Tony Webster, Jr.

Tony ‘Lil Tony’ Webster, Jr.

BLUEFIELD, Va. — When a tragedy befalls a community like the one that has recently stricken Bluefield High School, one rarely knows what ought to be said. One struggles to comprehend what can be done.

The Graham High School and Beavers basketball programs decided there was only one thing they could do to best honor the memory of 17-year-old Bluefield athlete Tony Webster, Jr., who was recently felled by a brain aneurysm during a weightlifting session.

They’re going to play ball.

“This is the first year that Little Tony has not played basketball. He has always been a ball boy or played for us at Bluefield High School. Last year he was on the junior varsity. During the 2013-14 seasons when we had back-to-back state championship seasons, he was our ball boy,”  said Bluefield head basketball coach Buster Large, whose team will take on the G-Men at Graham Middle School tonight at 7:15 p.m.

“I got this job in 2008 and Coach Webster joined my staff in 2009. (Tony, Jr.)  has been around my program every day since then,” said Large, who said the outpouring of support from Mercer and Tazewell counties and throughout the state of West Virginia in the wake of the tragedy has been “overwhelming.”

Webster’s father, Beavers assistant basketball coach Tony Webster, Sr., is expected to be on the sideline with the team tonight.

 “We took Tuesday and Wednesday off. We had so many kids going to Roanoke in support of his family,” Large said.

“Yesterday we regrouped and that was the best practice we could have had under these circumstances. Coach Webster will be at my practice this afternoon and he will be coaching (Saturday night). He’s a very strong man. Anybody that can come back under these circumstances has to be an absolutely devoted coach. Our players and coaching staff and community really respect him,” he said.

For all the outward rivalry between the two schools, both of which boast excellent athletic programs, the Graham and Bluefield communities are unusually close, Large noted. Many players on both side of the state line have learned basketball under Webster at some point during their budding basketball careers, either during instructional ball or as members of the West Virginia Ice AAU teams that Webster, Sr. coached. The Webster family is well-known and well-liked at both schools, he said.

Players on both teams will wear a “No. 5” patch honoring the memory of the younger Webster, who played outside linebacker on the Beavers’ state runner up football team. There will also be balloons handed out on both sides of the gym emblazoned with Webster’s jersey number. There will be a brief ceremony and moment of silence prior to the tip-off.

 “I think that’s awfully nice of Graham High School and the Bluefield, Virginia community,” Large said.

Graham head coach Todd Baker said the loss has shaken up both communities. 

“We’re going to be the utmost respectful and considerate and do some really nice stuff, we hope, and show respect for him. A lot of these kids know him. (Tony, Jr.) was on the Ice team and my son (Drew Baker) was on the Ice team and he knows (Coach Webster) well. It’s just been a heart-wrenching situation for both schools,” said Coach Baker, who has also coached alongside Webster, Sr.

“I’m not quite sure how our kids are going to respond. Our kids have been affected ... perhaps not quite as bad as the Bluefield kids, obviously. But it’s been a huge impact on us, too,” Baker said.

The Beavers (8-0) defeated  the G-Men (7-3) in a hard-fought 91-81 game at the Brushfork Armory during the first meeting between the two teams on December 18. 

“The last time we played Bluefield, I think they had a few more games under their belt. I thought we played real well and I thought they played real well and it was an exciting high school game. We had a six point lead and we had three or four possessions in a row we didn’t take care of the ball and execute very well and they did. I think that was pretty much the difference in the game,” Baker said.

“But it was a very exciting game to watch. They kids played hard and played up and down the court.  A lot of points were scored and the fans enjoyed it.”

Baker said the G-Men have utmost respect for Beavers leading scorer Braeden Crews. But he also believes the strength of this Bluefield team may be its wealth of role players, including Mark Glen, Davin Bishop, Ronnell Blevins, Tres Amaker, Jamere Edwards, Kaulin Parris, Sean Martin. When Chandler Cooper finally gets cleared to play after fully recovering from an emergency appendectomy just before Christmas, that’ll also help them.

Large’s and his staff will be keeping a close eye on Graham’s Cam Allen, Drew Hopkins, Chance Dawson and the rest of the G-Men supporting cast.

“They’ve got a real good team and a great high school basketball player and high school athlete in Cam Allen. The last time we got down in the last quarter and we were fortunate enough to find a way to come back and win,” Large said. 

“I don’t know how any of the kids are going to handle this. It’s going to be a moving experience for all of us,” Baker said. “We’re going to treat this game with the utmost respect. Whatever we can do to help, that’s what we’re going to do.”

— Contact Thwaites at gthwaites@bdtonline.com

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