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Deon Saunders and his Spingarn teammates started their playoff run Monday night with a home rout of Interhigh League rival Roosevelt, playing on the same basketball court and wearing the same uniforms as some of the best players in the history of the gamewhether they know it or not.
The current crop of Green Wave players can’t really be blamed for any lack of old-school knowledge. An arsonist struck their gymnasium in 1996, and along with the bleachers, many of the championship pennants and banners dedicated to the more accomplished alumni burned. When the gym was repaired and reopened after a year, a handful of shiny new vinyl placards were put up. The sentiment was nice, but the replacement hangings are too sterile, too new, to evoke the glory days gone by. And outside these walls, Spingarn basketball rarely gets its propers. Most high school hoops geeks, if asked to pick the top program in D.C., would sooner rattle off the name of one of the Catholic goliaths, like DeMatha or Archbishop Carroll.
Nice programs, for sure; but they ain’t Spingarn. When the NBA, as part of its 50th anniversary commemoration, named the Top 50 players of all time two years ago, only one high schoolin all of America, not just our towncould boast of putting two former students on the ultimate Dream Team. Not DeMatha. Not Carroll. Spingarn, with Elgin Baylor and Dave Bing.
And then there are the “lesser” players who once wore the green and gold. Like Ollie Johnson, a teammate of Bing’s on the 1961 city championship team, who went on to become an All-American and a first-round pick of the Boston Celtics in 1966. And Earl Jones, the jump-shooting 7-footer and leader of the 1980 city champs, later an L.A. Lakers first-rounder. And Michael Graham, the man-child power forward who manhandled Houston and brought Georgetown its only NCAA title in 1983. And Sherman Douglas, now of the L.A. Clippers, the point guard who brought Spingarn a city title in 1985, whupping the more highly touted Danny Ferry’s DeMatha squad in the championship.
All those impact players, from one school. And a public school, to boot.
“I guess we’ve had some guys who could play,” laughs Bing, now president of a steel company he founded in Detroit upon retiring from the NBA, after a roster of distinguished fellow alumni is read to him. “But that’s just the guys who made it. We had plenty you never heard of, guys who never made it off the corner, who really could play.” (Bing humbly asserts he wasn’t even the best player at Spingarn in his day, giving that honor to a classmate named Bernard Levi, who bounced in and out of trouble after taking off the Green Wave uniform.)
The abridged honor roll also doesn’t include guys who lived in Spingarn territory but were recruited away by the private institutions; a huge chunk of the Green Wave faithful will never forgive John Thompson for betraying the neighborhood and taking his able 6-foot-10-inch frame to Carroll, where he played for the best team in that school’s history. “John lived right across the street from the school, and everybody wanted him to go to Spingarn,” says Don Hicks, Bing’s back-court partner from 1960 to 1962. “But John couldn’t say no when a priest came to his door.”
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Spingarn, located on a Northeast hilltop across Benning Road from what is now RFK Stadium, began developing a reputation for hardwood excellence shortly after opening in 1952, the last of the “colored” high schools built in D.C. (The Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 made school segregation illegal.) The notoriety all started when Baylor, a lanky kid known around town merely as Rabbit, enrolled in 1953. His play with a club team from Southeast, the Stonewalls, had made him a local celebrity before then.
Dave Brown, the first Spingarn basketball coach, doesn’t take any credit for molding the young superstar. Baylor, he says, was already a finished product.
“Everybody knew about Elgin before he played for me, but, as much as you heard, you can’t say he was overrated. Not when he’d go score 63 points one game and 72 the next,” says Brown, now 84. “He was the best.”
Baylor left Spingarn in 1955, two years before the first integrated city championship tournament, and went on to star at the University of Seattle. During visits home from college, he often brought other playground legends from his generationlike Philly’s Wilt Chamberlain and New Yorker Connie Hawkinsto the courts near Spingarn to match them up against D.C.’s finest. Those games spawned the next wave of Green Wave superstars.
“You have no idea how much pride we all got from Elgin Baylor,” says Hicks, 56, who now works for the Giant grocery chain. “He was so far ahead of his time, and for a kid to be able to say that he played in our neighborhood, well, I can’t say how important that was to me and Dave [Bing]. D.C. really was the basketball mecca at that time, for the whole country. And even though we were young, we knew this was a special time to be here.”
Bing still cherishes his Spingarn days. He made a trip to D.C. in the fall just to join Hicks and the rest of the starting five from the 1961 city championship squad for a surprise dinner to honor their coach, Dr. William Roundtree.
The best measure of the quality of that team isn’t the title or the fact that all the starters could dunk in an era when most schools didn’t have a single player able to jam. No, the real proof comes in the story of Jerry Chambers. Chambers was cut by Roundtree because he wasn’t good enough, so he transferred to rival Eastern High School, became an All-American, and was eventually a No. 1 pick of Baylor’s team, the Lakers, in 1966. He was good enough for the Lakers, but not the Green Wave. (Bing and Johnson were also first-rounders in 1966.)
Members of the 1985 championship squad might want to argue that their team, which went 31-0, the most wins by a public school in one season, was the best Spingarn ever had. Douglas was clearly inspired by those who came before him: He followed Bing’s career footsteps to Syracuse and then the NBA. John Wood, Spingarn’s coach from 1972 to 1985 and a Spingarn alum, class of ’58, admits drumming the school’s rich history into his players. “I saw Baylor and everybody else who followed him play, and I wanted to carry on the tradition,” says Wood.
Spingarn can never again be the place Wood remembers, and not just because of the arson. Much of the housing off Benning Road that once teemed with basketball talent is now boarded up, and plenty of area families have moved across the city line to P.G. County, so the school’s enrollment has dwindled to about 600 kids, or less than half what it was in the ’60s. The Spingarn community doesn’t take quite so much pride in the basketball team anymore, either. Maybe 150 people came to the opening playoff; in the old days, a bigger crowd would show up for Bing’s pickup games. Security guards frisk everybody for weapons and contraband before allowing entrance to the gymanother sorry twist in the story of Spingarn’s dwindling as a regional power.
But the performance of this year’s team has sparked hopes for a return to glory. Though all its key players are underclassmen, Spingarn went 18-3 during the regular season and has a real shot at reaching the title game. Saunders, a silky-smooth forward who hit for 41 against Roosevelt, is just a junior. If he gets any better before next year, maybe he’ll have his own banner someday.
With 90 seconds left and the Green Wave up by 35 against Roosevelt, the Spingarn coach gives sophomore guard Reggie McDonald his first playing time of the night. When he gets the ball, McDonald drives hard along the baseline, but as soon as he leaves his feet he finds his intended path blocked by a Roosevelt defender. So in midair, he pulls the ball back in, swoops to the other side of the hoop, and makes a sweet lay-in. As the home fans and his teammates roar, it occurs to me that McDonald wears No. 22, the same jersey worn by some former Spingarn players, guys named Baylor and Bing, and that they surely made that same move at that same hoop. I wonder if the kid knows any of that….Dave McKenna