more. Success would not follow me if I had not
used that principle.
If you really love the game you will work hard at it. The game deserves that type of respect.
Coach West was the best example of that. Just take the area of scouting alone and he stands at
the top of working harder than anyone I have ever seen. He would scour the state getting
tapes and breaking down his opponents.
The journey is the destination. He shared that thought with me when we went to dinner after
my senior year so he could tell me I was voted into the OCA all-state team. We didn’t win the
state championship that year. He knew I wanted to win it for so many reasons. One was for
him. In that moment, he gave me such peace and an overall sense of accomplishment. It isn’t
easy to take this in every area of life especially college athletics. However, when I have done
this, the level of joy I have on a daily basis increases.
So much of what he taught me through the game of basketball transferred over into the game
I am eternally grateful for this.
Those things will always be with me and hopefully I can continue to honor him by maintaining
As a human being Ray held many attributes to me but two are at the top of the list:
Character – It is forever etched in my mind him saying “character is what you do when no one is
looking.” With today’s society in mind it is easy to see why his character stands tall. They don’t
make many guys like him in this day and age.
Mentor – He helped me become the best player I could have ever been. He continued that in
my college years. I came back countless times to work on my shot. His passion for shooting
was unmatched and helping me seemed to be a joy to him. Becoming a coach at the college
ranks only meant I was lost and needed direction. He was there at every phone call to talk me
through how to attack a defense or put a game plant together to stop the opponent’s offense.
Just the last few years our talks become more about dealing with people and life situations. My
journey continues and his advice and direction will be a compass in the days to come.”
“I know that I won’t be able to call him and talk basketball or life. And I will miss his voice and laughter as we talked. However- everything he has done for me will always stand firm. His impact goes beyond today. I have loved Ray for a long time and his passing will not stop that.”
John Hardaway, Cashion boys coach
“Ray West was a titan in the world of Oklahoma high school basketball and a gentleman away from it. He loved the game of basketball and I loved talking basketball with him. He was always willing to help me with anything. Our phone conversations were long, fax machine sheets piled high and I know the post office loved the numerous large envelopes jammed packed full of VHS tapes, DVDs, and notes.
“I loved stopping by the Okarche gym and Coach West’s office on Sunday afternoons during film chasing trips to visit and catch up with him before the days of HUDL. Coach West was such a scouting report hawk! He somehow got ahold of my wife’s phone number and would call her if he couldn’t get ahold of me, normally trying to figure out what the third guy off the bench’s strong hand was for an opponent he was going to easily beat by 30.
“We played Okarche in regionals my first year at Cashion and Aaron told me afterwards that him and Coach West had watched 18 films of us in preparation, basically almost our entire season. Another time when I was coaching at Morrison, Coach West stopped by to pick up film and notes and he asked me about a half-court press he saw us running on film preparing for one of his opponents.
“Two hours later, a filled-up dry-erase board, and with a yellow pad full of notes, Coach West was on his way, and all I could think of was this guy has won a hundreds of games, everyone is scared to death of his 1-3-1 half-court trap, and he just spent the past two hours asking me a million questions and playing the ‘what if’ game about a 2-2-1 half-court trap we ran in the consolation game against a much-lesser opponent.
“If you know Ray, none of these stories surprise you one bit.
“When I came to Cashion, we played each other all the time and I loved getting to compete against him and Okarche, because I knew we would have to play really well for us to win. His teams were always so prepared, so fundamental and played so dang hard and these are all the marks of a well-coached team.
“Coach West always was complimentary of our players, often times being the first to recognize them for various postseason awards and teams and asking about them years after they graduated high school.
“I’m really glad Coach West was able to spend these past couple of years coaching with his son and my good friend, Aaron. I know it was a blast for them both and that time together, doing what they both loved, they greatly treasured. I respected and admired Coach West tremendously and he was nothing but great to me over all these years. He was a competitor, he loved coaching, and he loved the game of basketball.
“His impact on his players, his programs and on all of high school basketball in Oklahoma will be remembered and honored for all time. I will miss Coach Ray West tremendously! God Bless him and the West family.”
Billy Karr, Chattanooga boys coach who was an assistant under West for five seasons
“I honestly hope I have the effect on just a fraction of the people he did. He was one special guy. He never ignored a call from me and always wanted to talk. He always wanted to go out to eat together. Anything I ever needed - he gave it. He took me in as one of his own and always treated me like a son. He was literally a father figure to me. I will always be thankful for everything he did for me and the love he showed me.”
Mitch Fuller, former player at Cordell
(Ed. note: Fuller, an Iraqi war veteran who now lives in the Austin area, found out about Ray’s passing on social media. He tracked me down Tuesday via telephone at the Times & Free Press office because he found out I was writing about Ray. He broke down on the phone talking about the impact Ray had on his own life)
“I moved to Cordell from Edmond, back when they just had one high school, during my sophomore year. I had already stopped playing basketball because at the big schools, unless you’re just a tremendous athlete, you focus on one sport. I was a baseball player. But when I started out at Cordell, I found out you couldn’t just do baseball during sixth hour in the fall. So I said I’d play basketball. They called in Coach West and he asked me what position I had played at Edmond. I told him I was a guard. He looked at me, this 6-foot-3 skinny kid and said, ‘Well, those days are over.’ He got me back into basketball, worked my ass off and made me a player. I eventually led the team (Cordell) in rebounding my senior year. His lessons have stuck with me.. He was a great, great coach, but an even better man.”