Shooting Guard: Hunter went from slam-dunk to the slammer. Credit: Courtesy of Jesse Harrison

In 1986, the Washington Post wrote a where-are-they-now story on the All-Met basketball team from a decade earlier.

In its day, the class of ’76 was considered one of the strongest crops of schoolboy talent the city had ever produced. The article, titled “After the Fast Breaks Come the Tough Breaks,” told of the many squad members that hadn’t lived up to their early billing. The piece led with the tale of former Mackin Catholic High School standout Anthony “Jo Jo” Hunter.

The Philadelphia 76ers tried talking Hunter into going pro, at a time when no high school guard had ever gone straight to the NBA. Hunter instead went to the University of Maryland to play for Lefty Driesell’s star-laden Terrapins. After two underwhelming seasons in College Park, he transferred to Colorado; he made All Big Eight his senior year.

But NBA success eluded Hunter. He got no playing time during his brief season with the Milwaukee Bucks. That was it. That vintage Post story found Hunter a decade out of high school, hanging on with a team in the Philippines—another Can’t Miss Kid who missed.

“Some things didn’t turn out the way they should have,” Hunter said at the time. “But as long as everybody has got their health, that’s all you can ask for, right?”

Things got a lot worse for Hunter in the years after that quote. Now 54, he still has his health, but he’s ready to ask for something more: His freedom.

Hunter told me so over the weekend over the phone. He called collect. Every minute or so our conversation was interrupted by a taped voice on his end saying, “This call is from a federal prison.”

A decade after the Post story ran and 20 years out of high school, Hunter was locked up for robbing of a pair of downtown jewelry stores. Newspaper accounts say Hunter and an ex-girlfriend took $350,000 in cash and goods from Ellis Custom Jewelry Design and Gold-N-Time. Trial testimony showed a Gold-N-Time sales clerk was shot in the wrist trying to wrest a gun from Hunter. A jury convicted Hunter of 11 felony counts; he received a sentence of 14-to-43 years.

Speaking by phone from Cumberland Federal Prison, a medium-security institution in Western Maryland where he’s known as Inmate #09817-007, Hunter politely declined to discuss the crimes. “I’ve done my time, as good as I could,” he said. “I made mistakes and bad choices, but I’ve been able to help mold some guys in here. I think I deserve a second chance.”

Hunter has a parole hearing scheduled for December. It’ll be his first such chance to get a second chance. And there’s an earnest effort led by a group of family members, friends, and hoop rivals who got schooled by Hunter back when he was The Man, to bring him home.

“He’s told me if he gets a chance, he will never, never, never go back there,” says Harolyn Harrison. “I believe him.”

Harrison is Hunter’s cousin, and was among the few supporters who showed up at his sentencing. Hunter’s mother and father both died since he was sent to prison, so she’s made it her responsibility to keep him up on family news, and to make sure loved ones travel to see him.

Harrison is now the leader of the effort to get him paroled. She feels that the 15 years he’s already served are enough.

“After the sentencing, we knew 2011 was going to be our first opportunity,” she says. “And we weren’t going to miss it. So we’ve been on a mission all year.”

(Harrison’s view on the sentence is shared by a juror in Hunter’s 1997 trial that I contacted recently. “He’s still in jail? Really?” the juror, who asked not to be identified, said. “That’s terrible. We knew he did it, but, we didn’t think about how long he’d be in jail for that. Knowing he’s been in jail for this long, that’s just sad. It was clear this was a guy who once had had so much promise.”)

Harrison is calling friends and strangers trying to line up jobs and housing guarantees for Hunter should he be released, knowing a parole board would consider the support network when deciding whether or not to cut him loose.

She didn’t have any trouble enlisting her husband, Jesse Harrison, in the release effort.

“Jo Jo was the best player I saw,” says Jesse, who played at Roosevelt (class of 1977) during Hunter’s hoops heyday.

These days, Jesse Harrison runs and plays in the Over-50 League at the Bowie Community Center. He asked all the guys in the league who remember Hunter to write recommendation letters to Isaac “Ike” Fulwood, the former Metropolitan Police Department chief who now chairs the U.S. Parole Commission.

Harrison’s league, full of guys who are more likely to debate Jo Jo vs. Hawkeye (Whitney, the DeMatha forward) in 1976 than LeBron vs. Kobe circa 2011, rallied behind Jesse’s request.

“If you played ball in this area, you remember Jo,” says former Dunbar player Guy Arnold, 60, who played alongside Hunter on playgrounds and in summer leagues, while waiting for his old guys’ game at Bowie to tip off. “He could do it all. I’m sure he crushed a lot of people who are on this court tonight. We all thought he should have gone places, with basketball. I never saw that other side to Jo.” (One sign of Hunter’s renown: In a ’70s scene from his novel King Suckerman, George Pelecanos drops Jo Jo’s name while describing a high-level hoops game at the Chevy Chase playground.)

Emanuel Hardy, another Bowie baller, played with Hunter at Mackin, and says Hunter helped him score a basketball scholarship to the University of Delaware. “Jo was so good, we were all shocked when he chose Maryland and didn’t go to the NBA,” says Hardy, who grew up in Barry Farms and now lives in Temple Hills, Md. “But it wasn’t just pro scouts that came to see him. College scouts were always watching us. They wanted Jo, but they watched us too. I know a lot of us benefited from all the scouts.”

So Hardy’s writing to Fulwood. “The Jo Jo Hunter I knew a long time ago was a good guy,” says Hardy. “With the support he’d have, especially if he can get around all the people who know him, who knew him when he was Jo Jo Hunter, he’ll be all right. We’ve got to get him here with us, right on these courts. I mean that.”

Justin Ellis, a 6’11” center from St. John’s College High School who played alongside Hunter at Colorado, says he’ll also be among the 50-and-Overs writing to Fulwood.

Jesse Harrison admits he wants Hunter released from jail for reasons other than familial. “Oh, Jo Jo’s gonna play on my team when he gets out,” he says. “He knows that already.”

Hunter knows about his peers from the D.C. hoops scene rallying around him, and says it’s nice to be remembered. Asked if there’s a moral to his tale, Hunter says, “I had a promising life ahead of me, and I was certain I wanted to be a basketball player. I was full of uncertainties as far as other parts of my life went. As I tell kids, they can lock anybody up. I’m proof.”

As for anything he’d change if given a do-over, Hunter says, “I’d sign with the 76ers.”