For nearly three decades, the Kenner League has been the king of D.C. summer hoops.
From Patrick Ewing and Allen Iverson to Steve Francis and Gilbert Arenas, virtually every local basketball star has taken the court at Georgetown’s McDonough Gymnasium over the last 27 years to shine in one of the summer’s ultimate forms of free sports entertainment.
“The league basically started before Patrick Ewing’s freshman year [1981-82],” Kenner League commissioner Van Johnson said. “That year, the old D.C. summer league changed from the Urban Coalition to the Kenner League and games moved to Georgetown’s campus. There have been a lot of memorable names and moments between now and then. The Kenner League has become something of a D.C. institution.”
The league’s roots are closely tied to its namesake: James Kenner.
An amateur boxing phenom nicknamed “Jabbo” for his prowess with the gloves, Kenner helped found and was the first director of the Metropolitan Police Boys’ Club of Washington in 1937. Before his death in 1983, Kenner dedicated nearly 50 years of his life to providing safe, positive extracurricular environments for the District’s inner-city youth, helping many (including former Georgetown coach John Thompson) earn college scholarships.
As an homage to Jabbo, the Kenner League was founded in 1981 with the basic goal of providing local college players a safe, NCAA-sanctioned place to compete in the summer.
Said Johnson: “The rules are pretty straightforward. Any college player who either lives or attends a school within 30 miles of where the league games are conducted [McDonough] is eligible to play in the league. The NCAA mandates that no more than two returning players from any one college can be on the same team. Obviously, that rule doesn’t apply to incoming freshmen.”
The result is a handful of rosters featuring two-man veteran tandems from local schools, a couple of rosters highlighted by D.C. natives home on summer vacation (like Villanova’s Scottie Reynolds and Virginia Tech’s Jeff Allen) and “The Tombs,” a team sponsored by Georgetown’s on-campus pub and always highlighted by the entire incoming class of Hoya freshmen.
“I can’t remember the exact year, but I coached the Georgetown freshmen team to the championship one summer,” said Georgetown coach John Thompson III, the only man to win Kenner League titles as both a player and coach. “That was when they were still called 1789 [the restaurant named for the year the Georgetown opened] and not the Tombs, so it must have been 1991 or 1992.”
The 1789/Tombs Georgetown rookie tradition extends back to at least 1983, as a blurb in a late-summer issue of Sports Illustrated from that year makes reference to Ewing leading a 1789 team featuring freshmen recruits Michael Graham and Reggie Williams to a summer league championship.
Games featuring the Tombs this summer have drawn large crowds intrigued to witness the early synergy between a consensus top-10 recruiting class featuring Greg Monroe (Gretna, La.), Henry Sims (Baltimore) and Jason Clark (Arlington - Bishop O’Connell).
A 6-foot-10 forward rated as the top recruit in the nation by some recruiting services, Monroe averaged about 16 points, seven rebounds and three assists in seven games for the Tombs before returning home after Georgetown’s mandatory Scholars’ Program last week. Though unlikely, Monroe could return for this week’s playoffs, which are Thursday through Sunday.
“I enjoyed getting to see the young guys,” said former Georgetown center Roy Hibbert, who prepared for his rookie season with the Indiana Pacers by playing with the Tombs. “The young bigs [Monroe and Sims] can play. They’re way ahead of where I was as an incoming freshman, that’s for sure.”
But no Kenner League debut compares to Iverson’s on Aug. 4, 1994.
That night in the quarterfinals, Iverson played his first game on the Hilltop as a surprise addition to the Tombs roster and scoring 40 points behind the quick first step, which made him the No. 1 pick of the 1996 NBA Draft.
“That was one of the most exciting atmospheres I’ve ever experienced at McDonough,” Thompson said. “I’d put the Missouri game [in 1982] with Steve Stipanovich and Patrick [Ewing] at No. 1. But Allen’s Kenner League debut ranks right up there. Maybe our NIT game [Cal State Fullerton] a few years ago would be the other McDonough game on the radar, but it would be a distant third.
“I drove down from Jersey to see that one, and I remember telling Pops afterward, ‘OK, your fella can go.’ Allen put on a show that night.”
But Kenner League veterans will tell you Iverson’s debut and his subsequent scoring duel with George Mason’s Nate Langley (the two combined to score 77 points in a 1994 semifinal) can’t touch the head-to-head opus authored by Francis and D.C. street king Curt “Trouble” Smith in the 2000 title game.
In that game, both Smith and Francis both broke the Kenner League scoring record. In the end, Smith’s team won 121-120 victory, but Trouble’s 62 points trumped Francis’ 59.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that Curt has the scoring record,” Thompson said. “You talk to anyone who has been around D.C. basketball, and they know all about Curt. Whether it’s summer league, games on the playground at Berry Farms or whatever, Curt is a D.C. basketball legend.”
That’s the beauty of the Kenner League. For every three college players on its rosters, there’s a fourth wild card player - a retired player (Byron Mouton is a regular), an NBA guest appearance (Arenas has shown up for the playoffs) or a street-cred stud like Smith.
“Running with these young guys keeps me sharp,” said seven-year NBA veteran DerMarr Johnson, a Kenner League regular. “Plus, I like the fact that you never know who’s going to walk on the court or what’s going to happen next.”
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