The Legend Of Burgard’s Ritchie Campbell: A Story From The Engineers Looking Back At A Buffalo Basketball Phenom

“As a freshman, I’m sitting on the bench watching Ritchie and Damon Rand go at it at Burgard, and he has the flu. He literally gives us 38 points and he’s falling and coughing and laying out. This dude literally put up 38 points on us and he’s got the flu!”

A Name That Repeatedly Came Up During My Research

This story is another promotional piece for my book project entitled, “The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story”. One of the bases for my story is the 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team and their magical run. In my freshman year at the school, they won our city league, the “Yale Cup”, 13-0. They then won the Section VI Class B sectional and came within one game of a berth in the state final four in Glens Falls. It was amazing to witness. There were many more stories surrounding the Yale Cup and Section VI basketball however. Only those who were a part of them, witnessed them, or did the research would know them.

Depending on your vantage point, what the 1990-91 Engineers did wasn’t that big a deal. In terms of public schools, the former LaSalle Explorers, and the Buffalo Traditional Bulls, were regular visitors to the state tournament in Glens Falls. St. Joseph’s Collegiate High School (St. Joe’s), in the “Mognsinor Martin” league was regularly the team to beat amongst the private schools in our area. From my vantage point at the time though, what the Engineers did was a big deal, and I dreamt of being just like them. Whether that got done is a different story. For those curious to know, what happened is revealed in my book project.

As described on the page I designed for the book, and the numerous pieces I’ve created surrounding it, I interviewed 30-40 players and coaches from Section VI. My research revealed several interesting facts. I learned quite a few back stories and about the players and runs of other teams from Section VI. I learned about players whom I’d only known and seen from a distance. As described in my Cliff Robinson piece, some names came up repeatedly. One of the most notable ones was the great Ritchie Campbell.

Ritchie Campbell’s Legend

One of the pieces I’ve published reflected on the Yale Cup, its history and some of its most notable players. One player whom I highlighted was Ritchie Campbell who played at Burgard Vocational High School. Even before setting out to write The Engineers, I’d heard of the legend of Burgard’s No. 13, Ritchie Campbell but never saw him play in person.

There might have been murmurings of Ritchie from the Class of 1992 seniors our 1991-92 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team my sophomore year. They saw him play and shared the court with him. Interestingly though, I didn’t start hearing about him in a meaningful way until graduating from Hutch-Tech, a recurring theme in my book.

It was at the SUNY College at Brockport. During my one year there, there were several other former Yale Cup players whom I befriended. I played intramural basketball with some of them. One was former Kensington “Knight”, Samuel “Quinn” Coffey, who went on to coach both boys and girls himself in the Baltimore area. He, along with everyone else who saw Ritchie Campbell play, spoke of him like a God.

He Could Do Whatever He Wanted To Do On The Basketball Court

“I saw Ritchie play and saw why they said he should’ve gone to the NBA,” said Adrian Baugh. No. 30 Adrian Baugh was one the unsung heroes on Jason Rowe and Damien Foster’s great early 1990s Buffalo Traditional Bulls teams. Everyone said these types of things about Ritchie Campbell. Personally, I’ve only seen clips of him playing here and there on video, in addition to hearing about his play through word of mouth. Thanks to the scrapbooks created by my first coach at Hutch-Tech, the late Dr. Kenneth Leon Jones, I was able to read up on Campbell’s playing days.

He originally played high school basketball at a Catholic school which no longer exists called “DeSales”. My research for The Engineers revealed that there was a whole lineup of private schools in our area in the 1970s and 1980s that closed over the years due to the declining economics of the region. Aside from DeSales, other schools that closed included “Cardinal Doherty” and “Father Baker”. My late cousin, Al Richardson, played for Father Baker and was a star on the basketball court.

Burgard’s Dynamic Duo

“Ritchie and Marcus (pictured above) were the two guys I’d always hear about in the seventh grade when I started playing for LaSalle. Those dudes were amazing!” During my research, I learned that Ritchie Campbell’s legend reached up to nearby Niagara Falls into the LaSalle basketball dynasty (and probably beyond). One of the players on the Explorers’ Mt. Rushmore of great guards, No. 50 Carlos Bradberry noted hearing about Campbell’s brilliance starting in middle school.

