Still In The Game

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

The Capital of Basketball
John McNamara
Preface
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

Tribute to My Father

Father’s Day—June 16, 2016

This will be my first Father’s Day without my father. He passed away on April 2. I think about him every day, but the memories of him are especially strong on this day, Father’s Day. If your father is gone, you should think about him today. If he’s still here, you should call him. Here are some thoughts I had following my father’s funeral mass.

It’s almost expected that somebody will talk about how the deceased would have loved to see everybody here today.

But I’m here to tell you that my dad would have hated this!

If ever there was a guy who never wanted a fuss made over him, it was my dad.

And why would anyone make a fuss over him? He wasn’t one of Washington’s elite. Not famous or wealthy.

Yet to those of us who grew up in a yellow house with a green roof on a street called Bulls Run, there was nobody more important. And, because we stood on his shoulders, we could see the whole world.

Tom McNamara

That’s because he gave the best gift of all – he wanted our worlds to be big. He wanted us to have choices. So he pushed us to be curious, to pursue our interests, to experience the wide variety that life had to offer.

So to help us, he indulged our interests, taking me to ballgames, going on Charlie’s Cub Scout hikes, accompanying Jane on her high school ski trip. He had things he’d probably rather be doing, like reading, or tending to the garden, or reading.

But he sought to expand our horizons, always volunteering to take us out to lunch if we’d come down to the Air & Space Museum, which was right across from his office in H.E.W.

He sought to make his own world bigger. He grew up in Brooklyn, of course, surrounded by men who thought nothing of stopping by the local pub on the way home from work, and who arrived home with sore backs and calloused hands. These were men who made their living with their bodies, rather than their minds. Men whose world was contained by the Brooklyn Bridge at one end and the Verrazano at the other.

I didn’t find out until just recently that these men in his life didn’t think much of his academic pursuits; they thought his hunger to go out into the world and find out what was there was silly.

But, as he always did, he went about his business in his own quiet way, never minding what the rest of the world was doing.

Tom McNamara Graduating Class Niagara 1952
Tom McNamara Graduating class Niagara 1952

I remember one summer when I was 11 or 12, he grew concerned that we were all watching too much television, that our brains were turning to mush during those 10 weeks of blissful, idle summer. So, he made us sit at the table after dinner and listen as he read aloud a chapter of Tom Sawyer every night.

How staid! How quaint! How old-fashioned!

But the gesture and what is said about the man stays with me to this day. Even now, as I was past a freshly painted fence, I think – not of Tom Sawyer – but of Tom McNamara.

He was always looking out for us, one way or the other. He tried to stoke our interests, he ate the leftovers, he watched his shows on black and white TV so the kids could watch their shows in color, and he kept everything on course with his strong, steady hand.

He had a house, a mortgage, a wife and a government salary. He also had seven children, four bedrooms, 1 1/2 half baths and one telephone. I don’t know how he managed.

And if, to those outside the family – and occasionally inside it – he appeared a bit too staid, a bit too cautious, I could see why. If he let his guard down for a moment, if he turned his back, the inmates would have been running the asylum. And the reason I know that, ladies and gentlemen, is because I would have been the ringleader!

I don’t know where he found the unending reserve of selflessness that he possessed. As long as I knew him, he never asked, “When do I get what want?” It simply wasn’t in him.

At some level, I think – I hope – he understood the good work that he was doing, and seeing us succeed made him happy. I remember one schoolnight in high school, I was up late doing my homework at the kitchen table. It was nearly 11 pm and dad was sweeping the floor, while mom was cleaning up in the kitchen. Suddenly, the phone rang – odd, because it was so late. Mom grabbed it, and got an ashen look on her face.

She held the phone away from her, toward my father and said: “It’s a long-distance call for you from Stockholm!”

Dad paused for a minute, gently put the broom down, hitched up his pants and announced happily:

“I must have won the Nobel Prize!”

He didn’t, but he should have. Several times.

I just always remember him doing for us. There was one New Year’s Eve when I was in college; I’d moved out of the house by then, but came home to borrow the car. I was headed out to a highbrow Potomac party – jackets, ties, roving bartenders, fresh shrimp, the whole works. It was probably the kind of party my father never attended in his life. Needless to say, I thought I was pretty hot stuff, getting to go to a soiree like this.

Even though I was 21 or 22 by then, he made me promise I’d call him when I got back to my apartment. “I’ll be up,” he said. Remembering my promise, I called him when I got home, to let him know I was OK.

What are you doing, I asked him. “Oh, just going over the budget. I’m drinking the last of the champagne so it doesn’t go to waste.”

It took me a while to realize it, but – like so many of the lessons he gave us – I got it eventually. At some point, I came to realize that being someone special wasn’t about parties or invitations on New Year’s Eve. It’s about sitting up, long after everyone else had gone to bed, with one lone light on in the house, and making sure all the columns add up in the little gray notebook for another year of shoes and tuition and a week down at Bethany Beach.

Now that I’m in my 50s, a lot of my friends hear themselves say things, or do things, and they say “Oh My God,” I’ve become my father!”

And I just smile politely and nod. Because I’ve got a different problem. 

I’m afraid that I won’t.