COLUMBUS -- The argument is purely subjective, and includes boundless fun. It triggers memories and arguments, and will never be done.
But as the boys state basketball tournament dawns this week, the reflection begins anew. Which is Ohio's greatest high school basketball crew?
The early standard set by Dayton Stivers? The small-school Waterloo Wonders? Maybe a Jerry Lucas-led Middletown outfit? LeBron James and his Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary's team?
After careful study, years of observation, argument and voluntary research, the greatest Ohio High School basketball team is the 1969 Columbus East Tigers.
Coach Bob Hart's controversial squad is no stranger to this discussion. They haven't been lost in history either, even a half century after they last took the floor at St. John Arena and raised their second straight state championship trophy.
In fact, a book was produced last fall by noted author Wil Haygood touching on the team titled, Tigerland. It chronicled the school's magical athletic year in 1968-69, which also included a state baseball championship. The book is interesting, revives some great stories, and provides depth into the individual players on that team.
However, it lacks a clear understanding of the historic place that squad occupies in the state's high school basketball landscape.
Make no mistake, Ohio has a long and rich high school basketball tradition, too.
The first big-school dynasty was Dayton Stivers, which claimed crowns in 1916, 1919, 1920 and 1921. When the Ohio High School Athletic Association got involved in 1923, Stivers continued its success with state championships in 1924, 1928, 1929 and 1930, under coach Floyd Stahl, who later went on to take the whistle at Ohio State.
The tales of the Waterloo Wonders have also spawned books, videos and countless stories. This small-school Lawrence County club went 94-3 under coach Magellan Hairston and won back-to-back Class B titles in 1934 and 1935.
The first GOAT in Ohio prep basketball was Jerry Lucas. The 6-foot-8 future Hall of Famer's remarkable run at Middletown included double-figure state championship wins in 1956 and 1957. It also concluded with a stunning 63-62 loss in the 1958 state semifinals to Columbus North. That decision snapped a 76-game winning streak, and marked the only high school loss Lucas ever suffered.
Some say the city of Middletown (which enjoyed seven state basketball championships to that point, but never one after his departure) still hasn't recovered from it -- 61 years later.
It took another 10 years before a big-school squad would rise to rival what Middletown accomplished. Unlike the Middies and their one-man gang, Columbus East had more than one star.
Actually, Hart already owned a state title when this group funneled through the hallways. In 1963, Columbus East ripped off a 25-1 record and a 41-32 victory over Marion Harding in the Class AA (big-school division) championship game.
In 1967, Hart had another loaded roster, albeit an extremely young one. It all started with one of the greatest players in central Ohio history, William Edward "Easy Ed" Ratleff. Born in Bellefontaine, Ratleff's family moved to Columbus as he entered junior high. He eventually established a reputation as a tall but talented basketball player and a superb baseball pitcher.
By the time his sophomore year dawned at East, Ratleff was growing into his 6-foot-4 frame. He had the skills of a guard and the body of a forward. He was joined by classmate Alonzo "Nick" Conner, an intimidating, 6-5 standout with a burly build, a bruising game and eye-popping leaping ability. Although they were just sophomores, and East was a state powerhouse, both were immediate starters in 1966-67, their first year of high school eligibility.
"We didn't think about how high (Nick) jumped back then, but he could dunk the ball with such ease," Ratleff noted years later in an interview with the University of Illinois, where Conner graduated in 1973. "The thing that separated him from everybody else was that he had great timing. The ball would go up and it didn't matter how high it went or where it went, he had the great timing to be able to get up and get his hands on it."
Still, neither budding star was the team's focal point. That was 6-6 junior Randy Smith, who was a second-team All-Ohioan, while Ratleff was honorable-mention. They led the Tigers to a 16-0 regular-season and a state poll crown. But East was blindsided in the regional final by eventual state champion Columbus Linden McKinley, 43-34. Ratleff and Co. went 21-1 that season, but it was a disappointment, one they would never experience again.
