Note from Steve: This is who I used to be able to call my "little cousin." His dad and my mom are first cousins. He's not so little any more, and it looks like he's going places.
Franklin County's star senior is happy with the decisions he's made and how his career has gone at Franklin County.
By Robert Anderson
The Roanoke Times
ROCKY MOUNT, Va. -- Forget the Timesland player of the year award he won last winter and the scholarship to Virginia Tech he signed last month.
Lewis Witcher always has been big in Franklin County.
Witcher has led Franklin County to back-to-back Western Valley District basketball championships, earning second-team All-Group AAA honors after averaging 17.3 points and 11.3 rebounds per game. However, the 6-foot-8 senior center has been creating matchup problems for years.
"I've always been the tallest kid in my class pretty much all the way through school," Witcher said. "When I was in kindergarten, my teacher was about 5-foot and I was about 4-9 or 4-10. I was about as tall as she was."
Twelve years and 22 inches later, Witcher has grown into one of the top-rated players in Virginia. His stature around Franklin County's campus is large.
The blocked shots, the dunks, the mid-range jump shots, the rebounds, the loping stride ... those assets are a big part of Witcher's package. However, Franklin County coach Doug Conklin measures Witcher by a different yardstick.
"I think the biggest compliment you can give him is the type of kid he is," Conklin said. "His mom and dad have done a tremendous job with him. Everywhere he is, they're there. He's just been a joy to coach for four years."
Off the wall
Lewis Witcher, a bad kid? You better believe it.
"When he was about six months old I remember my mother called me one night and asked me if I needed anything," said Witcher's mother, Velma. "I said, 'Send me something that doesn't break.' Every toy he would get, he would throw it against the wall."
Witcher dutifully confesses to many crimes.
"Even though it may not seem like it, I was a bad kid when I was little," he said. "I used to break stuff. When I was real little I used to throw everything. I had a Tonka truck and I threw it and it went down one of the hills at my house and it broke the thing. My parents got on me. They were like, 'How do you break a Tonka truck?' They were almost indestructible."
Witcher then got a big break ... from his father, John.
The elder Witcher took a cardboard box and taped it to an inside wall of the family home. Presto, an instant basketball goal.
"I would sit there and dribble and shoot when I was about 4 for 5," Witcher said. "I used to do that all the time."
John Witcher's solution might have cut down on the annual toy bill, but it created another problem ... for the current batch of basketball teams who face Franklin County. Soon, the box on the wall gave way to a backboard and net in the driveway. Witcher had been given the keys to the road to success.
"I would pretty much go outside and play every day," Witcher said. "I kept on playin' and playin'. I just fell in love with the game."
John Witcher, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, was working for the telephone company in Chicago when he took a trip to visit his niece at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
The army vet's niece had a friend. The friend had a sister. The sister became his wife.
John and Velma Witcher married and moved to Franklin County, near the farmland where John grew up in Pittsylvania County. The couple had a daughter, Khalia, now 26, married and living in Richmond.
A son, born eight years later, inherited his father's first and middle names.
"I'm actually named after my father, John Lewis Witcher," the Franklin County star said. "I go by Lewis. He goes by John so people can tell us apart. Sometimes in my family, they would call me little John. Now people call me Lew or Big Lew."
Witcher got his height from both sides of the family. Now he towers over his relatives the way he once did with his kindergarten peers.
"I'm pretty much the tallest in the family," Witcher said. "My dad told me that he had a cousin who was like, 7-2. I've never seen him."
Franklin County's basketball program has seen plenty of success with players named Lewis.
First came Lewis Preston, a 1988 graduate who played at VMI and is now an assistant at Notre Dame. Next in line was Lewis Muse, who led Franklin County to the 2001 Group AAA quarters before becoming a two-time All-American and the leading scorer in Division II and Concord University in Athens, W.Va.
"We're going to probably have to find a kid or two to change his name to Lewis," Conklin joked.
The next level
Witcher grew up dreaming of one day playing in the NBA, a league where another mild-mannered kid had a pretty nice career. NBA career scoring leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was known as Lewis Alcindor before a name change.
Witcher's NBA dream is still that, but his first step up the ladder will begin next year when he joins Tech's program.
"I think he's going to be a big addition to Tech," Conklin said. "I still don't think he's come close to his full potential. I think he can be real good. He's the kind of person that plays better against bigger people. Instead of dominating against a kid that's 6-2, he doesn't do it as much as he does against a kid that's his size."
Witcher chose Tech over Maryland and a late offer from Wake Forest. No one else was really in the running.
"The biggest thing was distance from home," Conklin said. "That eliminated a lot of schools right away. He was going to play close to home where his parents could see him. His big thing was to play in the ACC too."
Tech began pursuing Witcher heavily during his sophomore year, when he scored 20 points against an Oak Hill Academy team that included 6-8 Josh Smith, the first-round pick of the Atlanta Hawks. Doubts about Witcher's ability vanished on that January night.
"That proved it to me," Conklin said. "When he went in as a sophomore against those kids, and I think it was Josh Smith, so it wasn't against cupcakes. He isn't afraid of competition."
Witcher, never one to boast, had no worries.
"I knew I could play with that kind of level players," he said. "I'm sure people when we first played Oak Hill were kind of worried about me. They didn't think I would be able to play with them. I just wanted to go out there and show people. I had played AAU and already had played against people almost as good as them, and as tall."
There was a downside to Witcher's breakout performance against Oak Hill. It fueled the rumor mill the Witcher had grown too big for Franklin County.
"I never really thought about moving," he said. "I've lived here all my life and I really enjoy it. I felt I was good enough in my recruiting that I could stay here and still get looked at by colleges. But after the first Oak Hill game, it was crazy. Rumors were spreading across the whole county that I was going to Oak Hill."
Conklin was never worried about losing the big guy.
"I never once worried about him leaving. He likes being a high school kid. He's got a lot of good friends here."
Witcher, who has lifted weights to go from 205 pounds to 220 in the last year, might be a big man on campus. He's just never acted too big for his britches.
"He works hard in practice just like every other kid does," Conklin said. "He doesn't ask for or expect anything. He's not a kid that comes in and demands anything. When we're playing, he doesn't get mad. He doesn't say, 'You should have given me the ball.' He's a team player. He's never missed a practice. The worst thing he's ever done is be a couple of minutes late."
And break things ... like opponents' hearts.