COVER- When giants roamed: Camp Wahoo put Hooville on the basketball map-- and it's back!
Fifty years ago, Gene Corrigan, then an assistant basketball coach at Washington and Lee University, decided he was too restless to take a three-month break.
"None of us had anything to do during the summer," says the man who was to become UVA athletic director and Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner. "So a few coaches and I had been talking about starting up a camp, and then Billy McCann [the basketball coach at UVA] called us all up and said we had the chance to do it out at Miller School."
So, in 1957, with head basketball coaches from UVA, VMI, and W&L, Corrigan founded Camp Wahoo, a two-week camp devoted to traditional camp activities like snipe hunts, singing songs, and all manner of athletics.
"We did three sessions that first summer, and it was very different from what I was used to," says Corrigan. "I did everything from being the catcher in baseball to working with the horses from the UVA polo team. There wasn't a breath of air to be had there during the summer, but it was a lot of fun."
Having anywhere between 15-30 campers at a given session, Corrigan says, the small community was great for providing individual attention to each boy, but proved difficult as a business.
"I don't think we made a penny those first years," he says, "not until Bones joined us."
That would be Bones McKinney, a former NBA standout with the Boston Celtics, who was head basketball coach at Wake Forest. In 1960, he came to Corrigan and his partners with what was, at the time, a revolutionary idea.
"In those days, they just didn't have basketball camps," says Corrigan. "There was one at Campbell University in North Carolina, and that's when Bones came to us and said, 'You're crazy not to do this.'"
So with McKinney now part of the team, Camp Wahoo added a week-long basketball camp to its season. Immediately, Corrigan says, they knew they had tapped into something big, and soon they converted the camp into one of the country's first full-time basketball camps.
"We went from having 100 kids all summer to 350 per week, and turning down just as many," he says.
As it turned out, eager young round-ballers weren't the only people the camp attracted. From 1960 to 1967, a veritable "who's who" of eventual basketball legends graced Miller's western Albemarle campus. At the height of his NBA career, Jerry West began leaving the fast-lane life of a Los Angeles Laker each summer to come teach the game.
"He was great with the kids," says Corrigan. "He wasn't a celebrity out here. He would share stories with the campers and always wanted to take part in the counselor games, which was great fun for all of us to watch."
Long before he built several championship teams as the Lakers' general manager, West demonstrated he had an eye for young talent, particularly in the case of Corrigan's 13-year-old niece, Debbie Ryan.
"I was the only girl at the camp who played," recalls the UVA head women's basketball coach, "and I was always on the periphery, wanting to do what all the boys did. One day, [West] started his lecture and called me out and asked me to demonstrate my jump shot. I looked to see who was standing next to me, but he said, 'No, you, Debbie.' He said he'd been watching me all camp and that it didn't matter whether you're male or female or whether you're tall, what matters is good form and that you work at the game. I was blown away."
"It made my sons so mad," says Corrigan, "but Jerry insisted she had the better jump shot."
Ryan wasn't the only kid whose on-court prowess was evident early. Before "Pistol Pete" became a household name, 12-year old Pete Maravich tagged along with his father, Press– then head coach at Clemson.
"Everything the Harlem Globetrotters could do– the behind-the-back dribbling, no-look passing– he could do all that when he was 12," says Corrigan. "He would challenge these All-Americans we had working at the camp to games of H-O-R-S-E for a quarter and beat them every time. Everybody knew he was going to be great."
When Corrigan left Charlottesville to become assistant director of the ACC in 1967, Camp Wahoo also moved on– to Lexington for a few years before packing up the gym bags for good. Corrigan went on to jobs as athletic director at UVA and Notre Dame before ascending to the post of ACC commissioner, and eventually NCAA president. However, no matter where Corrigan's travels took him, camp always found him.
"It's amazing how many times somebody has come up to me to talk about it," he says. "I've been in the airport in L.A. when some guy comes up to me and says, 'I used to be at Camp Wahoo.'"
The camp had also become the stuff of family legend, even to those who didn't experience it for themselves, like Corrigan's grandson, Fred Wawner.
"My grandfather used to bring his whole family out to Miller for the summer," he says, "so, growing up, my uncles would constantly refer to it, and it sounded like so much fun."
When Wawner became Miller's head basketball coach in 2001, the prospect of reviving the camp excited the family. So, beginning June 24, Camp Wahoo returned as a co-educational camp, 50 years after its first summer and 40 years after leaving the Charlottesville area.
"It was such a unique idea to begin with," says Wawner's uncle, Tony Zentgraf, a Burley Middle School gym teacher who will be co-directing the camp alongside Wawner and his cousin Brian Corrigan, "to introduce kids to sports and not worry about wins and losses but learn about building character and being part of a team. We give lip service to those things now, but I think we can really do it again."
Though the camp is no longer the bargain $35 per week it used to be (now it's $500 for day campers, $650 for overnighters), it still aims to be a unique experience. Just as when it decided to go all-basketball in 1960, Camp Wahoo is reverting to the original multi-sport format to fill a need Wawner says is going unfulfilled.
"There are so many specialized camps for kids who want to compete at the highest level of one particular sport, and the idea of having fun gets lost," he says. "We wanted to offer kids six or eight different sports so they can have fun with a little bit of everything, and hopefully find something to be passionate about later on in life."
With this year's counseling staff consisting exclusively of members of the Corrigan family, the camp has the feel of a happy family reunion. This is especially true given that Wawner became a father for the third time just three days before camp re-opened.
"I'm pretty tired," the proud yet sleep-deprived father admits.
The celebratory moment of both the new birth and the camp's rebirth is bittersweet, however, because the reunion is incomplete. In 2003, Zentgraf's son Aaron died in a car accident at age 20.
"When something like that happens," explains mother Kathy, a teacher at Charlottesville High School, "you just think nothing will ever be fun again."
She says her son "could make a game out of anything, and he never forgot that sports were about having fun." His attitude toward competition can be summed up in how he approached tennis.
"He wouldn't play against someone unless they took off their shoes," recalls Kathy. "He figured neither you nor your opponent can take the game that seriously if you're not wearing shoes. So in trying to figure out how to teach sports while making it fun, we realized that we've already had the best teacher of all."
Though Corrigan has passed the ball on to the next generation, he says he'll still be an active part of the camp.
"I'm just going to ride around and make sure everybody's having a good time," he says.
If it's anything like Coach Ryan remembers about her summers, it won't have to build stars to create sparkling memories.
"It was one of the neatest experiences of my life," she says. "It's one of those places you can't duplicate. When you left, you never wanted to come down the mountain."