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Big Stone Gap's Kilbourne an athlete and influencer

Tanner Cook • Jun 20, 2020 at 10:45 AM

Athletes have been coming out of Big Stone Gap for generations, but perhaps one of the first stars to hail from the Wise County town was Robert Kilbourne.

A star in three sports at old Big Stone Gap High, Kilbourne led the Buccaneers to the VHSL Class B playoffs in 1936 and a Wise County basketball tournament championship game in 1937.

However, Kilbourne’s biggest accomplishments came later in life. He amassed over 1,600 career points playing first for Hiwassee Junior College and later Emory & Henry and went on to play a role in the career of a Petersburg star who became an all-time NBA great.


Big Stone Gap won the first football game ever played in Wise County — beating rival East Stone Gap 6-0 on Oct. 20, 1923 — and was considered one of the county’s finest football schools from then on.

Robert and younger brother Eddie were instrumental in Big Stone Gap’s 32-7 Class B state semifinal victory over Radford at Bullitt Park. Robert contributed three big plays in the win, including a 60-yard punt return for a score and an interception return for a touchdown that sealed the game in the fourth quarter.

The Bucs ended the season on a sour note, though, losing to Fredricksburg 41-19 in the next round.


The Bucs did not dominate Wise County on the basketball court like they did on the football field, however.

In his senior season, the Bucs made a rare appearance in the county tournament finals but had to face a Flat Gap team in the middle of its 100-game winning streak.

Big Stone fought to the end, but the Hurricanes prevailed 27-26. Kilbourne had a hard time guarding Flat Gap’s Raleigh Bolling, who scored 19 points in the game.

Kilbourne made the all-tournament team after racking up 40 points over three games.


Upon graduation in 1937, Kilbourne enlisted in the Army and served for one year.

The following fall, he enrolled at Hiwassee Junior College and quickly became a star. He excelled in basketball especially, piling up 737 points for the Tigers.

After spending his first two years at Hiwassee, he returned to his native Southwest Virginia on a football scholarship at Emory & Henry.

On the basketball court, the Wasps had success but suffered losses against much larger schools. Kilbourne provided a bright spot by leading the state in scoring, piling up 453 points in the 1940-41 season.

He broke his own state scoring record from the previous year his senior season when he racked up 467 points.

Kilbourne was a second-team all-state pick in 1941 and a first-team all-state selection in 1942. The honorary teams in those days encompassed all of the commonwealth’s colleges regardless of size.

His career high at E&H was 43 points, a school record at the time.

Kilbourne finished his Wasps career with 1,657 points against all comers, including professional and local YMCA teams. Against strictly collegiate competition, he totaled 1,518 points.


One of Kilbourne’s first coaching jobs after college was at Appalachia. In 1942, he led a football team coming off back-to-back Class B championships to a 7-1-1 record.

He was also tasked with coaching boys and girls basketball at the school. The boys went 7-5 his first year and the girls finished unbeaten at 12-0.

The following year, Kilbourne moved to Richmond to take an assistant coaching position at Thomas Jefferson High under legendary coach Spud Bloxom. Kilbourne also served as an assistant coach for the football team — which won the 1943 state title — and as the head track coach.

In the spring of 1944, he led “Teejay” to a runner-up finish in the Class AAA outdoor track meet, falling by one point to Newport News.

Once the academic year ended, Kilbourne packed up his bags and headed for Petersburg to take charge of that school’s boys basketball program.


Kilbourne took over a program that had seen its fair share of ups and downs and built it from the ground up. In his final season, he guided the Crimson Wave to the school’s first district tournament title in 30 years.

Kilbourne was a basketball coach for 26 years and compiled a 268-209 record. He was named the Central District coach of the year in 1969 and 1970 and garnered the VHSCA Outstanding Service Award in 1970.

“The first year was the hardest,” Kilbourne told the Petersburg Progress-Index in a 1975 interview. “Nine of the 11 guys were back the next year. I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I didn’t say I wondered what they would do in my offense or defense. That’s not cutting anybody. It’s only natural. Once those kids moved along, it eased the pain. I think this job made it a whole lot easier.”

He stepped aside after the 1970 season and was asked to oversee the consolidation of old Petersburg Senior and Peabody High.

Kilbourne took on the role of athletic director for the 1970-71 school year — and got a lot more than he could have ever thought to ask for.


The late Moses Malone was a force from the start of his Petersburg career.

“Big Mo” led the Crimson Wave to back-to-back Class AAA championships, in 1973 and 1974. During that time, Petersburg had a 50-game winning streak behind the scoring and rebounding machine that was Malone, who averaged 35.8 points and 25 rebounds his senior year.

Malone and Kilbourne were close, and Kilbourne acted as Malone’s public relations guy on his journey straight to the professional ranks in 1974. But the AD initially was not in favor of Malone’s decision.

“If he had played one season at Maryland, he could have gotten three or four times more (money),” Kilbourne said in a 1974 interview with The Associated Press. “The ABA is on shaky grounds financially. If the league folds, he’s out of luck.”

The Utah Stars selected Malone in the ABA draft. The ABA merged with the NBA in 1976, and Malone went on to become one of the NBA’s all-time greatest players during stints with Houston, Philadelphia, Washington and Atlanta. He became a 13-time All-Star and won the 1983 NBA championship with the 76ers.

In 1998, the three-time league MVP was named one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players and he was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001. Malone died in 2015 at age 60.

“People called me all the time,” Kilbourne said in the 1975 interview. “I try not to slam the door in anybody’s face, but some of the writers were not fair. I know some of them have to dig. The only thing I dislike was (Malone) being misquoted. Things didn’t always come out in print the way we said them.”

Malone was offered by numerous colleges, including Lefty Driesell’s Maryland squad, but he ultimately signed a pro contract worth over $3 million.

“Several of our teachers volunteered to work with him,” Kilbourne said. “An English teacher worked with him during study hall. We wanted him to be as polished as possible.”

Kilbourne also guided former NBA player Mark West to great heights at Petersburg before retiring in 1980.


Kilbourne, who died in 1997 at age 79, was one of the charter members of the Emory & Henry Hall of Fame in 1972, a 1997 inductee into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame and a 2015 inductee into the Petersburg Sports Hall of Fame.

He is remembered as one of the finest gentlemen to ever serve the field of sports in Virginia.

“I had the privilege of coaching a few of Coach Kilbourne’s high school players as they matriculated to VSU,” longtime Virginia State coach Harold A. Deane said in an interview. “I must definitely present the fact that these young men had already been exposed to discipline, respect for others and they were fundamentally sound. They played with attitude, academics and athletics in the proper perspective.”

Sources: Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, Emory & Henry College Sports Hall of Fame, Petersburg Progress-Index, Big Stone Gap Post, Bristol Herald Courier, Richmond Times-Dispatch, www.fourseasonsfootball.com, Lonesome Pine Heritage Center.

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