Ritchie Campbell eventually enrolled at Burgard Vocational High School where he teamed up with No. 32 Marcus “Ice Cream” Whitfield. Ice Cream is also considered a legend. The tandem wreaked havoc in the Yale Cup and Section VI under Coach Don Brusky for two to three years. During the 1987-88 season, they led the Bulldogs out to Glens Falls and into the Class C State Final Four. They finished their careers on the All-Western New York First Team. Both had the abilities to play far beyond the Yale Cup, but ran into personal difficulties off the court.

Elite Basketball Company

In my first year on the Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team we made the Class B-1 section final. There we all complimentary sectional programs recognizing all the playoff participants. In the back of the book, Section VI captured the all-time Western New York scoring leaders courtesy of the Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington. That was the 1991-92 season.

I’m certain the records and rankings have changed since then with all the players who have competed over the years. In any case, at that time, the number one and two players were Ritchie Campbell and Marcus Whitfield with 2,355 and 2,285 points respectively. The rest of the list was a who’s who of Western New York high school basketball with names including: Christian Laettner (Nichols), Damone James (Turner/Carroll), Ray Hall (McKinley) and Eric Eberz (St. Joe’s), again to name a few.

Hearing About Ritchie’s Legend Late

If it sounds strange that I had lofty dreams of repeating our 1990-91 team’s successes but didn’t learn about players like Ritchie Campbell until after the fact, this underlies one of the key threads in my story. That is I’ve learned that our lives are often a matter of circumstance. I would’ve jumped at the chance to go to the high school games and learn about Section VI basketball while I was in middle school. Unfortunately though no one in my ecosystem was there to point me in that direction. Had I seen players like Campbell play early on for myself, it would’ve shaped me as a player.

Another key piece to this puzzle is that Coach Jones, my first coach at Hutch-Tech, didn’t talk about players like Ritchie Campbell much. I suspect it was because he didn’t like or teach the isolation/one on one, street-style of basketball. He taught us a disciplined style on both end of the floor. Likewise exposing us younger players to phenoms like Ritchie Campbell might’ve been counterproductive. I’m just speculating here though.

Everyone Spoke Of Ritchie With Reverence

In working on these promotional essays for The Engineers, I’ve stated that I’ve interviewed 30-40 players. Going through my notes I realized that many of my interviewees mentioned Campbell in their stories. In addition to Adrian Baugh’s and Carlos Bradberry’s comments above, the following are excerpts from my interviews where Ritchie’s legend came up.

Ryan Cochran, Player, Cardinal O’Hara High School

“I’ve got a funny story about Ritchie Campbell. I didn’t know Ritchie at all. After getting on the Dewey Park team, Coach Dean would talk about him all the time, ‘Ritchie Campbell, Ritchie Campbell, Ritchie Campbell.’ I would say, ‘Who is this guy Ritchie Campbell?’ He took me to go watch Ritchie Campbell. He said, ‘Ritchie Campbell is going to score 50 points in this game.’ I think he had 15 points at half time, and I said there’s no way this guy scores 50 points and I think Ritchie wound up scoring 45 points in the second half which got him around 60 points. They would say, ‘Oh, Ritchie would dog you,’ and I’d say, ‘Ritchie can’t beat me.’ So, one day Coach Dean called Ritchie and we drove to this gym to play one on one. We got there and the gym was closed. So that’s a running joke to this day.”

Damien Foster, Player, Buffalo Traditional High School

“You had no choice but to study the players before you. I heard about Ritchie Campbell and I saw him play one time. That was when him and Trevor Ruffin went head-to-head in “The Randy”, the Randy Smith League. I was young. I want to say 13 years old maybe. But I remember that game. I just remember seeing Ritchie come down and just ‘letting it fly’ – two steps across half court and just letting it fly. I was like, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’ Ritchie Campbell never really came through the Boys Club. Neither did ‘Ice Cream’ (Marcus Whitfield). They played more so downtown. They were down at ’Live at Five’.”

Dion Frasier, Player, Hutch-Tech High School

“I think we went 3-15. It was miserable in the sense that you never want to be part of a losing team. That was the year – I played against Ritchie Campbell, Marcus Whitfield – we played Burgard at home that year and I think we lost by 60 points (laughing). Man, these cats – Ritchie was throwing it off the backboard and ‘Ice Cream’ was catching it and dunking it. They KILLED us!”

