Grand Canyon celebrates its 1978 national championship. Courtesy of Grand Canyon University.
Grand Canyon celebrates its 1978 national championship. Courtesy of Grand Canyon University.

Want more news from Southwest and Southside? Sign up for our free email newsletter.

Bill Price might never have left Martinsville for Grand Canyon University had he not had all the answers in a sixth-grade math class.

Bill Price. Photo by Robert Anderson.
Bill Price. Photo by Robert Anderson.

Well before he wore a Martinsville High basketball uniform and helped the Bulldogs to the 1976 VHSL Group AA state championship, Price was a confident youngster at Patrick Henry Elementary School.

“I was one of those students that wanted everybody to know I was smart in math,” Price recalled. “I’d raise my hand and answer every question. Then the teacher would say, ‘Price, give somebody else a chance.’ No one would raise their hand. I’d raise my hand and he wouldn’t call me, and I’d blurt out the answer. 

“So I did that about three times, and he had me stand behind the door. He put a circle on the door and said, ‘Put your nose there,’ and he taped me like a mummy.”

 Price’s aunt, Mildred Jones, took the ball from there.

“Kids were laughing at me so I ran home and told my grandmother,” he said. “My aunt came over to the school and said, ‘Oh, you’re not going to stunt his growth.’ At that time she said, ‘You’re not going to go to [college] around here. I’ve got a school for you, Grand Canyon.'”

By the time Price got to Phoenix, he had risen to a height of 6 feet, 6 inches with basketball skills good enough to earn a scholarship to the small but growing school in Arizona.

Two years later, the former Martinsville standout was a reserve forward on the Grand Canyon team that won the 1978 NAIA championship by sweeping five games in six days at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri.

Price, now 64, still lives in Martinsville, but how many people in town outside the Mordecai-Travis Barber Shop on Fayette Street realize that the big left-hander not only has a state championship but a college basketball national title on his resume?

The Martinsville state championship team. Price is No. 21. Courtesy of Martinsville HIgh School.
The Martinsville state championship team. Price is No. 21. Courtesy of Martinsville HIgh School.

He toiled in anonymity during his junior season at Martinsville playing for VHSL Hall of Fame coach Husky Hall. Entering his senior year, Price got a big break. The school’s football team won the Group AA state championship and several players, including stars Keith Burgess, Dennis Mahan and Johnny Taylor, were late arrivals to the basketball lineup.

He grabbed a starting job and held it through the state tournament, which ended with a 61-53 victory over John Yeates High of Suffolk.

Noted for rebounding and defense but not for his scoring prowess, Price was an honorable mention selection on the Piedmont District squad behind teammate and star point guard Tim Grant.

Grant signed with Winston-Salem State and college basketball coaching legend Clarence “Big House” Gaines, but Price was not invited along for the full ride.

“Coach Hall tried to get a package deal for me and Tim,” Price said. “Coach Gaines said, ‘I can take Tim, but I don’t need a forward.’ He had recruited Carlos Terry, who was a [future NBA player], so I understood that.”

Price had a lone scholarship offer from Elon, then an NAIA program across the border near Burlington, North Carolina. His recruiting visit ended before he ever stepped on campus.

“They put me in a Holiday Inn on a Friday night,” Price said. “I didn’t see anyone else until Sunday, time to go. They left me in the hotel the whole time. I remember calling pizza [takeout] all weekend.

“I was just a country boy. I didn’t know where to go. I was just happy to be there. My sister at the time was [enrolled] at Johnson C. Smith. She said, ‘You’re not going to school here. Let’s go home.'”

With no other option, Price did the math. He remembered his aunt’s pledge to him about going to college at Grand Canyon, a private, for-profit Christian school that opened in 1949.

Price just had to convince head coach Ben Lindsey that he could play ball.

“I drove out for the summer, but when I got there the coach was on vacation,” he said. “Again, I’m a little country boy so I came back home. When the coach got back he called me and said, ‘Come on back out. If you make the team, you’ve got a scholarship.’ “

Grand Canyon was not unknown in the basketball world when Price matriculated.

The program won the 1975 NAIA championship led by 6-foot-10 center Bayard Forrest, who was a backup center in the NBA for two seasons with the Phoenix Suns.

Lindsey might be known for an ill-fated 4-24 season in 1982-83 in his only year as the head coach at the University of Arizona — replaced by Lute Olson — but the young coach had Grand Canyon’s program rolling.

In Lindsey’s final eight seasons, Grand Canyon made the NAIA tournament seven times with two national titles. Grand Canyon added a third NAIA championship in 1988.

