Still In The Game

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

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