City Paper is not for tourists
For the profitable print platform of the Washington City Paper, I wrote this week about Gary Mays.
I’ve written about him a few times over the last decade. I’d write about him every week if I could. I’ve been doing some version of a sports column here for about 17 years now. I’ve never met anybody more inspirational or interesting than Gary. I visited him in the hospital last week, and got awed all over again by his stories.
Mays, now 75 and living in Fort Washington, is one of the greatest prep athletes the city ever produced, and he toiled on local ballfields at a pivotal time for the city and the country.
Mays, by the way, has had only one arm since he was five.
During his days at Armstrong, he played with and against the greatest football player (fellow Armstrong Tech alum and Green Bay Packer hall of famer Willie Wood) and basketball player (Spingarn product and future Lakers legend Elgin Baylor). Mays was the best baseball player in town at the time.
And what a time it was: He got out of Armstrong Tech in 1954, so he played on the last segregated teams fielded in the District. And because the white kids got all the ink, Gary’s stories, like Baylor’s, weren’t told as they were taking place. But no city in the country changed quicker than this town after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. He left town with Baylor in the fall of 1954 for the College of Idaho as part of the first shipment of black basketball talent exported from D.C.
I won’t go over all the old-school tales I made Gary tell me from his hospital bed in this space. But here’s what Sports Illustrated wrote about Baylor and Mays in March 1955 in a story about how the College of Idaho, which had just completed its best hoops season ever, had become a “basketball powerhouse” overnight:
Two more sensational recruits, Elgin Baylor and Gary Mays of Washington, D.C., joined the basketball team. Baylor, a 6-foot 6-inch schoolboy flash at Springarn Tech, averaged 34 points a game. Mays, known as “The Bandit” because he lost an arm in a childhood accident, captained the Armstrong Tech team, made Washington’s All-Metropolitan squad, caught for the baseball team, ties his shoes and shoots a fine game of pool—” ‘Course I use a bridge,” Mays (no kin to Willie) qualifies.
And here’s a story I left out of the column: While I was in the hospital room, Mays got on the phone with his longtime friend, Dave Harris. He’s another vintage schoolboy legend.
In November 1954, Harris, a black tight end from Cardozo, caught a touchdown pass from a white quarterback drom Anacostia, Danny Droze late in the fourth quarter as their DC Public school all star team beat undefeated and all-white private school St. John’s in the city title game, which was the first integrated football game ever played in the city. Until recently, nobody paid attention to that game or its significance. Now there’s talk of an exhibit about the 1954 city championship being given space at the Smithsonian’s African-American Culture Museum when it opens on the Mall.
I also knew that Harris was Wilt Chamberlain‘s fraternity brother and a track teammate of the Stilt’s at the University of Kansas. (Wilt was a champion high-jumper in college, too.) Harris brought Chamberlain back to DC one summer while they were in college, and was responsible for a series of games on the courts at Kelly Miller Playground in Northeast against a team led by Baylor (who was then at Seattle University).
“Ask him what year he brought Wilt here!” I said to Gary when I learned Harris was on the other end of the phone. “1957,” was the relayed answer.
Two NBA all-timers going at it on the same blacktop? Right here in our town? Can you imagine? When’s the movie come out?