When you hear the stories about Gary Mays, a multisport star at the long-closed Armstrong High School, it’s easy to dismiss what you’ve heard.
There’s couldn’t really have been a one-armed high school basketball player who was also the best catcher in the city. It’s got to be an urban legend.
Mays was a legend, all right. But the tales you’ve heard about him are absolutely, 100 percent true.
Mays, 82, passed away last week. He’d been living in Temple Hills for a while and his health hadn’t been good in recent years.
As a high school basketball player, he’s best remembered for the night he limited the great Elgin Baylor to 19 points in a game. It was the lone game in Baylor’s senior year the future NBA Hall of Famer finished with less than 20.
After watching Baylor torch his team twice in the regular season, Armstrong coach Charles Baltimore came up with a different strategy for the playoffs in the Interhigh’s Division II (where the segregated schools played).
Baltimore employed a box-and-one defense against Baylor that night, using senior captain Gary Mays to shadow the city’s best player. Mays’ only job was to stick close to Baylor, to make it as difficult as possible for him to get free. Help would come from the other Armstrong players when Baylor came into their area, but the primary responsibility rested with Mays.
“Coach said, ‘I got a job for you,’ ” Mays recalled. “If he (Baylor) goes into the bathroom, I want you to follow him.’ ”
Much has been made over the years over Mays’ performance that night, although Mays himself always tried to downplay it. For the record, he scored 12 points himself, including the clinching free throws in Armstrong’s three-point victory.
“I didn’t stop Elgin,” he’d say. “Elgin stopped himself.”
Ultimately, whether Gary Mays was the main reason Baylor scored “just” 19 points that night is immaterial. Mays was an incredible story in his own right, no matter what happened on the night in question. Since the age of five, when he was hit by the accidental discharge of some shotgun pellets, Mays had been without all but a few inches of his left arm – “my nub,” he called it affectionately. In time, he became known as “The One-Armed Bandit,” or just plain “Bandit.”
As difficult as it is to believe, the lack of a left arm hardly hindered Mays at all. Not on the basketball court, where learned to cope with his particular challenge. Or on the baseball field, where he was generally acknowledged as the best catcher in the city.
“Can’t isn’t in my vocabulary,” Mays once said.
He had a hell of a time convincing some folks, though. He practiced on his own as a youth because no one chose him for pickup games. Willie Jones, and up-and-coming star at Dunbar in the mid-1950s, remembered spotting Mays on the playground one day and noticing his shoelace was untied.
“Here, let me get that for you,” Jones said, bending over to help.
WHAP! Mays whacked Jones on the top of the head with his damaged limb, shouting, “I can tie my own shoes! If I need your help, I’ll ask for it!”
He didn’t need anyone’s help and he didn’t want anyone’s pity. He was, pure and simple, a player – a tenacious defender and an occasional scorer. He was too quick and too clever to be overplayed to one side, despite his handicap. No matter what, Mays always got where he wanted to go on the basketball floor.
“You were wasting your time overplaying him,” Jones recalled. “He was that good with it.”
After his high school career, Mays was even approached about joining up with the Harlem Globetrotters, but the idea held no appeal.
“I didn’t like the clowning part of it,” he said. “If you’ve got only one arm, you’re a freak show, anyway.”
No, Mays wanted to play it straight, the same as everyone else. He always felt he could have played professional baseball, but never got the chance. Remember, this was a good 30 years before Jim Abbott became a one-armed pitching sensation in the big leagues.
Mays was no less nimble behind the plate than he was on the basketball floor. He’d receive the ball, flip off his glove, and pluck the ball out of mid-air. Then he’d whip it down to second base in a flash. After a while, baserunners simply stopped trying to steal on him.
“They didn’t want to be embarrassed,” Mays said.
He could hit, too. He batted .675 one year in American Legion baseball. He homered and threw out everyone who tried to run on him during a special tryout at old Griffith Stadium. But he didn’t even get a nibble from the scouts that were on hand – even though he was chosen as the event’s outstanding player.
Mays continued to play sandlot ball and in adult leagues, but never got the big break he longed for.
“Everyone expected me to make the majors and I did everything in my heart to make it,” he said. “But I could never get anybody to believe in me.”