In 1967-68, the Tigers repeated as state poll champs and Smith earned first-team All-Ohio honors (while averaging just 13.0 points per game). Ratleff was now the standout scorer, and earned second-team All-Ohio laurels. Conner wasn't to be forgotten as a third-team all-state selection.
They roared into the Final Four with Ratleff and Conner scoring 24 and 21 points, respectively, to bury Euclid 75-40. In the state championship game, Conner erupted for 26 and Ratleff had 17 to dismiss a stubborn Hamilton outfit 64-60 for the title. Both Conner and Ratleff were members of the All-State Tournament Team and the Tigers finished 24-0.
In 1968-69, East was even better -- the best ever.
While Smith was gone, Columbus North guard Dwight "Bo" Lamar, a dynamic shooter and scorer (who averaged more than 20 points per game as a junior), transferred across town. Lamar said Columbus North school officials insisted he cut his hair so he quit the team and transferred. Others claimed Lamar was a discipline problem at North.
Whatever the truth, the explosive 6-foot-1 guard with unlimited range made the Tigers simply impossible to defend. Conner controlled the paint, Lamar was the perimeter sniper, and Ratleff picked apart defenses from every other imaginable angle.
Oddly, Hart sounded surprised Lamar was such an instant fit.
“Lamar — it never dawned on me he would develop into an All-American. He’s been a pleasant surprise,” Hart is quoted as saying in the book Rise and Fire, by Shawn Fury.
They were big, quick, athletic and oh so skilled. Ratleff was a first-team All-Ohioan and UPI Player of the Year after averaging 23.8 points. Conner earned second-team all-state honors with a 14-point scoring average, and Lamar (at 17.5 points per game) was honorable-mention. All five starters, including point guard Larry Walker and forward Roy Hickman, played college basketball.
They were challenged only twice.
In an epic regional final at the Columbus Fairgrounds Coliseum, a huge Newark team closed to within a point in the final minute. But Lamar's clutch shooting helped the Tigers survive a 55-50 seat squirmer. Newark coach Dick Schenk said it was a shame this wasn't the state title matchup, as he felt these were Ohio's two best teams.
Toledo Libbey would argue the point.
In the state semifinals, East ran headlong into the fired-up Cowboys. A disastrous third quarter nearly doomed the Tigers, but Ratleff pumped in 24, Lamar chipped in 17 and a Libbey shot just before the buzzer rolled off the rim to preserve a thrilling, 64-63 victory.
In the state championship tilt, Ratleff poured in 31 points, Conner added 17 and Lamar had 12 to fuel a 71-56 blowout of Canton McKinley and Associated Press state player of the year Nick Weatherspoon.
That capped a 25-0 season and a three-year run that encompassed a 70-1 record, including a pair of big-school state championships. Ohio high school basketball fans had never seen anything like them, and still haven't.
"Columbus East was maybe the top team in the country that year," legendary college basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian said.
Ten years later, East won another state title when center Granville Waiters and standout Kevin Castleman defeated superstar Clark Kellogg and Cleveland St. Joseph's. But no one would draw a comparison between those Tigers and the Big Three in 1969.
That holy basketball trinity shone well beyond high school, too, but none of them stayed home to play for Ohio State. In fact, only Conner was offered by the Buckeyes -- long a sore point and a source of controversy across the state.
In his book Tigerland, Haygood argues Ohio State coach Fred Taylor would't recruit black players. OSU fans and Taylor's supporters would cry foul on that claim. The school's 1961 NCAA title team included point guard Mel Nowell, also a Columbus East product and three-year starter for the Buckeyes.
In addition, on the Ohio State roster and just a year older than the East seniors was Jimmy Cleamons, a Columbus Linden-McKinley product who dealt Ratleff and Co. their only loss in three high school seasons. Cleamons was the 1971 Big Ten MVP after leading the Buckeyes to the conference championship. He said he tried to recruit Conner and Canton McKinley's Weatherspoon, but failed.
