- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The previously rich Washington, D.C., basketball pipeline has slowed to a trickle.

The city game has fallen victim to a confluence of elements: the increased recruiting of private schools, the crumbling of the city’s public school system, the drug scourge and a changing entertainment landscape.

Bill Butler, athletics coordinator of the District’s Boys and Girls Club, remembers when it was different. He remembers convincing a handful of college basketball coaches attending the 1966 Final Four in College Park to watch some of his high school kids.

The out-of-towners saw the inner-city game played above the rim and quickly offered four scholarships. Within a few years, as college recruiters flocked to District schools, more than 200 of Butler’s players were competing in 63 cities.

That was then. Now, for instance, Miami’s Antoine Mayhand was the only District player in the ACC tournament earlier this month at MCI Center.

No city schools were ranked among the area’s top 20 programs in the Washington Post.

Neighborhood street games in the summer that once drew as many as 500 spectators have been lost to the traveling caravans of AAU.

The greatness of high school basketball in the District now lies in the memories of the old men who line the benches of Langston Golf Course arguing the merits of Elgin Baylor, Dave Bing and Adrian Dantley.

The barbershop debates are whether the James Brown now seen joking on Fox pregame football broadcasts was a better schoolboy star than Johnny Dawkins or JoJo Hunter.

Could William (aka Chicken Breast) Lee really grab a quarter off the back of the rim and leave two dimes and a nickel?

Those debates are not apt to be supplanted by new ones.

In the past generation, with increasing furor, private high schools have poached prospects from the District with the lure of a free scholarship, stronger academics and a chance to be seen by a greater number of college coaches.

District enrollment has dwindled, while suburban schools swell with transfer students. Outside influences — neighborhood recreation center closings, increased entertainment options and street drug problems — also have harmed the sport.

“Basketball has fallen off in D.C.,” Butler said. “In the early ‘80s, when drugs were rampant, kids lost interest in football and basketball. We do have good players, but the guys didn’t want to do anything … just hang in the neighborhoods. We’re just getting over it now.”

Recruiting wars

After 15 years of watching the best junior-high students move to suburban public and private high schools, Keino Wilson didn’t return as coach at H.D. Woodson High this season.

“We’re not getting the top-quality kids anymore,” Wilson said. “The kids that were going to Spingarn or Dunbar are going to DeMatha. We’re getting the third kid.”

DeMatha has drawn some of the top local and national players to the Hyattsville campus since the 1960s. It wasn’t a big deal to District basketball because it was just one program gaining a few players.

But Vienna-based Flint Hill Prep entered the recruiting mix in the late 1980s, becoming a national power for a spell before returning to its roots.

Today, more and more private schools join DeMatha in the rankings as the public school talent pool thins further. DeMatha alone has five players from the District.

The spillover flows into Prince George’s County schools, too, as families cross into Maryland. Suitland and Eleanor Roosevelt are longtime powers that regularly send players to Division I colleges.

Some District high schools are down to 900 students, while the depth that once made even junior-varsity teams better than some suburban varsities has disappeared.

“It’s become a numbers game,” retired DeMatha coach Morgan Wootten said.

“Twenty years ago, the suburban counties weren’t as big. Now there’s a wealth of talent in the suburbs. There are not as many kids in District schools. It used to be every one of their teams was good. Now some of the prep schools pluck some of [the District] kids.”

Said Maryland coach Gary Williams: “It’s a shame because basketball was really good for D.C. schools. It was a bonding thing to have a great team. It’s just that a lot of times, a kid’s parents think they may have a better chance to get a college scholarship if they go somewhere else.”

Certainly, the District schools’ poor reputation has fueled the flight of athletes to better private and suburban schools.

A 2003 Council of Better Schools Report on the District charged, “There is a general sense of low expectations for student performance and excuse making for that performance.”

The average SAT score for District students was 800, while a U.S. Army Corp of Engineers study in 1988, at about the time the attrition went into full swing, rated nine of 10 high schools in “overall poor condition.”