Ed Harris, Player, Riverside High School

“I met Ritchie my freshman year. I didn’t know Ritchie like that, and I don’t know Ritchie that well to this day. But shit, as a freshman, I’m sitting on the bench watching him and Damon Rand go at it at Burgard and he has the flu (Ritchie). He literally gives us 38 points and he’s falling and coughing and laying out. I’m like, this dude literally put 38 points up on us and he’s got the flu. He could barely run around and I’m like, this guy is amazing. I’m looking at Ritchie – the way he can just shoot and command the game – as a young boy I’m looking with a star struck look at him like, this dude is unbelievable.”

Reggie Hokes, Player, Hutch-Tech High School

“Yes, I knew I wanted to play varsity basketball right away. I knew about Ritchie Campbell, Cliff Robinson and those guys, and I heard about Christian Laettner. I was familiar with Trevor Ruffin because we had a park called 75 and they would come down and play and they’d call it “Live at 75”, and they used to have games down there – Ritchie and all of them would have summer league games. Ritchie actually stayed around the corner from me. He stayed in the Willard Park Projects about five blocks from where I stayed on Emslie.”

Frankie Harris, Player, Hutch-Tech High School

“I think my best game a was a game we lost to Bennett at the buzzer. I think I had 19 points. Another good game was in my senior year against Burgard and we lost that one too. Ritchie Campbell was player of the year. I remember that being a good tough close game. I remember he made some free throws at the end. We played good. I remember Curt played real good against him.”

Quincy Lee, Player, Hutch-Tech High School

“We got destroyed by ‘Ice Cream’ our sophomore year, I believe. They destroyed us, but junior year, we were actually in that Burgard game until the end. I got benched the whole game and he (Coach Jones) asked me to go in with 20 to 30 seconds left and he asked me to go in to shoot threes to try to win the game. I didn’t get a shot off, but that’s how that game went and it was that close – a couple of three-pointers and we would’ve won. Ritchie was good and I believe at that point, it was the last game that we lost because junior year. We couldn’t afford to lose another game, because it would’ve been our seventh loss and we had to win the last two.”

Jason Rowe, Player, Buffalo Traditional High School

“Locally, I looked up to my uncle, Trevor Ruffin, and Ritchie Campbell. I looked at them and felt like I could do something. They were guys I could watch every day in a ‘hands on’ type of way. I grew up watching those guys so I idolized Ritchie, Nigel Bostic, and Marcus Whitfield. I vaguely remember Ray Hall. My experience with him was in the summer leagues. But as far as the big-name guys who were in the Yale Cup, I knew them because my cousin, James, was eight years older than me. So, he grew up in that era and took me to those games because he played at Lafayette. I was able to get my experience watching those games as well.”

Christain J. Souter, Player, Hutch-Tech High School

“So, freshman year I played anytime we were getting blown out. I think coach did set up a couple of scrimmages, but I can’t recall any of that or any detail on that. Mostly it was, you would go play these guys and you go out to Burgard and there was Ritchie Campbell, and he’s still in the game and they’re up by 30 and he’s getting his points. Here comes the skinny white kid out there and it’s me, Dion and Mike, and everybody is trying to get into the score book and trying to get their first points and play defense; then you realize that you’ve got some different athleticism to deal with. Most of the time as freshman it was garbage time. That is what it is, I guess.”

Dennis Wilson, Player, Turner/Carroll High School and Riverside High School

“No. You just read about them in the news at that time and see the ‘Super Seven’. I didn’t have transportation at that time, so I didn’t see Ritchie play really until Randy Smith, and then when I was at Turner, he actually came and practiced with us. Fajri knows everybody. Ritchie was out of school at that time, and he came one Saturday morning. That was obviously the highlight for a lot of us at the time. Him and Trev (Trevor Ruffin), I got to play with him at the Boys Club. This is when he was in Junior College in Hawaii and then I played against him a couple of times when he was a pro, so I got to see what a pro player looked like. Coach Russell at Riverside knew basketball. He was a great historian. We went over his house on winter breaks. We got pizza and we’d be watching old clips of Cliff and Ritchie and everything. I don’t know if he was the head coach with Cliff, but I think he was on the staff.”

