Williamson basketball legend Joe Stafford was inducted into the Western Carolina University Hall of Fame as a part of the 1995-96 basketball team over the weekend in Cullowhee, NC.
Stafford was a standout at Williamson High School in the early 90s and helped to lead the Wolfpack to the 1992 Championship game. He also captured first team all-state honors that season and played in the Scott Brown Classic in Beckley. It was a time when basketball was thriving in the Mountains.
“There was so much talent in the area,” said Stafford. “You could go from Pikeville to Logan and see great players at about every school. I had so many battles against a lot of fantastic players.
From there, Stafford went to Trinity Valley Community College in Texas where he played for the top junior college team in the country.
“We had battles every day,” Stafford recalled. “We were 30-8 my last year there. There was just so much talent. 11 of us went on to play Division 1 basketball somewhere. Then, there was Eddie Robinson who went to the NBA and played with the Hornets and Bulls.”
Stafford said that his father wanted him to move back east so that he could see him play. So, he accepted an offer to attend Western Carolina as a junior. It was a memorable season, but it didn’t start out great. The Catamounts were 0-6 to start the season before Stafford said a game at Georgia Tech really helped the team come together.
“We went into the Omni in Atlanta,” Stafford said. “And they had Stephon Marbury, Matt Harpring and Drew Barry. All of them had NBA careers. And I just started making shot after shot. We didn’t win, but we played them tough, and we could feel the season start to turn around.”
The Catamounts were difficult to beat from there on out and stormed through the Southern Conference before defeating Davidson in the conference championship game.
Western Carolina then was given the 16th seed in West Regional and given a match up with the top seeded Purdue Boilermakers. The game took place in The Pit in Albuquerque, NM.
“We figured that we would get the 16th seed, and Purdue was the top seed we knew that we could give a good game,” Stafford said. “Everyone on the arena was cheering for us, and the longer that game went, the whole country was cheering for us. They had a guy step out of bounds before their last basket, but they official missed it.”
Stafford then had a shot at the buzzer that rolled off the rim. Purdue won, 73-71. At that point, it was the closest a 16th seed had come to winning in the tournament. Western Carolina finished with 17-13 record. It’s still the only Western Carolina team to win the Southern Conference and qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
Even though the Catamounts were disappointed in the loss, Stafford himself led the nation in 3-point Field Goal percentage. He shot .527 from beyond the arc that season.
Stafford was ready for another run his senior season, but it was cut short but a season-ending injury at Marshall.
“I hated that it happened at Marshall,” he said. “I was driving to the basket, which wasn’t something I normally did, when I felt my knee give out. It was tough timing too. Our next game would’ve been at Rupp Arena against Kentucky. But I got to play at a lot of great places, including at Duke.”
Stafford had surgery and rehab before trying to play basketball professionally overseas. He then blew out his knee again. After consulting with his doctor, Stafford elected to stop playing basketball.
Stafford now lives in Atlanta and said that he really enjoyed getting to see his old teammates over the weekend.
“It was great to be see everyone,” he said. “I enjoyed hanging out with old teammates, classmates and friends. I don’t get to go back to Western Carolina very often. We all have families and careers now. That’s what it’s really all about.”
Stafford also offered some advice to today’s youth in the Mountains.
“There are so many opportunities out there,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to go away from home if you need to. Whether it’s sports or academics, take advantage of your opportunities, make friends, start networking and make a life.”