Alan Chin, the District’s athletic director of public schools, said college prep courses in pre-engineering, finance and business now are offered to help retain students.

“It’s made us work harder,” Chin said. “My coaches have done a better selling job of presenting our better academic programs. You have some private schools offering free tuition to our kids. There’s always the notion that Catholic schools will be a gateway to getting out of here to better [colleges].”

Chin said the implementation of a 2.0 grade-point minimum, shared by most local school systems, initially cost the city players. Tutorial programs have helped keep players eligible.

“It was a large challenge for us because we had to make sure kids went to class,” he said.

Summer madness

The increasing importance of AAU basketball also has been an element in the bleeding of talent from the city, resulting in a greater emphasis of summertime games and more coaches who have the ear of a budding talent.

AAU basketball is the best thing to happen to youth sports. It also is the worst enemy for schools.

The independent programs have become more important to college-bound players than high school teams because summer is the prime recruiting period of college coaches.

Even 7-year-olds now play for AAU teams that offer nice uniforms, national travel and big-time exposure.

“You see everybody play in the summer, no matter where they go to school,” Williams said. “If he’s good in the summer, other [private schools] will come after the kid.”

Said Wootten: “High school teams used to stick together in the summer. Now the stars are snapped up by AAU coaches.”

Some high school coaches even claim their AAU counterparts undermine their authority by urging unhappy players to transfer.

“[AAU] is just too much instant gratification for kids,” O’Connell High coach Joe Wootten said. “If a kid doesn’t become a great player right away, there’s an AAU coach saying if he went somewhere else, he could do better. Kids aren’t willing to wait [to improve].”

AAU basketball even impacts other high school sports because many athletes hardly have the time to take up football or baseball.

The days of multisport District stars Willie Wood, Reggie Rucker and Byron Leftwich, who went on to NFL careers, are dwindling.

“AAU programs drain our schools,” Chin said. “They make basketball the only sport. It doesn’t contribute to the overall development of the athlete.”

The air out there

Long before Elgin Baylor became a superstar in the NBA, he was a legend on the District’s playgrounds. Turkey Thicket, Luzon, Candy Cane and Watts were the places to see the best play the best.

Wilt Chamberlain once faced Baylor on the Watts outdoor courts. Gary Williams ventured from College Park, where he was the Terrapins point guard in the mid-1960s, to try the locals.

It has been a half-century since Baylor ruled the street game and decades since many of the top street players built their reputations, but the city’s basketball fans relish those times, as if they are Michael Jordan highlight reels.

The tall tales have grown over the years. James Brown, the Fox broadcaster, supposedly won a dunking contest with the baskets raised to 12 feet. Players shot from so far outside, it was amazing they didn’t trip over the street curb and get hit by traffic.

“We had guys who were better than Elgin,” Boys and Girls Club’s Bill Butler said.

It wasn’t unusual for groups to come from Philadelphia and New York to take on District players. There wasn’t any ESPN or national summer camps for players to see each other. They had to come to the local courts to discover who was better.

“The best games were played on the playgrounds,” Williams said. “There were young players earning a rep where people said, ‘Wait until you see this player.’ ”

Said Morgan Wootten: “There’s something about a good old rivalry on the outdoor courts just to see the teams playing.”

Williams said high school teams benefited because players learned to win on outdoor courts.

“Today’s kids miss a lot,” Williams said. “When you went to a great playground back then, you’d bring five guys and you better be good because if you lost, you might not get back on the court. You played to win. You learned to pass and play defense.

“Now kids are guaranteed games in gyms with nice uniforms and shoes. We played in skins and shirts and just played.”

And now, a one-time basketball hotbed must be content with the exploits of the occasional player who makes good, a Moochie Norris who is in his eighth NBA season after starring at Cardoza.

That is a steep descent from the mountaintop of Baylor and Bing.

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