|Friday, February 9
History of hoops in D.C. runs deep
By David Aldridge
Special to ESPN.com
The NBA comes to my town this weekend.
For four days, the sports world will be congregating here. There will be an army of smart-aleck columnists and out-of-towners who'll write pithy little missives about the town, how it's a lousy sports town, how nobody cares about anything but football. I've had to read and hear that drivel for years, from people I do and do not respect.
If you gain one thing from being in D.C. this weekend, if one fact penetrates your dome, know this. D.C. is not a football town. It's a Redskins town. Big difference. There's no tradition of high school football here. No college football scene. No tailgating or big bands or Script Ohio. None of it. Football begins when the 'Skins start camp in July and it ends whenever they end.
This is a hoops town. Always has been. Always will be.
"It's always been a kind of historical thing, because we're not like L.A. or New York, where it's a real, real big city," says the Rockets' Steve Francis, a Takoma Park (Md.) kid who grew up playing at the Firehouse -- a bandbox of a gym -- and who can still be found in Takoma in the summertime, hooping. "Everybody's kind of known. We kind of make our own thing happen."
I am forced to acknowledge some bias here.
I was born, raised and have lived in the District, save a year or so, my whole life. Not in suburbia. The District. Not in the maw of Official Washington, where the only power that matters is that of the entrenched bureaucracy, the career politicians with their cipherous spouses, the curious mix of elites in the Congress, the media and the lobbyists, all going to the same parties in Ward Three, paying no attention to people of color, or people of lesser means. Not in the grip of Criminal Washington, the poor, sad march of young brothers and sisters caught up in the life, playing a losing hand.
I grew up in the real city. The city of working folks, the GS 7s and 8s and 9s that make the government run. The cabbies and teachers and nurses and mailmen and mechanics. I lived among them. I was raised by them. I love them.
And they love ball.
They know their history. They know that while the Redskins were fielding some awful teams in the 1950s, pro basketball was laying roots here. They know before Arnold Auerbach went to Boston and got all famous, he played ball here at George Washington University. And that his first pro coaching job was with the Washington Capitols in 1948. They know a rail-thin forward by the name of Tagliabue set scoring and rebounding records at Georgetown University. (Yeah, that Tagliabue. Yeah, that Georgetown.)
They know that while the Celtics drafted the first African-American, the first African-American to actually play in the NBA, in 1950, was Earl Lloyd. Earl Lloyd of Alexandria, Virginia. Earl Lloyd of those same Washington Capitols.
They know that segregation was as prevalent here as anywhere else during that time, and that because blacks weren't allowed to play on most local basketball courts in D.C. during the day, kids sought out the game in the dark, at night.
"Mostly, we played stickball in the streets and things right in front of the home, and at night we would go to the parks, it would be closed, and just play by the lamplights," recalls Elgin Baylor, 14 at the time and growing up poor in Southeast D.C.
"Really, I wasn't interested in basketball until about then, and then they had a (place) called Southeast Settlement House, where kids could go," Baylor said. "So it happened that I got involved in basketball, for what reason I don't know, but it just looked like fun to do, and actually this was the only thing we could do, because we couldn't play any other sport ... we could only go on the playground when it was closed. And the only thing you could do was try to shoot baskets."
They know that Baylor ultimately went to Spingarn High in Northwest D.C., became awfully good at the game, and went on to fame and fortune as a Laker. They know a wily, tough young guard named Dave Bing followed in Baylor's footsteps at Spingarn and developed a Hall of Fame game of his own with the Detroit Pistons.
"Elgin Baylor was the biggest name in Washington, D.C. basketball when I was growing up," Bing says. "Fortunately I went to the same high school that he went to, and actually there are four players that came out of my high school that played in the NBA -- Elgin being first, John Tresvant being second, I was the third, and Sherman Douglas is the fourth. But Elgin, based on his skill level and the things that he had accomplished, both in college and professional sports, he was everybody's role model, he was everybody's idol, and everybody wanted to pattern their game after Elgin, but nobody had the twitch other than him."
They know that while Bing was just starting his NBA career, a fellow named Thompson, who'd grown up playing for Jabbo Kenner at the local Boys' Club and then starring locally at Carroll High School, was concluding his. Thompson, who backed up Bill Russell for a couple of seasons in Boston, became a coach. First at St. Anthony's High in Northeast D.C., and then at Georgetown in 1972.
That Thompson. That Georgetown.
They know the high school programs in D.C. are among the best in the country, that courts are littered with former stars from Dunbar, McKinley Tech, Anacostia. They know that DeMatha, just across the Maryland line in Hyattsville, is the Cadillac of Prep Basketball, with a coach in Morgan Wootten who has won more games than any coach in history. That DeMatha has sent 13 pros to the NBA (Adrian Dantley and Danny Ferry among them), a couple of pitchers to the majors and a couple of folks to the NFL (Dolphins cornerback J.B Brown, Raiders fullback Steve Smith), one Emmy Award winning anchor to Fox Sports (James Brown) and one NBA reporter to the Worldwide Leader (well, modesty forbids).
They know about the playground legends, and the summer runs at the wonderfully named Turkey Thicket in Northeast D.C., the Kenner Summer leagues, where guys like Steve Francis come back in 170-168 thrillers.