Tim Winn, Player, LaSalle Senior High School

“I remember Ritchie Campbell coming to Niagara Falls to play against Modie (Cox) in an All-Star game. That was the first time ever seeing him play. I was in awe because he was one of those rare talents that you never see come through your area. From that point it made me pay attention. I wondered, what else was happening in Buffalo? It made you start paying attention to things outside of your neighborhood. Modie was a pure point guard – a pure leader, and I thought Ritchie was the kind of player who could just do anything. I don’t think there wasn’t anything Ritchie couldn’t do as a basketball player. He could shoot and make it from half court, and his ability to get assists was just as effective.”

Other Yale Cup Phenoms I’d Heard About Only Through Their Legends

It’s worth noting that Ritchie is just one of many Yale Cup legends, many of which I didn’t learn about until after I was finished playing. I played against the above-mentioned Damien Foster and Jason Rowe. Trevor Ruffin, Jason Rowe’s “big brother” and mentor’s name came up in numerous discussions as well, and if I had time, I could arguably write a piece on him. He was one of the few Yale Cup players to make it to the NBA. The former Bennett Tiger did it by way of the University of Hawaii.

There was also Campbell’s backcourt mate Marcus “Ice Cream” Whitfield. I coincidentally met Marcus recently at a cigar lounge in Maryland. Buffalo is a small city so you can quickly distill out a person’s history when meeting them. He was surprised that I knew of his and Ritchie’s legend.

I had never heard of him (a recurring theme), but McKinley’s Ray Hall came up in a discussion with a former Niagara University “Purple Eagle” player named Greg. It was at a gym in northern Virginia. He wasn’t from Western New York, but Ray Hall made so much noise on the court at McKinley that the area college players heard his name regularly. There was also Bennett’s Curtis Aiken, and then later Cliff Robinson from Riverside. Mark Price was another Riverside alum who made lots of noise after I graduated from Hutch-Tech, and I think went to play at Siena. I describe others in my Yale Cup piece.

The Night I Saw And Met Ritchie Campbell

If you’ve never played a competitive sport, you might not understand why someone like Ritchie Campbell holds God-like status for me and others. In a way he’s kind of like a Benji Wilson-type of figure from Chicago’s Simeon Vocational High School in the early 1980s. That’s a very moving documentary and story if you ever get the chance to watch it by the way.

Unlike Benji Wilson, Ritchie Campbell is still amongst the living, and I saw him a couple of years ago. It was Saturday, November 24, 2018. I had just come from the Buffalo Wild Wings Restaurant on Niagara Falls Boulevard. There I watched my Michigan Wolverines lose once again to the Ohio State Buckeyes in a lopsided game 62-39, which we were favored to win.

Afterwards the Park School hosted the University College High School from Rochester. Carlos Bradberry’s son, Jalen, transferred to the Park School and started for them. That night he treated us to one of the nastiest dunks I’ve ever seen.

On this particular play he advanced the ball up the floor with only one Rochester kid to beat. The kid mischievously shook his head looking to stop Jalen from scoring as both converged on the basket. They both rose up to the basket. Jalen leapt up off one foot and authoritatively slammed the ball through the basket on the kid causing the entire gym to erupt. I looked down for a brief second, but still caught most of it.

The Legend Walks In

Bishop Timon’s Head Coach and Buffalo Traditional legend, Jason Rowe, was there in the crowd among others. Later in the game, Ritchie Campbell walked in. We had never met, but I recognized him immediately. He was a little older and graying just like all the guys in our age group. He wore a bit of a beard and athletic gear, a sweatshirt, and jeans, I think. I looked on in awe, and everyone greeted him like the royalty he was.

After pondering it, I approached him, gave him my card, and asked to interview him. He smiled and thanked me for the compliments I gave him. He probably got asked for interviews all the time. We never talked afterwards which wasn’t surprising. After all, who was this scientist from out of town wanting to interview him and claiming to write a book? I got to shake his hand though and acknowledge his legend.

Burgard’s Next Great Guard After Ritchie: A Biblical Prophet’s Namesake

My research for The Engineers, revealed that years before Ritchie Campbell and Marcus Whitfield teamed up at Burgard, there was another duo. My uncle Anthony “Tony” Harris teamed up with Eugene Roberson for the Bulldogs in the 1960s. Shortly after Ritchie Campbell finished at Burgard, there was a guard-big man duo who teamed up in the red, white and blue. They were No. 11 Jeremiah Wilkes and the 6’7” No. 55 Shareef Beecher.

