It took Lee Patrone about a week and a half at Ohio State to realize that West Virginia truly is "Almost Heaven." Tired of trying to figure out where his classes were on the sparse Columbus campus, Patrone called up WVU basketball coach Fred Schaus to see if the knot he had tied himself into could be undone. The year was 1957.
“I said, ‘Hey Coach, I think I kind of made a mistake,’” recalled Patrone. “I think my overall feeling was that it was overwhelming. It was such a large school and everything and being from a smaller town I never really got things squared away out there as far as getting registered (for classes) and whatever.”
Because the semester had already started at WVU, all Patrone could do for the rest of the year was work out and stay in shape for the fall of 1958. Schaus assured Patrone that a scholarship would be waiting for him.
It’s a good thing that Schaus did.
Patrone went on to help West Virginia reach the NCAA finals in 1959 and make a return trip to NCAAs in 1960 on the way to becoming only the eighth player in school history to score 1,000 points when his college career ended in 1961. Last week, it was announced that the Bellaire, Ohio native will be one of seven athletes inducted into this year’s West Virginia University Sports Hall of Fame this fall. Patrone becomes the sixth player from WVU’s terrific 1959 team to be enshrined.
“I don’t know why the 1959 team as a team is not inducted into the hall of fame,” Patrone said recently from his home in Miami Beach, Fla. “It was the greatest time (for WVU) and the greatest team (in school history).”
It’s hard to argue with that.
West Virginia’s Cardiac Kids of 1959 produced several comeback victories on the way to reaching the national championship game against California in Louisville, Ky. It remains the closest the Mountaineers have ever come to claiming a national championship in any sport other than rifle.
Usually right in the middle of those chaotic comebacks in ’59 were Patrone, Bucky Bolyard and Ronnie Retton. Whenever West Virginia got behind, Schaus began using a zone press defense that West Virginia Tech coach Neal Baisi had developed, Schaus putting Retton and Bolyard at the top of it to harass the ball handlers.
“It was a panic press,” Patrone said. “Those two guys … I wouldn’t wish those two on anybody. They were just dynamic. I can remember they would come off the bench and come into the game and when they did come in they would get a standing ovation because everyone knew that it was crunch time and those two guys would be right in your face.”
And while Bolyard and Retton were the ones creating havoc, Patrone was one of the guys finishing the deal (Jerry West, of course, being the other). Patrone scored 20 points to help West Virginia defeat Davidson in the 1959 Southern Conference Tournament semifinals, and then a night later in a very difficult championship game against William & Mary, Patrone put the Mountaineers ahead for good with a long jumper from well beyond the top of the key with 2:30 remaining. Later, Patrone iced it with 11 seconds left on a driving layup to give the Mountaineers their fifth straight Southern Conference tournament title. If Patrone hadn’t come to the rescue that night in Richmond, West Virginia wouldn’t have made the NCAA finals because only conference tournament champions were invited to the national tournament back then.
In 1960, Patrone, along with teammate Jim Warren, once again pulled the Mountaineers out of the fire when West fouled out with 12 minutes left in the Southern Conference championship game against Virginia Tech.
As the story goes, Schaus looked down toward the end of his bench where Warren was sitting and motioned for him to take off his warm-up jacket to go into the game. “Fred grabbed Jim by the jacket collar and said, ‘Jim, I want you to play the best damned game of your life!’” former Sports Information Director Eddie Barrett said, chuckling.
How could a player worth his salt not respond to that? Warren went into the game and made three long jumpers to finish with a team-high 18 points, while Patrone added 17.
“He did hit a couple of valuable shots that did a lot of good because Jim could shoot,” Patrone said. “I once saw Jim stand at the foul line and make 99 out of 100 free throws.”
Patrone could make them, too. In 89 career games over three seasons, he scored 1,028 points and averaged 11.6 points per game, including averaging 14.6 points per game as a senior in 1961. Despite standing 6-feet tall and weighing less than 200 pounds, Patrone was comfortable operating close the basket against guys much bigger than him. He also had an uncanny knack for hitting bank shots from anywhere on the floor.
“Benny Banker is what we used to call him,” laughed Ronnie Retton. “The best bank shooter I ever saw in my life,” added teammate Jay Jacobs.
Patrone said shooting bank shots came natural to him all the way back to his days playing for Pitt All-American Claire Cribbs at Bellaire High.