"I think the best basketball and the most competitive basketball was played in the summertime on the playgrounds," Bing says. "I was an All-American, Jerry Chambers was an All-American, John Thompson was an All-American, Tom Hoover was an All-American, Bobby Lewis was All-ACC, Ronnie Watts ... the Hummer Brothers, Austin Carr, Sid Catlett, I could just go up and down the line -- man we just had great players, and we played against each other in the summertime, and all of us were pretty good players and we honed out skills, we improved our skills, but the guys who really made it for us were some of the older guys who came before us."
They know that the college game flourishes in D.C. They know the program Thompson built from scratch on the Hilltop, starting with local guys like Craig Shelton and John (Bay Bay) Duren, making the Hoyas a local power, then a regional one, then a national one. They know the hell he took for bringing Patrick Ewing to Washington, and making him into a strong player and a stronger man, and they love him for it.
They know that Thompson developed 'em big, like Ewing and Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo, and he developed 'em small, like Sleepy Floyd and Charles Smith and Allen Iverson, and they all went to the pros.
"When I was growing up in D.C, everybody, and their mother and their father, wanted to be like Charles Smith," said Francis. "Everybody wanted to go to Georgetown and wear the high socks. Charles Smith was somebody I really looked up growing up in D.C. You couldn't tell me he did anything wrong, you could never tell me that he missed shots, that he turned the ball over, that he let his guy blow by him. That was somebody I really idolized. Nobody ever replaced Smith in my mind."
And they know that Thompson had to keep one of D.C.'s best hoopers, a D.C. guy named Rayful Edmond III, away from Mourning in the late-'80s, because while Edmond was a young, brilliant guy who could ball, he also ran one of the world's most ruthless crack cocaine cartels. And they love him for that, too.
And they know that from time to time, players came through D.C.'s other colleges, guys like Larry Spriggs at Howard University and Kermit Washington at American. (Yeah, that Washington. Yeah, that Tomjanovich.)
"Willie Jones (later the coach at the University of the District of Columbia, which won the Div. II championship in 1984), who was a little All-American from American University, who, if you wanna talk about somebody who could trash-talk, he did it 30-35 years ago," Bing remembered. "I mean he talked about your mother, he embarrassed you, he was unbelievable that he was talented. And some of those old guys helped me and some guys that were my age by allowing us to play with them and teaching us the ins and outs of the game."
They know that true hoop fans loved the original Magic, Earl Monroe, and Wes Unseld and that crew in the late-'60s,but that that squad was Baltimore's, until Abe Pollin moved 35 minutes down Interstate 95 in 1973 to the Maryland suburbs, and that he called them the Capital Bullets for a year, but that that made no sense to anyone, so he called them the Washington Bullets the next year, and the town fell in love with them, with Unseld's huge Afro and Elvin Hayes' turnaround and guys named Spoon and C.J.
"It was doubtful, as you guys often wrote, that you could win a championship back then with anybody less than a seven-foot center," Unseld recalled. "And I heard that time and time again, and I don't know whether I started to believe it or not. But there were those doubts even in my mind."
The Bullets won a lot that decade, but they came a cropper in the Finals. Four and out to the Bucks in '71; four and out, embarrassingly, to the Warriors in '75. By '78, most everyone figured the run was done. But when Pollin brought in Bob Dandridge from Milwaukee, the Bullets had all of the important pieces.
"Once we got Bobby Dandridge, that allowed us to play the small forwards," Unseld said. "He could pretty much neutralize small forwards, including Dr. J. Elvin and I, we always thought we could tag with any big men that any team could throw at us."
That spring, the Bullets got hot at the right time, and took out Gervin and Spurs, Erving and the Sixers, and wound up in a knockdown, dragout fight with the Sonics that spanned seven games and an incredible five cross-country plane rides (that year, because of scheduling problems, the old 2-2-1-1-1 Finals format was scratched. Game One was in Seattle. Games Two and Three were in Washington. Games Four and Five were in Seattle. Game Six was in Washington. Game Seven was in Seattle.)
And in the deciding game, with Hayes having fouled out early in the fourth quarter, and Washington hanging on to a lead with a minute to go, Mitch Kupchak, then a second-year forward, got in the way and made a huge three-point play.
"Tom Henderson was a great point guard, and he would say things like, 'well, Mitch, I'll leave the loose balls to you, I'm gonna run the team,'" Kupchak recalled. "And he always said to me, 'well, if there ever was a loose ball that was really important, I'm gonna jump on it,' and he said 'I normally don't do that, you know, I'll leave that to you.'
"So, here it was, Game Seven ... and there was a loose ball, the team started to retreat and I took a step to retreat, and Tom Henderson was in the scuffle under the basket. And sure enough he dove on it, didn't even think about it, just dove on it, and he's laying on the ground and scrambling and there's people reaching in, Marvin Webster's reaching, and (Henderson) somehow had the insight to shuffle it to me, and I just picked it up and laid it in.
And then, with 12 seconds left and the Bullets only up by two, Unseld, who had missed a couple of free throws just a few seconds ago, clinched things with a couple of foul shots, and the Bullets finally had their championship.
And they know that the Wizards, who used to be the Bullets, have fallen on hard times over the last 15 years, the victim of their own poor decisions and evaluations. But there is amazing patience with the new regime of Michael Jordan while waiting for the turnaround.
"They want success and I think they appreciate it," Unseld said, "and I think they've stuck with this team over the years because they like basketball."
They know that this weekend is a little piece of joy for those of us who grew up here loving hoops, and who love it still.