Anthony Tucker's basketball playing career was all about travel. He grew up in Fairmont Heights but was always ready to roam the Washington area in search of the best games on blacktop.
After leaving McKinley Tech High School in the District, he played at Georgetown and Wake Forest. His post-college playing experience came in Italy, in U.S. semipro leagues and on Washington's NBA team, then known as the Bullets.
Retired from pro ball, Tucker has started a coaching career not far from where his playing days began, at Ballou High in Southeast. He is among a group of young coaches who attended high school in the city and are now making a mark on student-athletes.
"I never thought about coaching, period," Tucker said recently while overseeing an "open gym" session at the school. "To be honest, I really didn't know what I wanted to do. I was ill-prepared, really.
"When I look at it from the outside, it's a natural progression. Basically, I spent my whole life playing basketball."
The 6-foot-8 Tucker, 36, took over at Ballou three days before the season began last fall. After a rocky start, he led the Knights to an 11-10 record and the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association's East Division title.
Two other young coaches who have excelled are Lorenzo Roach, who took over at his alma mater, Dunbar, five years ago and led the Crimson Tide to the 2003 DCIAA title, and Theodore Roosevelt graduate Jenkins Dormu, who has led the Rough Riders to two straight DCIAA finals.
"It's a good sign," said Henry Lindsey, who after last season retired as Cardozo's coach after 41 years of coaching in D.C. schools. "We need to get good young coaches. I hope that they stick around as long as we did and put their stamp on the programs. There is a nucleus of good guys."
The new coaches are working in a city school system whose basketball scene bears little resemblance to the one they left behind years ago. During Tucker's mid-1980s heyday, he competed against the likes of Spingarn's Donald Hodge (who later played for the Dallas Mavericks and Charlotte Hornets), Carroll's John Battle (Rutgers) and Billy Martin (Georgetown) and Spingarn's Sherman Douglas (12 NBA seasons with five teams).
"It was saddening" to see the current state of DCIAA basketball, Tucker said. "In the late 1980s, D.C. area basketball was considered [to be elite]. Every year, we had a McDonald's All-American. Every team had at least one guy who was going [to play at a Division I college]. Now we're even lucky if one guy goes Division I."
Of the new coaches, Tucker perhaps faces the steepest climb. Ballou's image has suffered after several recent incidents, including a 2003 mercury spill that forced the closure of the school for a month and the fatal shooting of football standout James Richardson at the school in February 2004.
Under the city's open enrollment policy, students can choose where to attend school, and Tucker acknowledges that Ballou probably isn't the first choice for many athletes.
"I tip my hat to [Tucker]," said Keino Wilson, who retired last year after coaching at H.D. Woodson for 15 years. He marveled at "how hard it is building a program at Ballou. Last season was a championship year for him to get to the playoffs and win the East."
Tucker said that after a college and professional career that took him to Europe and the NBA, he believes he belongs at Ballou.
One of the nation's top prospects in high school, Tucker played for one year at Georgetown and the remaining three at Wake Forest. He was cut from the Denver Nuggets' training camp in 1993 and wound up in Europe, where he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in one of his knees after one week. He returned to Washington to rehabilitate and play semipro basketball.
In 1995, Tucker was invited to the Washington Bullets' camp and made the team. He was chosen to play in the NBA rookie all-star game, but a season later, he returned to playing in Europe.
Tucker is working toward completing an undergraduate degree in sociology at the University of Maryland and hopes to teach in Ballou's social sciences department next year. Last school year he was a substitute teacher there in physical education and social studies. For limited assignments, substitutes are not required to have college degrees.
"Going to college changed my world," Tucker said. "So somehow, some way, I'd like to be able to help someone else experience what I did in college. So many people gave of themselves to help me, and I really do want to help give back."
Tucker kept the Knights from self-destructing after they lost six of their first eight games. Early on, he was learning to juggle the demands of coaching -- he had never organized practices, installed offenses or monitored players' behavior. But Ballou won seven of its last 10 regular season games and advanced to the DCIAA semifinals.
"He made a big difference in keeping us together at the beginning of the season," rising senior Donte Durant said. "It was something about the way that he talked about keeping our heads in the game. We got our team chemistry together. Once we got on the same page, there was nothing that could stop us."
Tucker said the early-season struggles taught him about patience.
"It is a long season," he said. "We started out bad. We had a couple of games where we lost by huge margins. I learned patience and perspective. That's what I tried to teach them. The games that we lost were going to help us when we got into the league schedule."
Tucker is looking forward to next season. He will coach two summer league teams and start to figure out how he'll replace eight players who were seniors last season. It helps that his top scorer, rising junior Tyron Parker, is expected to return after averaging 17.6 points per game.
Tucker said he relishes the time he gets to work with players in the after-school open gym sessions. The players say they like intrasquad scrimmages -- especially when Tucker participates. The one-time D.C. phenom still can nail a three-pointer, block a shot or grab a rebound.
On the court, Tucker is in his element. He teaches his players at every opportunity. He chides players who don't play hard on defense -- a skill he was noted for during his career. He whispers encouragement to Durant, who missed several recent open gym sessions as he juggled his studies with an after-school job. He reminds Parker that he needs to show up more for workouts with his teammates and not just compete with his AAU team.
"He has so much knowledge that he can give to me and my teammates," rising junior Kalais Hunt said. "You can ask him. I bug him every two minutes with questions of what it was like to play in premier college programs and the NBA. It makes a difference, what he has done and where he has been."