By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2010; D01
Ballou's boys' basketball team showed up en masse Feb. 22 at Trinity University to watch DeMatha play Gonzaga. Carrying plenty of swagger after a recent win over Montrose Christian, Ballou senior guard Zalmico Harmon led his team out of the gymnasium after DeMatha's victory and playfully jawed to a group of fans, "We'll see you at the City Title."
A fan spat back, "We'll see you in prison."
"That hurt," Harmon said last week, recalling the episode after his team wrapped up the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association title. "That's not what we are. But people just look at Ballou and expect us to be bad. We feel we've accomplished a lot in spite of the stereotypes."
When the second-ranked Knights (30-4) meet No. 1 DeMatha (29-3) in the boys' City Title Game on Sunday at Verizon Center, the annual showdown between the city's public school champion and Washington Catholic Athletic Conference titlist will be as much about cultural stereotypes and perceptions as style of play and transition baskets.
"There's a lot of social dynamics involved in this game," said Coolidge Coach Vaughn Jones, a two-time All-Met at DeMatha before graduating in 1992. Jones has coached at three DCIAA schools the past 10 years.
"You go to Catholic schools," said DeMatha Coach Mike Jones (no relation), who graduated from the school in 1991, "you're supposed to be soft, you're supposed to be privileged, and everything [is] given to you on a silver platter.
At public schools, "you're supposed to be tough kids, you overcome so much, and everything you've gotten is earned."
One example of the divide between a D.C. public school such as Ballou, located in the Congress Heights section of Southeast, and DeMatha: Last month, DeMatha opened a state-of-the-art convocation center, part of a $20 million construction project at the Hyattsville school; Ballou was just allowed back into its home gymnasium this past week after its court was damaged in February by snow seeping through the ceiling and dripping onto the hardwood, rendering it unplayable.
"They have enough money to help get the support they need," said Ballou assistant coach Douglas Dormu, who played at Theodore Roosevelt in the mid-1990s. "It always comes down to money between us."
Players on both teams grew up playing together in the same youth leagues, local boys' and girls' clubs or recreational centers. In fact, in 2006, Harmon and future Ballou teammates Christian Leach and Antwan Pittman led Assumption over a St. Jerome team featuring soon-to-be Stags Quinn Cook and Victor Oladipo in the championship game of the Catholic Youth Organization of the Washington Archdiocese.
"We're just in different environments now," Leach said, "but we're the same kind of players."
That's not how they are perceived, though. Put on a school's jersey, and that teenager is immediately identified as a certain kind of player -- disciplined or unruly, tough or soft, fundamentally sound or erratic.
"When you get very good news in some sports or even just for the school, it can translate across the whole school," Vaughn Jones said. "But when you get bad news, like a kid getting shot, it translates bad news on to the whole athletic program."
Cook and Ballou standout Donte Thomas played on the travel team D.C. Assault in 2008. After D.C. Assault's summer season ended and the school year began, Cook and Thomas went in opposite directions -- and each became tagged as different kinds of players.
In AAU, "if I play for a quote-unquote hood team, I've got one kind of identity," Cook said, "but then I come to DeMatha, and people say I'm a different kind of player. Any jersey you put on, you become looked at as a different person."
Players and coaches agree the uniform is more than just perception -- it can go a long way toward determining a player's future.
"If you put Quinn Cook in a [Ballou] jersey, he could have the same production," Vaughn Jones said, "but would he have the same notoriety? I don't think so. If I played at Anacostia, would I have gotten the same recruitment as I did at DeMatha? Probably not."
Oladipo, who said he would have either gone to Douglass or Eleanor Roosevelt in Prince George's County before being wooed by DeMatha as an eighth-grader, embraces a physical style of play. Yet he said every time the Stags step on the court against a nonconference opponent, Oladipo says he becomes aware of how the Hyattsville school is perceived.
"People really do think that since we're a rich, Catholic school sponsored by Nike, that we're soft and privileged," Oladipo said.
Oladipo added that if he were to put on a Ballou uniform, "People would view me as a different person and a different player -- like a street kid, who isn't skilled and isn't smart, but you shouldn't judge people like that."
Meantime, when Oladipo or any other player arrives at DeMatha, they bear a level of expectation -- of both performance and behavior -- that may be completely unreasonable.
No WCAC school is more recognizable than DeMatha, which, in addition to winning 20 City Titles, is one of the nation's preeminent basketball programs with more than five decades' history of national renown. Every year, the Stags typically tout at least one high-profile national recruit; this season as many as eight could be playing major college basketball once they graduate, headlined by Cook, one of the top guards in the country.
"No one knows what it's like to play with that name on your chest," Mike Jones said. "You have a lot of pride, but you also have a huge standard to live up to. You can't fail."
Ballou has three players who have seen the divide between the Catholic league and the DCIAA from both sides: Harmon spent his first three years of high school at O'Connell; Pittman was his teammate for the first two, and Leach spent his freshman year at St. John's. All three said they heard the same stereotypes about the DCIAA before they enrolled.
"I didn't really know too much about this league," said Leach, who transferred to Ballou from Coolidge prior to this school year. "I just heard they were bad."
Part of that label, Leach said, came from the WCAC's success in the City Title Game -- its champion has won eight of the past nine matchups. Another part came from the WCAC's consistent success of putting players on high-profile college rosters.
But the biggest part of that label had nothing to do with basketball.
"You hear about Ballou and violence," Cook said, "and I know Zalmico, and I know he wouldn't hurt a fly."
Harmon said he bought into the perception until this year.
"I never thought I'd go to a D.C. public school because of all the bad stuff I'd heard," Harmon said. "But I came here, and I see there are juniors who can graduate early, seniors taking [Advanced Placement] classes and they're doing it because they committed themselves."