Running on Empty: H.D. Woodson?s pool closed well before the school did. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The best the city’s public schools have to offer, sportswise, was on display Saturday night.

Ballou beat McKinley, 59–52, to win the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association boys basketball title, the public high school championship.

The title tilt, as it does year after year after year, had a Big Game vibe.

The line to get into the game stretched from the front entrance of the Coolidge Senior High gym to the parking lot, about a 25-minute wait. The security measures were borderline oppressive. It’s easier to get on an El Al flight than into a high school basketball game in D.C. Everybody had to go through metal detectors, and it seemed every third person in line got wanded. Every bag was put through an X-ray machine.

Kids in the suburbs don’t have to put up with such hassles.

But the game made the wait worthwhile.

“It’s a big event,” says Troy Mathieu, the new athletic director for the D.C. Public Schools, standing on the baseline during the second half. “Twenty years from now, these kids will remember playing in this game for the city championship.”

When Ballou’s Donte Thomas spun his way through the entire McKinley lineup for a layup with 3:10 left in the fourth quarter, breaking open what only seconds earlier had been a tie game, the crowd of thousands inside the biggest prep gym in town let out a whoop to raise the roof.

It was a tingly moment that only the best sporting events, at any level, provide.

Neither Mayor Adrian M. Fenty nor schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee was there to get tingles. No, the two folks now gutting and then, well, doing something else to the D.C. school system didn’t show up on this biggest night of the winter sports calendar. (Rhee was seen that night at a basketball game with a mayor, all right—the Cal–UCLA game in Berkeley, Calif., which she attended with former Golden Bears guard and current Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson.)

Neither Fenty nor Rhee is to blame for the problems plaguing the city’s athletic programs, of course. It takes a village to destroy D.C.’s scholastic sports programs so thoroughly.

The decline was already in full swing by 1978, when the school board voted to cut off funding for coaches in all junior varsity sports and also ended payments to assistants and head coaches for most varsity sports. (Only head coaches in football, basketball, baseball, track, and volleyball continued to get stipends.)

A 1987 story in the Washington Post by Thomas Boswell advocated an entire overhaul of D.C. school athletics. Boswell outlined how the school system had an operating budget of $482 million that year—“One of the nation’s more generous, on a per student basis,” he wrote—of which $387,000 went to athletics.

That’s less than one-tenth of 1 percent.

The city has opened its wallet lately to help some sports. The football stadiums at DCIAA schools, built almost entirely with tax money, are amazing, and the artificial surface used at the new fields should help the league’s flagging soccer programs. The city is also building the Taj Mahal of aquatic centers on the Wilson Senior High campus in Tenleytown.

But given how far D.C. athletics still have to go, Fenty and Rhee still should have been at the Ballou–McKinley game. Again, as far as school sports goes, it doesn’t get any better than the DCIAA basketball championship.

Hints of the unlevel playing field between city kids and their counterparts in the suburbs were all over the Washington Post’s sports section the morning after the DCIAA title game. The write-up of Ballou–McKinley was surrounded by stories of other high school championships held in the region the same day: the Maryland state indoor track and field championships, the Maryland state championship wrestling tournament, and the Virginia swimming and diving championships.

Only five DCIAA schools even have swim teams.

There is no wrestling in D.C. public schools.

There is no indoor track for D.C. kids to run on.

Oh, there are indoor track teams at DCIAA schools, but no longer any usable tracks. So all events are held outside the city.

The city championships, for example, now take place in Maryland; DCIAA rents out the Prince George’s County Sports and Learning Center in Landover, which was built as part of the county’s deal with the Washington Redskins when their stadium was constructed in the mid-’90s.

The District has since built the Washington Nationals a billion-dollar baseball stadium, of course, but kids here didn’t get a place to run in return.

“Why hasn’t the city built a track for the kids?” asks Cathy Reilly.

Reilly is the mother of kids who played for various athletic teams while attending Wilson. Her experiences dealing with the system led her to found the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals, and Educators, a group that advocates for the city’s public school students.

“They used to make the kids run at the Armory, on wood boards, and where nobody could keep track of how many laps anybody had run,” says Reilly. “It was awful. There are good track programs at some schools. But now there’s no facility anywhere in the city.”

The Post, in the sports section and others, has also run stories lately about the impact the economic downturn will have on school athletics in the region. Folks in surrounding counties are getting a taste of the anti-sports sentiment that for so long was the rule in the District.

A Feb. 20 story, for example, described how Fairfax County is considering getting rid of gymnastics and how Loudoun County might curtail freshman and junior-varsity sports.

“They’re cutting all the programs that kids in D.C. never had,” says Jordan Spooner, a longtime watchdog of D.C. school athletics now serving as a program officer for the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp., a child advocacy group.

There are a lot of sports D.C. kids don’t have that everybody else does.

“Spingarn is across the road from a golf course,” says Nancy Huvendick of the 21st Century School Fund, another nonprofit geared toward improving the lot of public school students here. “But there’s no golf team at Spingarn. That’s ridiculous.”

There’s no golf team at a lot of D.C. schools. Wilson fields a squad now, but there hasn’t been enough competition among public schools here to have a city golf tournament since the 1970s.

Centreville High School in Chantilly has 45 sanctioned sports teams students can play for. Wilson, which fields far more athletic teams than any other school in the city, has just 25.

“I think about these things whenever the Washington Post puts out its lists of the best players in the region,” says Huvendick. “I carefully go through all the [All-Met] lists, just to see how many kids from D.C. schools make it. And there aren’t very many. Ever. It’s just sad. For some reason, there’s no push to improve things in athletics here. That’s been going on forever.”

By my count, 558 area students were named to Post All-Met teams in the last round of winter, spring, and fall sports.

Five kids, or less than 1 percent, were from D.C. public schools.