There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Summer-league basketball used to own this town.
Kenny Roy was a part of the biggest summer-league game of all: the June 1970 matchup between his DeMatha basketball squad and the John Thompson–coached team from St. Anthony’s, the top two prep programs in the city, outdoors on the asphalt at Jelleff Boys Club.
“It took a summer-league basketball schedule to accomplish it, but DeMatha and St. Anthony’s high schools will finally meet,” said a preview piece in the Washington Post that appeared the morning of the event.
Roy describes the game as both one of the most anticipated sporting events he ever played in and “the greatest game never played.”
“There must have been 5,000 people at Jelleff that night, and everybody was just ready to get it on,” says Roy, 55. “We’d done all the talking. Finally, it was going to happen. This was the game everybody wanted to see. And then John Thompson pulls what he pulls. What a disappointment.”
In scoring terms, here’s how the game turned out: DeMatha 108, St. Anthony’s 26.
Roy’s agony of victory, however, resulted from Thompson’s behind-the-scenes shenanigans. The Post write-up of the game said St. Anthony’s, which had a high-powered roster full of future NCAA Division I talent, had dressed out “a team of pickups and scrubs.” Thompson sent them in for a slaughter as lopsided as General Custer’s squad at Little Big Horn. In an interview days later with the Post’s Ken Denlinger, Thompson, who didn’t show up at Jelleff the night of the massacre, admitted that he’d stocked the summer-league roster with nonplayers from his school just for this one-night prank. “Nobody who will be on the [St. Anthony’s] team in the fall played” against DeMatha, he boasted. And Thompson confessed he did it all to get back at DeMatha coach Morgan Wootten for ducking his team in the past.
The Jelleff matchup was the peak (or nadir) of the rivalry between the two Hall of Fame coaches.
DeMatha had Roy, who would go on to play both football and basketball at the University of Maryland. The Stags also had Adrian Dantley, the recent basketball Hall of Fame inductee and one of the greatest players this area has ever produced.
St. Anthony’s, meanwhile, was loaded with future Georgetown Hoyas: Jonathan Smith, Greg Brooks, Aaron Long, Alonzo “Cheese” Holloway, and Merlin Wilson.
Thompson said Wootten blackballed St. Anthony’s from some big-money postseason tournaments, most notably the M Club tournament at Cole Field House a year earlier. Wootten, in turn, charged Thompson with using bullying tactics to gain an advantage for his team—Thompson once told the press the DeMatha coach was scared to play him on a downtown court such as Howard University’s Burr Gymnasium.
So all followers of local high-school hoops got weak in the knees when they heard that St. Anthony’s and DeMatha were actually going to play each other on the blacktop at Jelleff.
Tom Ponton was at the game. He was a grammar-school-aged fan of St. Anthony’s. His older sisters had both attended the school, and he went with his father to root on the Tonies.
“There were so many people at Jelleff, we had to park about four miles away and walk,” says Ponton. “I’d never been to an outdoor basketball game before, and we walk up and there’s about 4,000 people all around this little court, an amazing scene. But by the time we get there, it’s in the middle of the second quarter, and DeMatha’s up by 50 points, and everybody’s talking about how John Thompson sent his freshmen in. After all the trouble it took just to get there, it was just a big disappointment.” (Ponton, despite his early St. Anthony’s allegiances, ended up not only attending DeMatha—class of ’78—but working there, too; he is now DeMatha’s director of development.)
Merlin Wilson, high school all-American at St. Anthony’s under Thompson, defends his coach’s ploy all these years later.
“We knew all the DeMatha players from the playgrounds, and there wasn’t anything between us, you always want to play the best. But this was on the two coaches, just going at each other, this was their deal,” says Wilson, who played pro ball overseas for a dozen years after leaving Georgetown in 1976. “But we knew [Wootten] wouldn’t play us [in a regular season] and pulled out of tournaments, kept us out. If his team was all that, why wouldn’t they play us when it mattered?”
The game, regardless of its onesidedness, remains symbolic of how powerful summer-league ball once was around these parts. The court where it happened was torn down earlier this decade to make room for a parking lot. Bob Stowers grew up in Glover Park, spent much of his youth at Jelleff, and now runs the club. He thinks about the old court, and what took place there, when he’s parking his car.
“Looking back on it, I don’t know how the summer leagues here were ever a success, to tell you the truth,” Stowers says. “The games were played outdoors, in the heat, on a court that was small for a junior high game, with trash and broken glass, and a brick wall on one end, with the poles holding the baskets right there on the court, so you had a great chance of running into either the wall or the pole. But, for a time, a lot of people showed up at Jelleff.”
Eddie Saah, who ran several local prep leagues for decades through the mid-1990s, including Jelleff’s and later the well-regarded Eddie Saah Summer League at Georgetown, has no doubts about why summer basketball isn’t what it was.
“AAU killed the summer leagues here,” Saah says. “Now, it’s all travel teams in the summer, and all the good players are playing for AAU teams out of town. There are leagues in the suburbs now, and some people care, but there’s nothing downtown, nothing like it was.”
Saah watched the dynamic of summer ball change from local school teams playing a whole season together to high-powered AAU squads temporarily stocked with ballplayers from elsewhere: Kevin Garnett, Alonzo Mourning, and Allen Iverson were among the visiting players who made brief appearances in Saah’s D.C. summer leagues on their way to superstardom. Occasionally, that setup led to huge nights—the fire marshal closed McDonough Gymnasium when Iverson made his first post-prison appearance there, and Dean Smith and Jim Valvano were among the college coaches who scouted the talent—but it was hard to build a whole schedule around the out-of-towners.
Roy, at the risk of waxing too nostalgic, says that the summer ball of his youth was as good as it gets.
“You’re not ever going to have that local flavor that we had,” he says. “You’re not ever going to have anything like DeMatha and St. Anthony’s again. That won’t happen.”
Read Cheap Seats Daily every weekday morning at washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk.