One of the first things George Leftwich, retiring Archbishop Carroll athletic director, asked me when we sat down for an enjoyable 90-minute talk last week was who is the greatest basketball player from this area.
The first player to (correctly) come to my mind was Elgin Baylor, the versatile swingman who starred at Spingarn and numerous playgrounds in the D.C. area. Fellow Spingarn alum Dave Bing is also a name that is often considered atop the list.
But by the accounts of former Georgetown John Thompson Jr. and other students of the D.C. hoops haven, Leftwich is a player who’s often forgotten in these type of discussions. One reason is the knee injury at Villanova that ended any chance of the former Carroll standout having a NBA career that would endure his legend as it does for Baylor, Bing, Thompson, Adrian Dantley and others.
“Nobody I’ve talked to, and these are people I trust, doubts the fact that barring that accident, he would have been a very good pro,” said Sidwell Friends Coach Eric Singletary, who played under Leftwich at Sidwell and is a professed historian of the game. “When you start talking about the best to come out of D.C., he’s at or near the top of that list.”
The story featured in today’s Post includes some anecdotes and facts that support Leftwich’s greatness, but here are a few more from his playing and coaching days that didn’t make the article:
JOHN THOMPSON JR. (played with Leftwich at Carroll from 1958-60; went on to play in the NBA and coach Georgetown to its first NCAA title)
“I remember one of the first (high school all-star games) in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1960. George and I played in it along with guys like Connie Hawkins, Paul Silas, and it was an outdoor arena. It was the first time I could remember the game having guys from all over the country come play.
“At first, I was not playing as well as I would have liked to play and I was somewhat frustrated by it. When George came in the game, he did more than I did and he started talking. He said ‘It’s my world and the rest of them are just living in it.’ George was this nice guy off the court but a lot of times you play with guards and they run their mouth and talk, and George was no different and he could back it up. But George saw I was struggling and I know I was nervous and not playing well, and the whole time he was out there, he got me to play. I ended up scoring 25 or 26 points and being one of the top five selected in the game. Connie Hawkins showed up at halftime and won the MVP. He was just that good. But even if I bragged about how I got 26 points, I knew in my heart, George was the one who did it. He wanted to win and he made everybody around him better.”
ERIC SINGLETARY (played under Leftwich at Sidwell Friends in 1992-93 season; current Sidwell Friends coach)
“We had a big game in 1993 during my senior year against Good Counsel. I was excited for that game because it was an opportunity for us to have a shot at knocking off a top team because we didn’t always play solid competition like that in Maryland. But I came to practice late and he benched me for the whole first half. By the time I got in, the game was basically over. I hated him for it at the time, but that lesson was so much bigger than me. I carried that with me to Rice where I played and now into coaching. I look at it now as, even though you don’t want to bench your best player in a game like that, how much are you damaging that player and the team by not holding them to a standard? After that, I was never late and always first in everything.
“I hold the highest reverence for Coach Leftwich because he was a great teacher, great student of the game and it showed through his playing and coaching career.”
-In this article written by Sidwell Friends in 2005, when he stepped down as boys’ basketball coach to become athletic director at Carroll, Leftwich said this: “On my most arrogant days, I couldn’t touch Baylor or Bing. But the rest of those guys…[laughs].”
–Leftwich was a great rebounder as a guard and ranked second on the team in rebounds during the 1959-60 season.
–In 2006, Leftwich was inducted into the D.C. Metropolitan Basketball Hall of Fame. Ironically, another name who’s entered the D.C. greats conversation as of late, Kevin Durant, was honored that night as the boys’ basketball player of the year following his senior season at Montrose Christian.
–During road trips around the region, Carroll had a hard time finding restaurants along the Jersey and Delaware turnpikes that would serve the integrated team. Leftwich said that some of his African-American friends also gave him a hard time for playing on an integrated team rather than at the segregated black schools in D.C.
–Though he suffered a knee injury that would end his chances at a NBA career, Leftwich dodged two bullets during his 1962 car accident. The oil truck that the car he was riding in hit fortunately did not explode in the wreckage. Also, while the impact caused Leftwich to burst through the door and out into the street, the absence of incoming traffic likely saved his life. As he waited for an ambulance, a car eventually did approach and stopped just inches away from Leftwich’s ailing body.
–While engaged in a playground battle during his high school days, Leftwich had the chance to go against Elgin Baylor. As he was prone to do, Leftwich got a hot hand from the outside, leading to this memorable exchange.
“Finally, it looked like he recognized me and you know what he said? ‘Come on in [the paint].’ I said, ‘No, no. I’m no fool!’ At 6-5, he was a power forward and center then, but he was so fast, his nickname was Rabbit. He could play forward now and still beat up on guys and be great in any era.”