How D.C. Shaped Basketball

Journalist John McNamara was writing the definitive history of D.C. high school basketball, until a mass murderer walked into his newsroom.

In 1997, the late Abe Pollin, then owner of the Washington Bullets, changed his team’s name to the Washington Wizards. The move away from “Bullets” followed a decade of high homicide rates in D.C., and in a later press release the team said Pollin dropped the name “to express his abhorrence of gun violence in our community.” The Wizards became the only professional sports team in the Washington area to change names for fear of offending fans.

The Capital of Basketball: A History of DC Area High School Hoops by John McNamara with Andrea Chamblee and David Elfin Georgetown University Press, 336 pp.

It would be easy to write the move off as politically correct overreach, or even a cynical cover to sell brand-new merchandise to a city that wasn’t buying much Bullets gear. After all, what does a basketball team have to do with gun violence? Shouldn’t sports be a place people go to escape politics and enjoy themselves?

Tell that to John McNamara—except you can’t. A veteran D.C.-area sportswriter, McNamara was completing a definitive history of the region’s storied high school basketball scene when, on June 18, 2018, he and four colleagues were killed by a gunman in their offices at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Maryland. In the year after the shooting, Andrea Chamblee, a government lawyer and McNamara’s wife of 33 years, and his friend and fellow sportswriter David Elfin finished his book, The Capital of Basketball.

McNamara, who spent more than 30 years covering sports and other local news, understood something many columnists and fans can’t seem to accept: Sports is politics. That’s why a single tweet in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, sent by the general manager of the Houston Rockets, caused Chinese media to stop airing Rockets games and brought the NBA to a public-relations standstill. That’s why quarterback Colin Kaepernick was out of an NFL job after spending a season kneeling during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality. That’s why the former sports blog Deadspin covered politics and culture as well as who won and lost—and why the entire editorial staff resigned en masse last October when a new owner ordered them to “stick to sports.”  

There’s plenty of sports in The Capital of Basketball—McNamara must have gone through enough box scores and old press clippings to fill the now-defunct Uline Arena (home of the Washington Capitols, one of the NBA’s charter members). The Washington area had an outsized impact on the nature of the game itself; black players in the city rewrote the rules in the early 1900s, and the region has produced dozens of college and NBA stars. But the book is also a window onto the politics and history of D.C. It may be viewed through a very specific lens, but a good camera can’t help but capture the stories of segregation and struggle that have defined this city’s history.

The book opens with a walk through D.C. basketball in the first half of the twentieth century, with a special focus on Edwin Bancroft Henderson, a Howard University graduate who has been called the “father of black basketball.” Henderson was a civil-rights activist who founded the first scholastic athletic conference in 1906, before there was any similar organization for white schools under segregation. He established a culture of basketball among black Washingtonians that helped reinvent the young game into the fast-paced sport we recognize today. The concepts of aggressive defense, fast breaks, and even five-on-five games were born in D.C.

Each subsequent chapter covers a different decade in the region’s high school basketball history. McNamara takes us from the 1950s and runs up through the 1990s, when the games are more athletic than ever, but local fans hooked on the NBA and big-time college basketball no longer rush the high school arena doors at opening time in order to get a seat. Due to the nature of high school sports, the book’s characters tend to pop up and then disappear within four years. Coaches sometimes have more staying power, but even the longest lived only appear through a handful of chapters. This makes the book more encyclopedia than narrative; you could thumb to just about any page and start reading without missing much of a beat. The end result is impossible to option into a dramatic sports movie, but it speaks to the years of backbreakingly minute reporting that must have gone into cataloging every bit of hoops history.

Thanks to that reporting, McNamara is able to seamlessly switch from archivist to storyteller. That means explaining how Lew Luce led Woodrow Wilson High School to the 1954 Inter-High championship—but also about his friendship with the Dunbar High School sharpshooter Willie Jones. Luce, the white son of a Teamsters lawyer in ritzy Chevy Chase, even lent Jones, the black son of a railroad dining-car waiter on segregated Lamont Street NW, the family car so Jones could drive his date to prom.

The D.C. area had an outsized impact on the nature of the game itself. Black players in the city rewrote the rules of the game in the early 1900s, and the region has produced dozens of college and NBA stars.

It means making Turkey Thicket, the rec center in the Brookland neighborhood where kids like Luce and Jones faced off outside of school, more than a footnote. Considering that black and white students were forbidden from sharing an official court until 1955, this integrated playground may have spent years hosting more talented, competitive games than the high schools did. 

It means understanding not just that David Carrasco coached Montgomery Blair High School to three Maryland state titles from 1952 to 1955, but also the challenges he faced as a Mexican American from El Paso coaching an all-white team. He turned that success into a coaching job at American University, integrating the team at a time when Georgetown, the University of Maryland, and other local colleges refused to recruit black players.

While McNamara clearly could have written an entire volume about, say, the DeMatha Catholic High School basketball dynasty, the staggering breadth here serves a higher purpose. His work recalls that of the Anacostia Community Museum, which reopened in October with a new exhibit about neighborhood and community change across D.C. The museum preserves documents and art, faces and names, that would otherwise be lost to time, to gentrification, to death. It took The Washington Post and other newspapers many years to start seriously covering black high school sports, which means that many of the stats and stories in this book wouldn’t exist in written form without McNamara making use of the long memories of those involved.

In the book’s preface, McNamara writes about how the death of the former Archbishop Carroll High School coach Bob Dwyer—a D.C.-basketball legend who coached the first integrated team in the city’s Catholic league and racked up an unthinkable 55 straight wins from 1958 to 1960—nearly dashed his dreams of publishing a book about D.C. high school hoops. Without Dwyer to interview, he thought, the work would be incomplete. But he credits Chamblee with showing him that the opposite was true—Dwyer’s death was a wake-up call that someone needed to take a tape recorder to the D.C. area’s old coaches and players.

“It doesn’t matter when you write the book,” Chamblee insists. “You have to get their stories written down, while they’re still here.”

After the Capital Gazette shooting, as after many of the country’s other mass shootings, there were calls not to politicize the tragedy. These are many of the same voices that shout to keep politics out of sports. They would prefer to read a book about D.C. high school basketball that doesn’t mention segregation or inequality, that glosses over the black characters and experiences that helped shape the very game of basketball—and the culture of D.C.—into what it is today.

History is survival. And survival is politics—inequality persists in whose stories get told, get recorded, and get preserved. John McNamara did not survive a violent shooting in an all-too-often-violent country, but thanks to his work, a century’s worth of stories—of players and coaches, dynasties and underdogs, defeats and triumphs on and off the court—live on.

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Matt Connolly

Matt Connolly works for a labor union in Washington, D.C. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2015 to 2017.