A look back at the career of Billy Owens.
by Mark Hostutler
Located within Central Pennsylvania’s agriculturally productive Cumberland Valley, Carlisle wears its history—particularly that which predates the Civil War—on its sleeve. Visitors to the county courthouse can still see evidence of the destruction of cannonballs from the Gettysburg Campaign. The sprawling 500-acre Carlisle Barracks even house the second-oldest active military base in the nation.
Sports fans across the country know Carlisle as the place where the famed Pop Warner once coached Jim Thorpe, athlete extraordinaire, and his Native American peers in the early years of the 20th century. The pair led the Carlisle Indian School to the intercollegiate football championship in 1912 with a victory over Army and future president Dwight Eisenhower.
Travelers headed west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike might view Carlisle as the last slice of civilization before winding through the mountainous interior of the Keystone State and reaching the Pittsburgh suburbs 100 miles later. Forbes, in fact, recently listed the borough (pop. 19,000), and the region it encompasses with the west shore of Harrisburg, as the second-best area in the U.S. to raise a family.
It is against this backdrop where, in the 1980s, during an era that locals now refer to as “Billy Ball,” a bashful teenager earned renown on the hardwood and became one of the most accomplished high school basketball players who ever lived.
“Billy Owens was magnificent, a true superstar,” said Sonny Vaccaro, the godfather of grassroots basketball who signed Michael Jordan to his first sneaker deal at Nike. “I’ve mentored thousands of blue-chip recruits throughout my years of being involved in this game, and Billy was as good as there ever was.
“He conducted himself with dignity and humility. I’m not sure someone with his personality could even exist today with the way these athletes are lionized through the media and Internet.”
The 6-9 forward’s skills and decorum transcended any boundaries of race and class that may have existed in a community that, despite its roots as a stop on the Underground Railroad, boasts a black population well below the national average.
“My father [Billy Sr.] worked two, sometimes three jobs, and I was the youngest of five kids and could never beat my two older brothers in anything,” Owens said. “So I learned early that if I wanted to be a winner, I’d have to work hard and listen to the right people. I always sat in the front row in class and never thought I was better than anyone.
“Our team’s success in high school had a profound impact on Carlisle, and transformed it in ways that I never could have imagined. I remember going to school at 7 a.m. and seeing adults line the streets outside, waiting to buy tickets.”
Pennsylvania—which incubated Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, and countless other pros—has undoubtedly bred better ballers, but none collected more hardware than Owens did on the scholastic level. His versatility on the court may have been akin to Thorpe’s on the gridiron, track, and baseball diamond almost a century before. He could play with his back to the basket, face up from the perimeter, and even orchestrate fast breaks upon cleaning the glass.
“He was the best high school power forward of the 1980s,” said Howard Garfinkel, architect of the Five-Star Basketball empire. “People compared him to Magic Johnson, because he did a lot of everything, and he did it extremely well.”
From 1984-88, Owens scored 3,298 points, shepherding Carlisle High School to 118 wins in 129 games and four consecutive Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) Class 4A titles. For his exploits with the Thundering Herd, Owens was recently enshrined in the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Hall of Fame. Consider the exclusivity of this 386-member fraternity: Past inductees have included roundball legends Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, and Larry Bird, as well as the likes of Red Grange, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Jack Nicklaus, and Bart Starr.
“To be mentioned in the same breath as those guys leaves me speechless,” Owens said. “It’s beyond comprehension.”
As a lanky freshman whose role increased with each outing, Owens followed the lead of North Carolina-bound senior Jeff Lebo, the coach’s son and the top-ranked recruit in America.
“Jeff showed me how to put pressure on a defense,” Owens said. “Teams would throw a box-and-one at him, and he’d never stop moving without the ball. By the time I was an upperclassman, and defenses were in a box-and-three on me, I was in constant motion. Passing and cutting.”
“Billy had a point guard’s feel for the game, and had such a high I.Q. for someone so young,” said Lebo, now the coach at East Carolina University. “I kept close tabs on his development while I was at Chapel Hill, because my father and I would talk on the phone every night. Needless to say, I was heartbroken when he decided [years later] not to come to Carolina.”
Dave Lebo, who sported an unfathomable 198-18 record during the seven years he coached Jeff and Billy, recalled the latter’s unselfishness.
“His greatest attribute was his desire to make those around him better,” the elder Lebo said of Owens. “He loved distributing, getting others involved, making sure they fit in. We never had to run any specific sets for him, because he could get his touches and affect the action whenever he felt like it. He was so smooth, so natural that it seemed effortless.”
With each District Three and PIAA crown Carlisle captured, the spotlight on Owens began to grow, but it never hindered his maturation.
“Billy Ball was a once-in-a-generation phenomenon,” Dave Lebo said. “Entering his senior year, we’d won three state titles in a row and had a huge target on our back, and Billy handled the pressure to follow through on a fourth with amazing grace. Fans used to camp out overnight to get tickets. They stood in the doorways, in the hall, in the cafeteria where we televised the games just to catch a glimpse of him. And he delivered what I think now is a storybook ending.”
Owens capped his prep career by erupting for 53 points, shooting 19-for-22 from the floor and 14-for-16 from the line, in his last game in a Carlisle uniform, an 80-54 thrashing of Pittsburgh Central Catholic in the state-championship tilt. The Herd, buoyed by Owens’ 34.4 points and 12.6 rebounds per contest, finished that season unblemished at 33-0.
“Billy had a reputation, but we seemed up for the challenge,” said Jim McCoy, Central Catholic’s stud who committed to UMass and became the program’s all-time leading scorer. “We watched film of Carlisle in preparation for the final, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. We knew he would get his points, but we didn’t think he would keep getting them and keep getting them.
“He’s the best I ever faced. Jamal Mashburn was close, but Billy Owens was so far ahead of his time. For someone that size to have the guard skills that he did, it just didn’t make sense. No one could measure up.”
Owens later shared MVP honors with Alonzo Mourning at the McDonald’s All-American Game in Albuquerque. He eventually signed with Syracuse, where his brother Michael, a ninth-round draft pick of the Chiefs in 1990, was a running back for the Orangemen.
“I drove almost 10 hours, roundtrip, to see Billy the summer before his senior year play in a league outdoors against grown men,” recalled Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. “He scored 63 points from everywhere on the court, including something like eight 3-pointers in a 15-mile-an-hour wind. [Villanova coach] Rollie Massimino and I just shook our heads. We were witnessing art.
“When I made my home visit, his mother [Marsha] didn’t say a word to me, so as I’m leaving, I’m thinking I have no chance at him. But before I got in my car, she came over and said not to worry, that he’s going to Syracuse. Sure enough, when he committed months later, she said, ‘I told you.’”
According to Billy, some brotherly love coaxed him into becoming an Orangeman: “Michael said he’d beat me up if I didn’t come.”