“It was just confidence,” he shrugged. “It could go in either way – straight in or bank – but if you’re falling off balance it’s just a little bit more of a for-sure shot if you’re banking it. And if you did miss it you knew it would come off the rim a certain way, but most of the time it went in - hopefully.”
Patrone’s best game at WVU was also his last one in the 1961 Southern Conference Tournament semifinals against William & Mary and its bruising 6-foot-7-inch center Jeff Cohen. While teammate Rod Thorn (then a sophomore) was struggling to find his shooting stroke, Patrone unsuccessfully tried to fill the void by scoring a career-high 34 points.
But that was not enough to keep pace with Cohen, who scored 38 points and grabbed 19 rebounds to lead the Tribe to an 88-76 victory. Cohen was also responsible for stopping West Virginia’s 56-game Southern Conference winning streak on Jan. 30, 1960 in Norfolk, Va. when he produced 34 points and 20 rebounds in William & Mary’s 94-86 victory.
Patrone said he got to know Cohen a little bit when the two were touring together with the Harlem Globetrotters following their senior seasons in 1961.
“Boy what a tough guy he was,” Patrone marveled. “I can remember Jeff after the season we went on a tour with the Globetrotters and several other All-American players from across the country and Meadowlark Lemon elbowed Jeff during a game we were playing in San Francisco.
“Meadowlark actually threw about three elbows and after the third one Jeff just picked him up and slammed him right down on the floor. He actually threw him on the floor and I’ll tell you what, there were a lot of people coming out of the stands onto the floor,” he laughed.
After college, Patrone played one year of professional basketball with the Pittsburgh Rens in the ill-fated American Basketball League and had other opportunities to continue his pro career but he chose instead to take a teaching and coaching job in Wintersville, Ohio.
“This promoter from Pittsburgh named Lenny Litman got me and Connie Hawkins and he told us, ‘Why do you guys want to go into the NBA? We’re starting a new league, you guys are well known, and you have a chance of making a name for yourself.’ He talked us into going into the ABL. History tells you that league got into financial trouble during that first year and broke up,” Patrone said.
Patrone taught high school for 23 years, coaching basketball for five of those, and in the meantime he began a construction business on the side to make a little extra money.
“I developed a small subdivision and built houses on my own to supplement my income,” he said. “We dabbled a little bit in the carpet business and then after I came to Florida, I got into the community association management business managing a large condominium association in the Aventura area, which is a pretty nice area.”
He did that until his retirement a few years ago.
In the spring of 1961, just a couple weeks after the end of his senior season at WVU, Patrone did something even more important than any basket he ever made or game he ever won - he saved a person’s life.
He dove into a freezing Ohio River to save the life of a 40-year-old mother of seven who had jumped off the Bellaire Bridge; Patrone’s heroic act was later recognized by the Carnegie Foundation. He said he was crossing the bridge to go watch a grade school basketball game in Benwood, W.Va. when the lady jumped into the river.
“I looked and saw some people gathering around the water,” recalled Patrone. “I saw this lady in the water down there and from that vantage point I saw someone go into the water (her son) and swim out to her and this kid wasn’t a real strong swimmer. I saw him leave her there and swim back. I said to myself, ‘My god he didn’t get her.’”
At that point, Patrone ran off the bridge and down the railroad tracks to a point in the river where the current was taking her about 40 yards away from shore. Any one familiar with the Ohio River will tell you that the currents are tricky, especially at that time of the year. An even bigger concern than that was the possibility of a strong undertow that can pull down even the most accomplished swimmer. Nevertheless, Patrone heard her yelling for help so he quickly stripped down to his underwear and jumped into the river in an attempt to drag her to shore.
“I told myself as I got near her ‘she can pull me under’ so I swam around behind her and I reached out and grabbed her by the arm,” he said. When she turned around to look at him, Patrone could see that her eyeball was partially detached from her eye socket as a result of the impact of hitting the water from the 90-foot fall.
“I kept her arm and towed her to shore,” he said. “By the time I got about 10 feet from shore the fire department was there. Later on, I met with her and we got our picture taken together for the (Martin’s Ferry) Times-Leader.
“She thanked me and I told her that her thanks to me will be to never do it again,” he recalled.
Even some 50 years later, Patrone can recall that Sunday afternoon with vivid detail. It is quite a remarkable story to hear.
Patrone and his wife Barbara have three children – Tammy, Janie and Lee Jr. – and are the grandparents to five.Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History available in bookstores this fall. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.