Still In The Game

Cover: The Capital of Basketball
The Capital of Basketball
by John McNamara

The Capital of Basketball
John McNamara
Pg. xi – xiv

I attended my first high school basketball game just after I entered high school myself at St. John’s, a well‑ known private school that sits just off Rock Creek Park in upper northwest Washington. I was there mostly because of my father, though he was a casual sports fan at best. He thought it was important for my brother and me to get involved in some activities beyond the six‑ hour academic day itself, so we found ourselves one wintry night in the gymnasium at St. John’s to watch the Cadets play league rival Archbishop Carroll’s Lions.

I was 14 that year and already addicted to basketball. I closely followed the National Basketball Association (NBA), where the hometown Bullets went all the way to the finals in 1974– 75. The University of Maryland’s program was flourishing as well at the time, guided by the crafty, folksy Charles “Lefty” Driesell.

But seeing the game at the high school level was something different. If the play wasn’t as polished as it was in the colleges or the pros, it was exciting nonetheless. The St. John’s–Carroll game in person wasn’t like watching the Terrapins on television or sitting up in the far reaches of Capital Centre at an NBA game. Seeing the action up close, getting a real sense of the skill of the players on the floor—the way you can only at a high school game—got me hooked. I could hardly wait to go back.

And why not? For a dollar or two (back then), you could watch compelling, intense, athletic basketball from just an arm’s length away, played by young men not much older than I was but whose skills were worlds beyond my own. In terms of value for your entertainment dollar, I still believe you can’t beat a good high school basketball game.

And there was always a good game around. At the time, St. John’s played in the Metro Conference, then as now (today it’s the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference) one of the top prep basketball leagues anywhere. St. John’s big rival back then was DeMatha, which annually fields one of the top programs in the country. Other league schools such as Carroll, Gonzaga, Good Counsel, and Bishop O’Connell continue to send players to big‑ time colleges year after year.

At the time, the public school teams in the city, not to mention the surrounding suburbs, were no less accomplished. During the 1970s, teams from the Inter‑ High League (then DC’s public school league) finished No. 1 in the area for three straight years, with Dunbar going undefeated in 1975– 76 en route to the city title. In Maryland’s Montgomery County, where I grew up, high school teams won a dozen titles during the 1970s—a total county schools have failed to match in the 30‑plus years since. And in Northern Virginia, West Springfield reached the state tournament three straight years (1972, 1973, and 1974), and T. C. Williams brought home the ultimate prize—a state title and an undefeated season—in 1977. In short, it was an exciting time to be discovering the game.

As I was drawn deeper into the culture of local basketball, I grew more curious about its history. Comparison and tradition—two cornerstones of any fan’s worldview—require an appreciation of what has gone before, so I tried to learn as much as I could about the area’s great players and teams of yesteryear.

Washington’s collective basketball past seemed very close in those days. Two legendary coaches—Joe Gallagher at St. John’s and Morgan Wootten at DeMatha—were still prowling the sidelines when I first came aboard. At that point, Gallagher had been at it for 30 years; Wootten was moving toward 20. The two of them—old friends and rivals—combined to win more than 2,000 games, and their firsthand knowledge of area basketball stretched back before World War II.

John Thompson graduates from 
Providence College in 1964.
John Thompson graduates from
Providence College in 1964.

At that time, Bob Dwyer, the leader of the legendary Archbishop Carroll teams that won 55 straight games in the late 1950s, remained in coaching as well and taught fundamentals at tiny, exclusive St. Anselm’s. Dwyer had retreated from the spotlight but was still very much in the game. One of his best players at Carroll, the towering John Thompson, was just starting to make a name for himself at Georgetown University, where he was building the Hoyas into a national basketball power.

Talk of other figures from DC’s basketball past was all around me, or so it seemed. Elgin Baylor, the best player the city ever produced, had just retired from a brilliant NBA playing career to take up coaching. Dave Bing, another local legend, was winding down his professional career but took a brief turn during the mid‑1970s as a member of the hometown Bullets.

After St. John’s, I moved on to the University of Maryland to study journalism. There, my education in basketball and other disciplines—continued. I attended the odd high school game for my own amusement. I also sought out local players who would someday play at Maryland and wrote about them for the student newspaper, The Diamondback. I kept following the game, and the game kept following me.