The pair coincidentally ended my middle school basketball team’s season my eighth-grade year at Campus West in the “Gold Dome Tournament”. They also both joined the 1,000-point club in my final Yale Cup game at Burgard my senior year. I don’t know that Jeremiah got the notoriety that the other great Yale Cup guards got, but those of us from that era remember him and his game. I wanted to acknowledge him in this piece.

Ritchie Had That “Mike” In Him!

“I saw Ritchie for the first time when I was a freshman! There were a lot of talented kids in Buffalo who didn’t leave, like Ritchie!” In addition to our talks at SUNY Brockport, Ritchie’s name came up again in my interview with the above-mentioned Coach Samuel “Quinn” Coffey decades later for my book. He saw Campbell play when his Kensington Knights, coached by Bob Mitchell (see my Yale Cup piece) matched up with the Burgard Bulldogs in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“He (Ritchie) and Damon Rand had one of the best halves of basketball I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m going back to how they traded three-pointers back-to back-to back. Ritchie would come down and hit a three. Damon would come down and hit a three and get fouled,” Riverside’s Ed Harris said reflecting on witnessing Ritchie Campbell play for the first time. “It was literally high school basketball at its finest at that time and I was like, ‘I’m really in the right spot!’

“Ritchie had that ‘Mike’ in him because he could put that ball in the hoop. He definitely could put it in the hoop! My first time seeing him play was in the Pepsi Tournament when he had – it was him and the Pat dude – I can’t remember his name (Pat Jones). He threw the Pat dude an alley-oop and I was like, ‘OH!’”

Closing Thoughts On Ritchie Campbell’s Legend

Throughout this essay I hyperlinked Ritchie’s name to a feature from WGRZ in Buffalo which is still online. It goes into Ritchie’s entire story on and off the court. It also discusses the documentary that was made about him. In the feature it said that he had started coaching at one of the local high schools. In fact, when Ritchie walked into the game at the Park School, I recall one of my teammates from Hutch-Tech addressing him as “Coach”.

When I think of Ritchie Campbell, I think about a lot of things. In addition to not witnessing his brilliance as a basketball player, I think about the importance of studying your craft. No matter what you set out to do, it’s important to know the history of what you’re doing. In this instance if you want to be a basketball player, you must know the history of basketball. This applies beyond the basketball court though. It applies to business, music, politics, etc.

Studying your craft and knowing the history of it. It’s a theme that personally applied to my science training as my graduate advisor at the University of Michigan reminded me of it repeatedly. It’s also a key them in my book The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. Thank you for reading this piece. If you have memories of Ritchie Campbell or thoughts on anything I’ve said, please leave a comment under this essay.

More Related Content

Thank you for reading this piece. The images used in this essay came from an archive of Section VI basketball, carefully assembled over the years from issues of the Buffalo News. This archive was created by my first Coach at Hutch-Tech High School, Dr. Kenneth Leon Jones. Coach Jones was a mentor, a father figure, and is a central in my story. None of this would’ve been possible without him.

I intend to create more promotional/teaser pieces for The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story both via print and video as I journey through the final steps of the book’s completion. I created a page here on Big Words Authors for the purpose of giving a background of the book and grouping all the promotional narratives such as this in one place for interested readers. On my first blogging platform, the Big Words Blog Site, there are interviews with some the most accomplished Section VI players from my era including: Jason Rowe, Tim Winn, Carlos Bradberry and Damien Foster. I also interviewed legendary LaSalle Head Basketball Coach Pat Monti. Finally, there are several other basketball-related essays related to my book project. If you liked this piece, please share it on your social media and feel free to leave a comment.

The Big Words LLC Newsletter

For the next phase of my writing journey, I’m starting a monthly newsletter for my writing and video content creation company, the Big Words LLC. In it, I plan to share inspirational words, pieces from this blog and my first blog, and select videos from my four YouTube channels. Finally, I will share updates for my book project The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. Your personal information and privacy will be protected. Click this link and register using the sign-up button at the bottom of the announcement. Regards.