“A lot of legends in the house,” Ed Swails, the emcee, says, his voice booming through speakers as men with gray in their beards sit in the bleachers.
This 50-and-over men’s Saturday league is filled with luminaries from Washington’s past. Some played in college and the NBA; others were stars in high school. And last year, a group of them came together to help to free one of their own — Anthony “JoJo” Hunter, one of the biggest legends the area ever produced — from a long prison sentence.
“This is where he belongs,” said Chip Austin, a longtime basketball coach.
Hunter, 56, was 30 minutes late on this day because he spent the morning sharing his story at a youth basketball camp: About how he was one of Washington’s best guards, a 1975-76 Washington Post All-Met player courted in high school by the Philadelphia 76ers before accepting a scholarship to play for Lefty Driesell at the University of Maryland. And how, when his career ended, he turned to drugs and, on at least two occasions, crime. He was convicted in 1997 of robbing two jewelry stores and sentenced to between 14 and 43 years in prison.
“When somebody says ‘JoJo Hunter,’ they think basketball as the first thing,” Hunter had said a few days earlier. “And the second thing is that he took a turn for the worse.”
The men here began a letter-writing campaign in late 2011, and Hunter believes it played a major role in his being paroled in July 2012. All they asked in return was that Hunter someday rejoin them on Washington’s basketball courts, where they were once kings.
A basketball proving ground
There is Greg Carrington, a two-time All-Met in the 1970s at Bell Vocational, dribbling a ball before the next game. Rex King, the former star at Anacostia High. And Ty Gardner, whose acrobatic passes earned him the nickname “The Wizard.”
Sometimes John “Bay-Bay” Duren, a star at Georgetown who reached the NBA, plays in these games. Austin has coached the adult league games, and Ernie Graham, the former Maryland star whose No. 25 jersey was hung at Comcast Center last year, participated in a contest last summer.
“An opportunity to play and socialize,” said Justin Ellis, who played at Wake Forest and the University of Colorado.
When they were young, Washington was a basketball proving ground. Players waited their turns, eager to measure themselves against neighborhood royalty such as Johnny Dawkins, Adrian Dantley and Kermit Washington. It took guts for a newcomer to join a game; it took skill to stay.
“We all used sports to say we’re going to get out of the ghetto, out of the poorhouse,” Hunter said.
By the time Hunter reached Mackin High — which closed in 1989 — scouts were pushing their way into gyms for a look at the kid wearing No. 35.