I still remember one brutally cold day in early 1982 when I trudged through snow piled up along Adelphi Road to Northwestern High School, about a mile from Maryland’s campus. There, in the school’s library, an extremely tall, exceptionally shy young man named Len Bias announced that he would play his college basketball at Maryland. A little more than four years later, after a star-studded college career that earned him All‑ America honors and made him the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft, Bias was dead of heart failure, the result of a late night cocaine binge.

His death rocked pro and college basketball, not to mention society at large. Nowhere was his loss felt more acutely than in Prince George’s County, Maryland, among the people who’d nurtured him and watched him grow up. Years later, the mere mention of his name still prompts people to speak in reverent tones about how great he was and what he might have become.

After Maryland, I moved on to my first professional job at the Morning Herald in Hagerstown, Maryland, about 70 miles northwest of Washington. At the Herald, the bulk of my responsibilities involved covering high school sports. It was quite a culture shock, basketball‑ wise. While western Maryland has much to recommend it, the caliber of high school basketball was, in general, a good deal below what I was used to.

But I still followed DC basketball from there. One time I was assigned to cover a big tournament locally, one that featured top teams from Baltimore and Washington. I got to see St. John’s, which then featured Clemson‑bound point guard Grayson Marshall, go up against Cardinal Gibbons High School of Baltimore that also boasted a number of Division I– level ballplayers. St. John’s won the game— 90– 80, I think it was—in an action‑ packed display that would have impressed even the uninitiated. Afterward, someone came up to me and remarked, “I’ve never seen high school basketball like that!” I smiled wistfully and replied, “I used to watch it twice a week back home.”

I returned to the metro area before long. After a brief flirtation with the news side of newspapers—a lapse in judgment, I grant you—I went back to sports, working for the now‑ defunct Journal newspaper in Prince George’s County. There, I was once again immersed in the DC high school basketball scene, covering DeMatha along with some of the top public schools’ teams in the area during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

My developing friendship with Morgan Wootten, already a legend, got me thinking once again about the area’s basketball history and how there might be a book in there somewhere. It was the sort of idea one adopts for a brief time and then sets aside, putting it in that mental drawer marked “Things I’ll Get to Someday.” I had thought about writing such a book several times in the intervening years. But the realization that the project shouldn’t be put off any longer didn’t come until more than a decade later, after I’d switched newspapers again—this time to the Capital in Annapolis, Maryland—and had grown a bit removed from the local basketball scene.

When Dwyer, the former Carroll coach, passed away in 2007, I figured I had missed my chance. After all, you can’t write about the history of local basketball without the coach of the best team the city ever produced.

That’s when my wife spoke up. While I bemoaned the opportunity missed, she saw Dwyer’s passing as a call to action. “Look, you’ve got to talk to Morgan Wootten and Joe Gallagher and all the rest of the old‑ timers now!” she insisted. “It doesn’t matter when you write the book; you have to get their stories written down, while they’re still here.” She had a point. At the time, Gallagher was in his 80s and Wootten was in his 70s.

Between the two of them, they had coached more than 90 seasons and had seen everyone and everything in area high school basketball during the previous 60 years. Gallagher, it was said, held the ladder when James Naismith first hung those peach baskets on the wall and invented the game back in 1891. Wootten, meanwhile, was simply the best there ever was in his chosen profession. Even University of California, Los Angeles, coaching icon John Wooden had said so.

The stories that Gallagher and Wootten—and others—shared with me were invaluable. Irreplaceable, really. When it comes to high school basketball, oral history is just about all we have.

The scoring wizardry of Baylor as a teenager or the grit of his one‑ armed contemporary, Armstrong’s Gary Mays (a story in himself), exists only in the minds of those who saw them in person or in faded newspaper clippings. DeMatha’s landmark victory over Lew Alcindor (now known as Kareem Abdul‑ Jabbar) and Power Memorial Academy of New York City in 1965 can’t be found on ESPN or even ESPN Classic. The all‑ sports network didn’t even exist back then. Nobody could put the highlights on YouTube either.

