The Times West Virginian


June 24, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN- ‘Forgotten hero’ Owens comes back

MORGANTOWN — He had become something of the forgotten hero at the West Virginia University Coliseum, one of the greatest players to wear a Mountaineer uniform but one whose memory had faded with the passage of time.

Now he was back, a decade and a half after his final game in Morgantown, the naive child of yesterday now a citizen of the world, midway into his 30s, brought back to town by Bob Huggins to serve as an instructor at his fantasy camp.

As it was with every time he has sneaked back into town, Damian Owens was amazed at what he saw.

“It’s good to see the change, good to see Morgantown growing,” he said.

The city and the university are bigger, better today, and being inside the new basketball facility Huggins had pushed through was almost like being in a palace he never thought he’d see.

But it wasn’t only the city and the school that had changed. So had the silky smooth kid with the quick hands, the love of driving the baseline and with enough basketball savvy that his 97 steals in 1998 remain a school record.

“When you are 19 or 20 you think you are invincible and feel you can go on forever,” he admitted.

Now, though, he understands that things often are not as they seem when you are 20, something he acknowledges through the message on his cellphone, one that notes that a man may fall often but the proof of his worth is in how many times he gets back up.

As a player it was difficult to think of Damian Owens failing.

Owens easily ranks among West Virginia’s best all-around players of the past 50 years. The Seat Pleasant, Md., native scored more than 1,600 points, grabbed more than 800 rebounds, handed out more than 300 assists and pulled off more than 200 steals during his career.

If there was any WVU player his game was comparable to, it was the immortal Da’Sean Butler’s.

“You know,” he said, when that was brought up to him, “I’m staying with him during camp, but I never really thought of that.”

Not only was his career comparable to Butler’s, but the way his life played out.

Butler’s story, of course, is well known, leading WVU to the Final Four only to suffer a devastating knee injury with nine minutes left in his last game, that one-sided loss to Duke, an injury that to date has cost him an NBA career and the riches and fame that go with it.

Owens, like Butler, had known not only individual success but team success on the court.

In 1998 the Mountaineers seemed destined for greatness after having grown through their transition from the Atlantic 10 to the Big East. In fact, he had shown them they belonged in the Big East when he scored 27 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and handed out six assists in West Virginia’s 81-70 win over Georgetown in the first-ever ESPN Big Monday game at the Coliseum.

That 1998 team would go on to pull off a stunning NCAA upset, beating Huggins’ highly favored Cincinnati team on Jarrod West’s last-second miracle bank shot to advance to the Sweet 16.

But it wasn’t to be, as the Mountaineers lost to Utah.

“I think about that game to this day,” he said. “We lost to a team we were supposed to beat. We didn’t play our best game as a team, and they went to the championship game. That could have been us.”

By that time, though, Owens had already suffered an individual setback, not as severe as Butler’s knee injury, but enough to change the course of his personal history.

Late in the season Owens injured his back while attempting to grab a rebound against Syracuse.

“I was going up for a rebound and I kind of got pushed in the air and I was falling back,” he recalled. “At the same time, Brent Solheim was jumping up and he hit me in the back. Fortunately, there wasn’t anything permanently wrong with my back. It was just a very, very deep bruise.”

It wasn’t permanent, but it hurt his play in the Big East and the NCAA tournaments, averaging 10.1 points a game after having averaged 16.8 points a game up until the injury.

“(The night of the injury) I was in bed and I had to get up to use the bathroom and I had to push myself off the bed and drag myself across the floor to get there,” he said.

Owens had been projected as an NBA draft pick but his play down the stretch and questions about his health kept that from happening, and he wound up traveling the world playing basketball, never getting the big break.

He doesn’t look back on it with any regrets.

“I believe God has a plan. Maybe what happened meant I wasn’t ready. I accept it,” he said. “The truth about life is we all are going to face disappointment and failure. It’s only bad if you don’t learn from it.”

Owens looks back now at his time at West Virginia as a crucial time in his development.

