As D.C.’s Spingarn High prepares to close, a rich basketball tradition is left behind

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described Earl Jones as a three-time all-American at Spingarn. Jones was a three-time Parade all-American, but the first two awards came at Mount Hope High School in West Virginia. The article also incorrectly named the team for which NBA Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor was the top draft pick and won rookie-of-the-year honors as the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers were in Minneapolis when Baylor joined the league for the 1958-1959 season; they moved to Los Angeles in 1960, and Baylor played for the team until 1971.

February 13, 2013

The sun was shining through Spingarn High School’s caged windows late Tuesday afternoon, lighting the school’s basketball court just in time for a game against Eastern. About 10 members of the band were in one corner, and the grill man was in another, cooking burgers just feet from the court. A handful of students sat in the bleachers, surrounded by mustard-colored walls painted with bright green waves, the team’s nickname since the school opened in 1952. The place smelled of old wood and sweat.

By the second half, the Spingarn forward Jerome “KC” West had become frustrated. His team was losing badly, West couldn’t get a call and he was being heckled by a couple of fans whenever he stepped to the free throw line. West missed a free throw and stared straight ahead at one of the walls, facing the colorful paintings of Spingarn’s basketball forefathers hanging above: Elgin Baylor, Dave Bing and Sherman Douglas, all wearing NBA jerseys. A blowout loss against a young Eastern team wasn’t what West had in mind for the second-to-last home game in school history.

Spingarn’s last chance to play on its hallowed court in Northeast will come Thursday night at 7 against D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association foe Luke C. Moore.

“I’m going to tell them, before in the locker room, it’s our last home game,” West said. “We know that Spingarn is closing down. We gotta get this ‘W’ for the last home game.”

Spingarn’s students and faculty face uncertain futures after this school year. D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced in January that Spingarn will close this summer, one of 15 schools to shut down in the District as the city confronts an enrollment drain in public schools and consolidates buildings that haven’t been at capacity for many years.

As Spingarn High prepares to close its doors, it’ basketball team reflects on the school’s accomplished program. (Nick Plum for Synthesis/Koubaroulis LLC./The Washington Post)

Spingarn is not just closing the school. It is also boxing up a team that has contributed to the District’s rich basketball tradition for more than 60 years. Wearing the Green Wave uniform was more than a high school experience for generation after generation of players; it was a chance to connect with playground legends, college all-Americans, first-round NBA draft picks, Hall of Famers, and two stars named among the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players. It was a chance to run on the same court as Baylor, shoot at the same basket as Bing, get dressed in the same locker room as Douglas.

“Spingarn had a major, major influence on my basketball, even though I didn’t attend there,” said longtime Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson Jr., whose Archbishop Carroll team was a Spingarn rival in the 1950s. “It was the fact that Elgin went there, David went there, you know, Ollie [Johnson, a first-round pick of the Celtics in 1965] went there. Very little of our history sustains itself.”

‘It’s a part of history’

Bruce Williams stepped inside a cold, dark laundry room in the basement of Spingarn last week. After 20 years in the building at the corner of Benning Road and 26th Street, he is the longest tenured employee at the school — a quiet, stern man who, as athletic director, has become a guardian of Spingarn’s memories, many of which sit in this cramped space, awaiting fate.

Williams walked around piles of old basketball uniforms and pompoms on the floor to reach the back corner of the room, where canvas mail carts from another era sat full of trophies. He stared at the piles and piles of prizes in the cart, envisioning a warehouse in the city that may house them next year. Or maybe they will end up on display somewhere, in an archive. Williams has been thinking more and more about it since the closing was announced. Eventually, he looked to one wooden trophy near the top of the pile, an old basketball award that had been stripped of a few ornaments. Williams, carrying a radio, pointed to the trophy with its antenna.

“Say you were on this team and you came back here and saw this,” he said. “All this history, they can take it from you in a week.”

The trophy was from the Green Wave’s 1960 basketball team, which won a city tournament that year behind Bing and Johnson.

Two years after the school, named after educator and activist Joel Elias Spingarn, opened its doors in 1952, Baylor happily passed through the brand-new building, a “beautiful place,” he remembers. Baylor, who now resides in Los Angeles, was in 11th grade that year, and already a playground legend.


Spingarn's Arivin Gates holds a trophy from the Green Wave’s 1960 team in the school’s athletic laundry room. Spingarn's basketball program will end as the school closes at the end of the school year. (John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST)

“At the time we went to school, the schools were segregated,” said Baylor, 78, who was the first African American player to be selected to The Post’s All-Metropolitan team in 1954. “There was always a curiosity of whether, you know, we played against the other schools, you know, how good the competition would be.”

But even in limited inner-city competition, Spingarn represented a new life — and a new gym — for Baylor, who grew up just a few blocks from the new school. Baylor played for the school’s first coach, Dave Brown, known as “Lieutenant Brown,” partly because of his penchant to run regimented and detailed practices, Baylor said.