The Grand Canyon team. Courtesy of Grand Canyon University.
The Grand Canyon team. Price is #44, in the back row. Courtesy of Grand Canyon University.

The NAIA tournament in Kansas City was the toughest test in basketball. All 32 teams were in town, and the format required eight games to be played each of the first three days with the opener each morning at 9 a.m.

Grand Canyon defeated Cumberland, of Kentucky, 70-64 in the first round, followed by an 80-67 victory over Hawaii-Hilo in the second round. Accommodations for the tournament were such that teams shared the same hotels and shuttle rides to the arena.

Grand Canyon’s team and players from Hawaii-Hilo were on the same bus when Price’s teammate Willie Polk began needling him about how opponents were going to dunk on the 6-foot-6 Martinsville native during the game.

“Willie was always getting us hyped up. I was somewhat like the enforcer,” Price said. “I said to those Hawaii guys, ‘You go up to dunk on me, I’m going to foul you hard. All of you, you come to the hole, I’m going to take you out.’ We won the game before tipoff.”

It took longer to win the quarterfinal.

Grand Canyon, seeded second, needed five overtimes to outlast Central State of Ohio, earning a semifinal against East Texas State, which fell 76-69.

That set up the championship game against Nebraska’s Kearney State, which had eliminated No. 1 seed Winston-Salem State in the quarterfinals. That’s the same Winston-Salem State that did not offer Price a package deal out of high school with his Martinsville teammate, Grant.

“That was like sweet revenge,” Price said.

Grand Canyon claimed the championship with a 79-75 win over Kearney with Price sinking three of four free throws in the final minute.

Price cracked Grand Canyon’s starting lineup in his final two years, finishing with career averages of 7.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. More than 40 years after he graduated, he still ranks fourth on the school’s career rebound list with 864.

“My job was defense,” he said. “Whichever big man scored, I shut him down and got all the rebounds. I could jump and I loved to rebound. My weakest point was dribbling. Couldn’t create my own shot.” 

Price played briefly in the Philippines after graduation, but his family’s insistence on education burned in his psyche. Neither of his grandparents advanced beyond elementary school. He was not about to follow suit.

At a younger age, Price worked in a factory at Martinsville’s American Furniture Co. He made a quick fast break out the door.

“I worked in that furniture factory for four hours,” he said. “It was so hot I said, ‘I can’t do this.’ My grandfather worked there all his life. With my grandparents, it was get a job, go to the military or go to school. I said, ‘I can’t do manual labor. I’ve got to go to school.’

“Without playing ball, after high school it was over for a lot of folks. I just knew I wanted more than that.”

Price graduated from Grand Canyon with bachelor’s degrees in behavioral science and environmental science. He holds a master’s degree in special education from GCU.

His first job out of college was as a corrections officer in Phoenix. He moved to the Atlanta area, where he was a probation officer until 2009, when he returned to Martinsville to help tend to his ailing mother.

Price originally planned to take a job as a special education teacher in the Martinsville school system.

“Once you teach them and see the success the have, the way they look at you they look forward to the accomplishment of doing something,” Price said of his work with special-needs juveniles.

“So many kids would gravitate to me, it made me feel good. I remember teaching this guy to tie his shoe. I thought, ‘I did something that will help this guy the rest of his life.'”

Price did not enter the school system. Instead, he works as a casework counselor at Green Rock Correctional Center in Chatham, a facility that can house more than 1,000 male inmates.

“You’ve got lifers there. You’ve got the whole gamut,” he said. “My job is to prepare them for reentry into the community.

“Some guys have been incarcerated before cellphones, before faxes. They say, ‘Mr. Price, I can’t do this. I’m getting released but I don’t want to go.’ It’s rewarding but these grown men, some of them still have the mentality of a kid.”

Price has an opportunity to relive his youth this weekend.

Grand Canyon, which now has 20,000 students on its Phoenix campus and another 70,000 online, moved its athletics program up to NCAA Division I in 2017. Friday in Denver, the Antelopes play in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament for the second time with an opening-round game against perennial contender Gonzaga.

“Gonzaga. You think eventually they’re going to win the national championship,” Price said. “Grand Canyon is always exciting. They always seem to have some scorers. I’m pulling for the Lopes.”

 What are the odds of a Grand Canyon victory?

Maybe as long as the trip Price made from Martinsville to Arizona.

He is smart enough to know he had plenty of help along the way, even in that sixth-grade math class.

Hey, this mummy is no dummy.

“That teacher did me a blessing,” he said. “I didn’t think that at the time, but it was a blessing.”

Robert Anderson worked for 44 years in Virginia as a sports writer, most recently as the high school...