All that’s left are the stories. So I set out to find these stories and the people who could tell them to chronicle the great teams and great players of my home turf.

When I started this undertaking, I thought I knew a lot about DC high school basketball. But there was much I learned, even though I’d spent almost my whole life in the area and close to the game. The journey has been a rewarding one. I am indebted to those whose voices appear herein. Their tales enriched me and this narrative immeasurably. Watching, playing, discussing, and thinking about basketball has consumed much of my life for the last 40‑plus years. After all this time, I’m pleased to say that I’m still in the game.

June 2018

The Capital of Basketball is out in time for holiday giving — order now!

QSR codes to Order! Read about events

Order The Capital of Basketball here, or at Amazon here.

Cover: The Capital of BasketballTHE CAPITAL OF BASKETBALL

A History of DC Area High School Hoops
John McNamara, with Andrea Chamblee and David Elfin
Foreword by Coach Gary Williams

The celebration of Washington, D.C. basketball is long overdue. D.C. metro area stands second to none in its contributions to the game. Countless figures who have had a significant impact on the sport over the years have roots in the region, including E.B. Henderson, the first African-American certified to teach physical education in public schools in the United States, and Earl Lloyd, the first African-American to take the court in an actual NBA game. The city’s Spingarn High School produced two players – Elgin Baylor and Dave Bing – that are recognized among the NBA’s 50 greatest at the League’s 50th anniversary celebration. No other high school in the country can make that claim.
These figures and many others are chronicled in this book, the first-ever comprehensive look at the great high school players, teams and coaches in the D.C. metropolitan area.
Based on more than 150 interviews, The Capital of Basketball is first and foremost a book about basketball. But in discussing the trends and evolution of the game, McNamara also uncovers the turmoil in the lives of the players and area residents as they dealt with issues such as prejudice, educational inequities, politics, and the ways the area has changed through the years.

John McNamara (@CapitalofBBall) was a staff writer for the Annapolis Capital newspaper. He earned a degree in Journalism from the University of Maryland and spent over 30 years covering local, college, and professional sports. He won several awards from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association for his writing. McNamara was one of five employees of the Annapolis Capital who were gunned down in a mass shooting at the newspaper on June 28, 2018. He was 56 years old.

Andrea Chamblee (@AndreaChamblee), John McNamara’s widow, covered high school basketball for her community paper and attended more than 500 college and high school games in the D.C. metro area often with her husband, the best play by play man she ever met. She has barked from the stands for a switch from zone to back to man-to-man, much to his dismay.

David Elfin (@David Elfin) who has called D.C. home since 1965, has covered local sports for most of the last four decades while writing seven books on Washington sports and serving on the D.C. Sports Hall of Fame selection committee.

Preorder The Capital of Basketball here.

312 pp., 7 x 10
ISBN: 9781626167209 (1626167206)

November 2019
LC: 2019004745


John McNamara ’83 Endowed Sports Journalism Scholarship

Please donate to the John McNamara ’83 Endowed Sports Journalism Scholarship

John McNamara’s special talent for sports journalism was his ability to expose the dedication, hard work, heartbreak, sacrifices, faults, delights, personalities, strategies, tactics, and intricacies in each player, contest and season.  He performed the homework needed to provide historical context for these stories. He wrote without pretension or condescension, telling stories that were accessible and informative to new and established fans and readers alike.

To continue John’s devotion to Sports Journalism, to allow others to learn from John and his work, to develop and reward writers who demonstrate potential for producing accessible and informative sports journalism, to provide opportunity for talented students who may carry on John’s legacy, and to show our devotion to John, we have created the John McNamara ’83 Endowed Sports Journalism Scholarship at the University of Maryland.

For more information, see the Capital Gazette article, University of Maryland establishes scholarship in honor of John McNamara at and the UMD page at

John at NCAA desk

JOHN McNAMARA: Killed in Mass Shooting at the Annapolis Capital Gazette Newspapers . . . July 30, 1961 ~ June 28, 201

John at NCAA desk
JOHN McNAMARA, author of this blog
July 30, 1961 ~ June 28, 2018

By Doug Dull


John McNamara was devoted to his family, his friends, his alma maters – Maryland and St. John’s College High School – his craft of journalism, his Maryland Terrapins and the sports he loved to chronicle, watch and play.