Before he led Seattle University to the NCAA championship game, before he was the NBA’s first pick in 1958, rookie of the year and a Hall of Fame forward for the Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers, Baylor was an icon at Spingarn. He once scored 63 points in a game against Phelps — his former school — in February 1954, which is believed to still be the boys’ single-game scoring record in D.C. public schools. Baylor was a high school all-American that season, but his towering status off Benning Road was much more powerful to young ballplayers in the neighborhood, Thompson recalls.

“All you would hear, everybody would talk about Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit,” Thompson said. “So he had an enormous impact on my desire to even want to play basketball, because at that point they were playing night games over at Spingarn, and a lot of the people who were coming out would be passing my home talking about Rabbit. That was his name. They called him Rabbit, not Elgin.”

Thompson helped lead Carroll to a city championship over Bing and Spingarn in 1960. When he took over at Georgetown in the early 1970s, Thompson knew exactly where to go in the city to recruit, and he brought Spingarn center Billy Lynn to the Hoyas in his first class. He also plucked forward Michael Graham, a Green Wave legend who was a key player on the 1984 national championship team at Georgetown.

Spingarn won the City Title in 1961, behind Bing, who later became an NBA Hall of Famer after starring with the Detroit Pistons in the 1960s and 1970s. Baylor and Bing, now the mayor of Detroit, would cross paths many times in the NBA, and Baylor said he never remembers talking about Spingarn. They just felt the connection, he said.

“The school itself,” Baylor said, “it’s a part of history.”

The school continued to produce basketball talent, including Johnson, an all-American at the University of San Francisco in 1964 and ’65, and talented 7-foot center Earl Jones, a three-time Parade all-American who later led the University of the District of Columbia to the 1982 NCAA Division II title and was a first-round pick by the Lakers in 1984.

In 1985, Spingarn went 31-0 behind Douglas, winning the City Title and earning an invitation to the White House by President Ronald Reagan. Douglas would later star at Syracuse, where he set the NCAA record for career assists before playing in the NBA from 1989 to 2001.

“It was just nice,” said John Wood, who coached the 1985 team and worked at Spingarn for 30 years. “[They] deserved every ounce of what they got that year.”

Reagan applauded the team in a ceremony that day, telling then-principal Clemmie Strayhorn, “that’s quite a powerhouse that you’ve been running, Clemmie.”

Douglas remembers looking at the paintings and portraits on the wall, he said, the “pictures of history.” “It was huge for me, I couldn’t actually believe that we got to go to the White House,” Douglas said.

Now his picture hangs in the gym at Spingarn, a large oil-painting of him soaring through the air in a Miami Heat jersey. He hasn’t been back to the gym in three years, he said, and he wonders what will become of the place.

“I was sad to see it close because of the history,” said Douglas, who now lives in Potomac. “I wanted to save the school.”

‘A school to go to’

In the middle of January, after his team beat Phelps in the gym he calls “our Boston Garden,” current Spingarn Coach Keith Jackson relaxed in his office with his young son, watching the Simpsons on an old television while waiting for his wife to call. He loosened his dress shirt, and confessed that so many things were on his mind that night. What would happen to the gym and the building? What would he make of his coaching career? Where would KC and the rest of his players end up next year?

“I can tell in our kids, the effect it’s having on them,” Jackson said. “I mean, it’s not just having an effect on our kids. Our whole building, the teachers, the staff, to the custodian, to the people in the cafeteria.”

Wrestling with those questions has made for an exhausting season.

West has never envisioned his name being mentioned in the same sentence as the Spingarn legends, but he plays there because it’s his neighborhood school, just as it was for the rest. He lives on 19th Street with his brother, and dreams of being the first person in his family to go to college. West was ruled academically ineligible to play basketball at C.H. Flowers in Prince George’s County as a freshman, and transferred to Spingarn to fill his “role” for Jackson.

“Kids grow up in certain neighborhoods, they would like to be able to . . . have a school to go to,” said Jackson, who has coached the Green Wave since 2001. “For our kids, Spingarn was that school.”

West averages a team-high 22 points per game for the Green Wave (7-12) and said he is inching closer to a 3.0 GPA. He was the last player to leave the gym after a practice earlier this week, a sweaty session that ended with the eight-player squad chanting the word “together.”

“It’s made stuff a lot different,” West said of the closing.

West said he might consider going to Princeton Day in Beltsville or maybe a school in North Carolina next season for his senior year. Either way, it will be a long way from home on 19th Street, the same street where Thompson spent part of his childhood generations ago.

“From the standpoint of whether the city can finance [Spingarn], whether there’s enough student population and those kind of things, that’s for somebody else to determine. I can’t determine that,” Thompson said. “But I hate the history of those things, and the impact of what those places had on us, to go along with the building. And unfortunately that will happen.”

West emerged from the locker room in a hoodie and khakis after Tuesday’s loss to Eastern. The frown he carried at the free throw line earlier had turned to a smile after he gave a hug to a few girls in the hallway. The band had packed up, and so had the grill man. People were filing out, ready to go home. West hung around the gym’s foyer for a few more moments, clutching his backpack, as if he didn’t want to leave.

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