"I hosted Weatherspoon and Conner when they visited," Cleamons told Lee Caryer in his book, The Golden Age of Ohio State Basketball. "It hurt me when they didn't come here."
The Buckeyes did not offer a scholarship to Ratleff or Lamar, and Taylor never commented publicly on it. The coach did land an exemplary recruiting class in 1969, headlined by Marlington 7-footer Luke Witte and Bellaire sharpshooter Allan Hornyak. Those two, both three-year starters, and Cleamons led Ohio State to the Elite Eight of the 1971 NCAA Tournament.
Meanwhile, Ratleff attended Long Beach State, where he was a two-time first-team All-American under Tarkanian, and a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic team. Two of his teams were eliminated by UCLA in the NCAA Tournament. Ratleff was the sixth pick in the 1973 NBA draft and played for the Houston Rockets.
Ratleff had a wild recruitment. He committed to Florida State, then was rumored to be part of a package deal to Southwest Louisiana, which claimed to be interested in all five Columbus East starters. He wound up at Long Beach State after Tarkanian spent a week in Columbus with the family and East principal Jack Gibbs.
Lamar attended Southwest Louisiana and as a senior led the nation in scoring. He too was a two-time, first-team All-American and the No. 1 overall pick by the San Diego Conquistadors in the ABA Draft. Later he played for the Los Angeles Lakers and the Indiana Pacers in the NBA.
Conner went to Illinois and teamed with Weatherspoon, his state final foe. A three-year starter for the Illini and a double-figure scorer, Conner was plagued with bad knees. Still, he was selected in the NBA draft by the Buffalo Braves.
"Nick was the glue to our (Columbus East) team because he was our center, and he did all the grunt work and tough work," Ratleff told the University of Illinois upon Conner's passing from lung cancer on Aug. 25, 2005. "He was a great competitor, and here was a guy that was 6-5 who was going up against guys consistently who were 6-8, 6-9, 6-10, and they had a hard time beating him -- if they ever beat him.
"Nick was an absolute character, and he was probably the most liked guy at the entire high school. His nickname was 'Nasty Nick,' but he would be smiling and laughing the whole time. He just had that personality that attracted people to him and he was one of the nicest guys you would ever know."
To tell the full story, it's also a fact that all three stars, Ratleff, Conner and Lamar, attended college programs that were placed on NCAA probation, or worse, in the wake of their basketball careers.
In January of 1974, Long Beach State was placed on three years probation with the NCAA stating the violations "were among the most serious it has ever considered." Caryer cited a Newsweek feature on Tarkanian that reported a Ratleff family member was given a job with the Long Beach city government.
It was worse at Southwest Louisiana (now Louisiana Lafayette). After Lamar led the nation in scoring at 36.3 points per game, the NCAA dropped the death penalty on the program in August, 1973, while uncovering more than 120 violations. It was the second of only five schools in NCAA history to ever receive such a drastic penalty.
At Illinois, coach Harv Schmidt was shown the door in 1974 after drawing NCAA probation for recruiting violations. That penalty barred the Illini from postseason play for two years.
However, what that Columbus East team accomplished in high school is the focus here, and it's unparalleled.
Fifty years later the state has seen Jim Jackson lead Toledo Macomber to a state title and National Player of the Year honors at Ohio State. Jared Sullinger propelled Columbus Northland to a state crown before becoming a two-time All-American and leading the Buckeyes to the Final Four.
The small-school scene had big time players energizing coach Chuck Kemper's program at Columbus Wehrle. Of course LeBron won three state championships in four years, albeit all at a smaller-school division, while at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary's.
But none of those players or schools ever had a team like Columbus East put on the floor in 1969. Indeed, 50 years later we're still talking about them.
Larry Phillips is the managing editor of Richland Source, Ashland Source, Crawford Source and Knox Pages. He has covered the Ohio boys state basketball tournament for more than 20 years. He can be reached at Larry@RichlandSource.com.