“It developed me as a person. It taught me that people are people. I had grown up around only African-Americans and I didn’t know how to approach Caucasian people until I got to school. That helped me when I went and played in China and Taiwan and the Philippines.

“I learned that people are great and it doesn’t make a difference what your nationality is. It helped me blossom and I appreciate it, for now I have friendships around the world.”

Email Bob Hertzel at or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.

Text Only
  • Morgan Hoke -ts.jpg Polar Bear tennis sweeps East: PHOTOS

    Last week East Fairmont’s girls’ tennis team beat Fairmont Senior, 4-3.
    Wednesday at Fairmont State University, the Polar Bears returned the favor with a 5-2 win over their cross-town rival.
    Alissa Link won No. 1 singles, 8-4. Morgan Hoke won No. 3 singles, 9-7. And Avery Towns won No. 4 singles, 8-5, for the Polar Bears.

    April 24, 2014 8 Photos

  • Falcons set for spring game

    Football is back … well, kind of.
    Today at 7 p.m., Fairmont State will hold its annual Maroon & White spring game at Duvall-Rosier Field. The scoreboard won’t mean a whole lot since it’s little more than a glorified scrimmage. Instead, here are five things to watch during today’s game.

    April 24, 2014

  • HERTZEL COLUMN: NCAA football is thriving in the digital age

    The other day Baylor football coach Art Briles walked into his graduate assistants’ office and had to laugh at what he saw.
    “There’s five guys sitting in there — a couple of GA’s and some office personnel — and they all are within a foot and a half of each other and not a one of them is talking to each other,” Briles said, describing the scene “Every one of them is on the phone.”

    April 24, 2014

  • Hillberry commits to Wesleyan

    Last year Emma Harrison and Kaitlyn Conaway teamed up with Alexis Hillberry to win several relay medals at the state track meet.
    Though the two West Virginia Wesleyan runners are now in college, they helped to pass the baton to Hillberry Wednesday when she signed her National Letter of Intent to join her former teammates on the Bobcats’ track team.

    April 24, 2014

  • O’Brien leads WVU baseball past Marshall

    Catcher Cam O’Brien made a bid at becoming only the second West Virginia University player to hit for the cycle as the Mountaineers jumped on Marshall early and routed their in-state rival, 10-3, behind strong pitching from Corey Walter and a pair of relievers.

    April 24, 2014

  • North, East softball earn blowout wins

    The North Marion softball team was at it again Wednesday night.
    Mattie Polling tripled and singled, starting pitcher Chelsi Latocha doubled and gave up just one hit as the Huskies rolled to another 3-inning mercy-rule victory over Lewis County, 18-1.

    April 24, 2014

  • Simon, Bruce lead Reds past Bucs, 5-2

    Alfredo Simon pitched into the seventh inning despite erratic control, Jay Bruce drove in a run for a fifth consecutive game and the Cincinnati Reds beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 5-2 Wednesday night.
    Simon (3-1) worked 6 2-3 innings and allowed two runs on four hits and five walks while striking out four.

    April 24, 2014

  • Pens squander lead, fall to Columbus

    Brandon Dubinsky scored with 22.5 seconds left in regulation to force overtime and Nick Foligno’s wrist shot just inside the blue line 2:49 into the extra session gave the Columbus Blue Jackets a 4-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday night.

    April 24, 2014

  • FSHS #32, 29-BU #15-TS.jpg Cousins Sansalone, Craig lead Polar Bears past B-U: PHOTOS

    They say you don’t mess with family. Buckhannon-Upshur found that one out the hard way.

    April 23, 2014 7 Photos

  • Gabbi Mascaro Signing -md.jpg Mascaro signs with FSU

    Gabi Mascaro is staying in Fairmont.
    After considering several out-of-state colleges, the Fairmont Senior soccer standout signed her National Letter of Intent Tuesday to continue her career at Fairmont State University, an upstart program which will play its first games in 2015.

    April 23, 2014 1 Photo

Featured Ads
NDN Sports
House Ads
NCAA Breaking News
NCAA Photos