His passing is heart-wrenching. His life was devoted to making all of us better – more informed, happier, enthusiastic and loved.

John grew up in Bethesda in a family full of the quintessential Irish Catholic diversity: avid readers, writers, artists, bookworms, musicians, singers, tellers of tales, church volunteers, and booklovers. He loved softball on the grassy knoll in front of his house, and basketball wherever he found it. He joined his adopted family of area journalists and sports writers at his high school paper, then as a Washington Post intern, and at the University of Maryland Diamondback. On graduation from the University of MD, he worked with fellow Terrapins and colleagues in his first full-time job as a sports writer at the Hagerstown Herald-Mail in the early 1980s. Herald colleague and fellow sports fan Doug Dull’s first notice of his hiring was a phone call during which he suggested to Dull that they become roommates. That would require Dull to purchase a television, move out of his parents’ house and find an apartment. There was to be no discussion.

That first year, when the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament arrived, their shared refrigerator bore witness to the event. There were no less than three brackets to be completed and monitored. One filled in before the tournament as in a normal office pool, a second to be filled in each day reflecting the ebbs and flows of the previous games, and a third with some wild permutation of mathematics that they understood then, but is lost in some basketball algebraic equation somewhere. The configuration generously provided three ways for Dull to be soundly trounced by his roommate’s superior basketball knowledge.

McNamara was just warming up for his responsibility as a voter on the Associated Press national basketball poll – giving him the chance to watch more hoops and enhance their shared enjoyment of the sport based on his homework, analysis and experience.

McNamara would hate this metaphor – being a traditionalist – but he was Twitter before the Internet was even invented. “Mac” was the guy in the media room, the restaurant or on the phone who would dazzle with bursts of knowledge, of commentary or humor that were always thoughtful… most often needing 10 words or less of sheer lightning to make his point.

 He was just a good guy – in the most affectionate and powerful sense of that term. We had a great role model in being a good guy in Darrell Kepler, the now departed sports editor at the Hagerstown Morning-Herald. Guys stuck together, weren’t pretentious, were observant, loved sports, beer and each other.

 His friends have a picture in their collective mind’s eye of the Johnny Mac and Darrell Kepler playing pickup basketball on a raggedy court in Heaven – Darrell making a thick drive inside to the basket and John bombing 3-pointers from the outside with that sweet left-handed stroke.

Just guys… Good guys. 

 McNamara wrote two books about Maryland athletics – joining his fellow Diamondback alumnus David Elfin on “Cole Classics,” a memory of the best early times in Terrapin basketball;, and on the Maryland Football Vault, literally a vault combining his knack for story-telling and for research that was a history lesson on Terrapin football.

 To be John’s friend was an honor that knew complete honesty and loyalty, through good times and bad. He was the person you’d call to share joyous moments – he reached out to Dull recently when the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup, ending the 44 years of struggle and he knew how much it meant to his friend.

 And he was the person who received the call when a dear friend had a life-threatening medical situation a year ago. He and his wife Andrea were there in a flash, as the rock they were when times were difficult. Ever the basketball writer, though, his friend readily believes but doesn’t remember the one day when John came in and was animated when he told his groggy friend all from memory the highlights of the previous night’s games, despite his friend’s inability to speak or move while in intensive care.

 The devotion he lived most was for his wife. His friends say they never thought, called or wanted to be with John. It was always, where and when can we be with John and Andrea.

 The solo photos of John were always good. But the smile on his face, and in his eyes, got much brighter when they were at the beach, the theatre, on a trip… when he was next to Andrea. The love they had together spilled over and made those they brought close so much richer and warmer.

 There is great solace in knowing that he worked well, played well and loved well. As we think of John in the coming days, months and years, may we all live like that: With love, loyalty, laughter, kindness and thoughtfulness.

And with devotion.

The Memorial Service is scheduled for July 10 at 10 am at the University of Maryland Memorial Chapel, 7600 Baltimore Ave, College Park, MD 20740.

(Photo credit: Katherine Frye, The Washington Post)

Published in The Washington Post on July 8, 2018