“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.
The Sixers were captivated by Hunter, who considered jumping from high school to the pros. But in those days the best players signed to play at college powerhouses.
Maryland was one of the powerhouses, but once Hunter was in College Park, he found himself lost in a crowd of talent and a system that didn’t fit.
“He was obviously a great basketball player,” said Graham, a former Terrapins teammate. “I think we had too many great basketball players.”
Several players transferred and, after two seasons, Hunter did the same. “I didn’t think I would ever sit on the bench,” Hunter told The Washington Post in August 1978.
He continued his career at Colorado, where he was a two-time all-Big Eight player, and in 1981 the Milwaukee Bucks drafted him in the sixth round. After the Bucks cut him before the season, Hunter signed deals to play internationally, in the Philippines, Europe and South America. He reunited with Graham, who also played overseas, and resumed a friendship that began in College Park. The money was good, and life was, too.
After their careers ended, Hunter and Graham returned to Washington. Hunter worked as a personal trainer and played in local leagues, but the life he had known was gone. Hunter said he doesn’t like to discuss this part of his life; Graham said they began using drugs. It was the only way to experience a high like basketball had once provided.
“He and I had the same pain,” Graham said.
Hunter put it simply: “Some of us can’t let go.” He was arrested four times in the mid-’90s; in each case the charges were dismissed.
Desperate, Hunter said, for the big money and lavish lifestyle he had once known, he and an ex-girlfriend entered a jewelry store in December 1995. They left with $300,000 in stolen gems.
“A move to try to sustain my lifestyle,” Hunter said, emphasizing that he was not on drugs at the time.
Five months later, they tried another store. This time, the clerk tried to wrestle away Hunter’s gun; during the scuffle, the clerk was shot in the wrist. The clerk identified Hunter, who had worn no mask, from a police photograph. He was arrested and charged with 11 felony counts. The ex-girlfriend later testified against him.
Word of Hunter’s crimes made its way to the old neighborhoods, where friends and former teammates wondered how such a fate could have befallen him. Hunter said recently that, like the old days, he didn’t consider failure. He never thought he’d get caught.
“Going to prison,” he said, “it takes away everything.”
‘Monumental show of support’
Three years ago, a group of about 10 men met in the dining room at R.N. Horton’s Funeral Home in Northwest. Their basketball careers were long behind them — but that didn’t mean they were finished playing.
Some had played on teams in the suburbs, but they wanted to play in Washington, as they once had — with its own league, tournaments and champions.
So they crafted a plan. Simeon Williams, who worked with the city’s recreation department, was their man on the inside. Randolph Horton, who owned the funeral home, would be the league’s financier. Attracting players would be the easy part.
“We all share a common bond,” said Jesse Harrison, one of the men at the table that day. “We all grew up basketball junkies.”
The league, which they refer to casually as the “D.C. Legends,” held its first games in a gym on M Street. It grew from a handful of teams to nearly 20. The winners bragged and strutted, promising continued dominance, and the losers vowed to find — or poach — new players, lending a year-round flavor to the competition.
Harrison, whose wife, Harolyn, is Hunter’s cousin, said he grew up idolizing Hunter, and he spoke weekly with him in prison. Hunter learned of his divorce and his mother’s death while inside, and his son and daughter were growing up without him.
He had found solace on prison basketball courts, keeping in shape and still punishing defenders from his sweet spot: a quick jumper near the top of the key. Hunter told his friend that, whenever he was released, he wanted to help youngsters establish a life beyond basketball, perhaps steering others away from mistakes.
They talked about a reunion when Hunter’s term was up. When that day came, Hunter said, he wanted to play for Harrison’s team, the DMV Lakers, because Harrison hadn’t given up on him. Harrison replied that there would be a No. 35 jersey waiting.
A few months before Hunter’s first parole hearing, in 2012, Harrison started another cause. A motivated group had formed a successful basketball league. What else was possible?
Many of the men who had known Hunter still believed he was a good man who had made “that big mistake,” Duren said, that any of them could’ve made. Harrison and others also believed Hunter when he said he wanted to help the next generation of players.
And so Harrison, his wife, and Harold Bell, a former mentor of Hunter’s, contacted friends and acquaintances — asking all of them to write letters of support to the parole commission. They stopped others on the street or at the grocery store. Harrison said they persuaded Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and the sportscaster James Brown, who’d spent their early years on the same Washington playgrounds, to use their influence to help.
“Not one person turned me down,” Harrison said. “We just sent a lot of prayers up and believed that whatever God’s will will be, that’ll be good enough for us.”
In all, Harrison said, nearly 100 people sent letters. Before his hearing, Hunter received a copy of each one, and he flipped through the pages, reading what past neighbors and friends, teammates and opponents had written.
“A monumental show of support,” he said later.
Last summer, another letter arrived, this one addressed to Hunter. His parole had been approved.
‘You fall down, you stand up’
Hunter opened a door on a recent Saturday at Emery Recreation Center, carrying a backpack and smiling as familiar faces approached.
“You shave your beard” former Maryland teammate Brian Magid told him, and “you haven’t changed a bit.”
Last summer, the group held a game to welcome Hunter home, and true to his word, he later joined Harrison’s DMV Lakers. Harrison said his team has won three championships in the months since. Hunter was the leading scorer in each league.
Not everything has come so easily. He went months without work. He said he’s too old for some placement programs, and many employers don’t want an ex-convict on their payrolls. But Horton, one of the league’s founders, hired Hunter as an assistant at his funeral home. Hunter drives a hearse, conducts funerals and is learning how to embalm. Horton said he hired him for the same reason so many wrote letters — he believed Hunter deserved a chance.
“The basketball community is what he knows, and what knows him,” Duren said.
On this Saturday, they slapped his back and shook his hand. It wasn’t brought up, but the others understand that the most difficult thing for a reformed convict is staying reformed. Hunter said that among those paroled with him, most have returned to prison. So Harrison said this league and its players serve as a kind of support group.
Another player, Roderick Jones, wore a black T-shirt promoting the “JoJo Hunter School of Skills & Basketball Conditioning,” which is more of a mentorship service that also teaches drills. Jones’s shirt was emblazoned with five orange words: “Stay on the right path!”
“I’m using my bad choice to maybe save a child,” Hunter said.
Jones said he likes the idea of his two sons, 11-year-old Trevor and 12-year-old Tristan, learning from Hunter’s message.
“You fall down, you stand up,” Jones said.
As for Hunter’s own children — he said his son and daughter each is a college graduate with a full-time job — some things must be taken slowly. “I’m still building a relationship,” he said.
The players scattered, and Hunter walked toward a bench to pull on a jersey and loosen those aging muscles. On this day, he’d play for the Black Heat. When the game starts, he and the others would have a chance to show they’ve still got it; that, in their social circle, there are still rivalries to settle, skills yet to show off. The years pass and life carries on, but long after knees and backs give out, a man’s drive to prove himself — either as a competitor or as a man worthy of his friends’ trust — is the last to go.
“They welcomed me back,” Hunter said simply, “in spite of what happened.”
With the wait finished, the game began. Not long after, Hunter jogged up the court, positioning himself near the three-point line. Gardner tossed a behind-the-back pass toward Hunter. He stepped near the top of the key, that sweet spot, and dribbled twice before moving to his left, releasing the ball, and watching as it dropped through the net.