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Remembering Okarche’s Ray West, Part II

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    FINAL BUZZER — Sitting on the bench with his son Aaron West (pointing) is longtime Okarche boys basketball head coach Ray West at State Fair Arena in Oklahoma City during the Warriors’ Class A semifinal loss to Cyril in March. The game turned out to be Ray's final one as he died recently after 45 years in the profession. [Photo by Russell Stitt/www.stitt.smugmug.com]
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SWISHER’S SUITE

I used a number of newspaper inches in our last edition to recall some memories of my time covering Ray West over the last 22 years.

I then dedicated some space to allow others to share some of their own thoughts and memories - people who played against a Ray-coached team, some of his former players, some of his colleagues and more.

Essentially, I ran out of space, so, as promised, we’ll conclude the column with this edition.

Below you’ll read some thoughts from Roman Owen, John Hardaway, Billy Karr, Kent Weems and Mitch Fuller.

These men played for, coached against or officiated games for Ray West.

Before we wrap it up with their memories, I’ll add a few more of my own:

• Since we published the first part of this column, the memorial service, funeral and burial for Ray took place over the weekend. I felt Ray was summed up beautifully by those who spoke at his memorial service and I know Ray would have been humbled by the amount of coaches and former players - not to mention scores of others - who were there to remember him.

• The memorial service took place at Okarche’s brand new gymnasium, one that voters approved in August 2016. Ray really, really wanted to coach in that gym. Instead, he was the center of attention in the first event ever held there.

It’s a beautiful facility. First-class every step of the way. Ray was the talk of the night, but the gym got its share of mentions when the service was over.

I talked to a lot of people afterward and their opinions were unanimous: Okarche did it right.

The voters should be commended for passing the bond and Superintendent Rob Friesen and school board members should be proud of the facility.

It was a great setting to honor Ray and will be a great home for the Warriors and Lady Warriors for years and years to come.

•  A thought on Ray’s coaching: He almost always had good teams. That was a combination of the amount of talent that has come through Okarche the last two-plus decades and the previously-mentioned work ethic that Ray possessed.

However, some teams were better than others.

Or, to put it much less mildly, some teams were worse than others. There were some years where the talent wasn’t at quite the same level as other years.

But one thing you could say about Ray is that it didn’t matter. He coached his worst team as hard as he coached his best team.

“Well you should coach that way,” one might say.

I agree 100 percent, but not everyone does.

Ray did. That’s part of what made him great.

•  Another game day memory of Ray: He ALWAYS wore a suit and tie to coach high school games. Always.

His shirt may not have always stayed tucked in, but he wore that suit.

•  Several, several, several people have reached out in the days since we first published a story on Ray’s passing and also since the first part of this column ran last weekend. Many expressed gratitude for our attempts to honor Ray in such a fitting manner. Others just wanted to share a memory of their own. All the comments and memories were - and always will be - welcomed and appreciated.

•  The one bad thing about trying to honor someone like Ray, someone you’ve covered for so long, is that memories will keep coming back to me.

In two weeks, I’m going to want to slap myself for not writing about a memory that I’ll have then…but can’t recall now.

In two years, something’s going to happen to make me think of a Ray story and I’ll badly wish I had included it here.

And, like I mentioned before, there were - literally - hundreds upon hundreds of people I could have reached out to for stories and thoughts.

I think Friday’s memorial service was proof of that.

•  I cannot say this enough: The dignity and class with which Ray’s family handled his illness, his death and the two services since is astounding.

And,now,morethoughts from others:

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 area 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 of life.

I am eternally grateful for this.

Those things will always be with me and hopefully I can continue to honor him by maintaining such things.

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 plan together to stop the opponent’s offense.

Just the last few years our talks became 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, Cash-ion 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 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 Cash-ion, 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 Ray 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.”

Kent Weems, basketball official from Kingfisher

“On Feb. 23, 2007, Kelly Hill and myself had the Friday night Class A area finals games at Cushing. The boys game was Okarche vs. Frontier - Ray West. vs. Bob Weckstein.

“It was a hotly-contested, close game in which Okarche won and advanced to the state tournament. After the game, Ray and Bob entered the officials’ dressing room (not at the same time) to tell us we did a great job.

“Next, Ray reminded me he only hires state tournament officials for his home games, so I had not to this point called an Okarche High School home game. He said he thought I was close to making it to the state tournament, but that his 2007-08 schedule was already filled.

“He said when he started scheduling officials for 2008-09, he would call me to officiate one of his home games. Ray, being a man of his word, called me and I’ve been calling high school games at Okarche ever since.

“His prediction about me was correct, too, as I made my first state tournament trip as an official in 2009. Class act all the way.”

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.”