One Saturday morning in the fall of 1986, McKinley High School basketball star Anthony Tucker pulled on a T-shirt and a pair of shorts, laced up his sneakers and tucked his books under his arm. His destination: Sidwell Friends, an elite private school in Northwest Washington, where he had recently signed up for a course that would help him prepare for the SAT college entrance exam.

Anthony had taken the Scholastic Aptitude Test once the previous spring, scoring 740 out of a possible 1,600 -- just over the minimum of 700 required to play ball as a freshman at major colleges. But that wasn't good enough for Anthony, who already was considered one of the top high school prospects in the country. He wanted to do better.

The classroom at Sidwell was filled with students when he arrived. He looked around in surprise. Nearly everyone was wearing shirts and ties, and everyone in the classroom was white. Anthony slid into a seat. After that class, he never went back, and he did not retake the test.

The following Monday, he was back at McKinley in Northeast Washington, back where he is a familiar figure and stands out only because he is 6 feet 8 inches tall, 205 pounds, and the best basketball player who has ever worn the school's maroon and gray uniform. He realized how comfortable he felt there, where he had a coach who helped him with his studies and handled the recruiters who called him day and night, where most teachers understood the pressures on him and didn't question him too hard if he came in late or missed a class.

At college, he knew, it would be different. At college, he would be on his own, at least at first. But he said he wasn't worried. "It's an environment I have to get used to," he said.

For Anthony Tucker, the 1986-87 school year, his senior year, his last year to impress the recruiters, was a year filled with pressure. For many seniors, graduation is a blessing and a curse, a time of reckoning and anxiety about entering the job market and getting into college. For Anthony, the pressures were magnified. Just 17 years old, he found himself the object of attention from the opening day of school until the day in April when he announced, at a news conference, which college he had selected from the more than 200 schools that showed interest in him.

All that stood in Anthony's way was his own performance. He had to maintain a C average, both to be eligible for his remaining year of high school and to play his freshman year in college. He had no trouble during his first two years and his coach, biology teacher Charles Perry, wanted to make sure he had no trouble now.

Perry required all his players and tryouts to attend study hall for an hour and a half every day after school, even during basketball season. It started in September, two months before basketball practice officially began, and it continued after the season ended in March. Perry ran the study hall in a no-nonsense fashion. If someone came without a book, Perry sent him back to his locker to get it. If someone didn't have a homework assignment to do, Perry told him to read something, anything, a book, a magazine, a newspaper.

"This is a business for us," he said one October afternoon during the study hall session, which about 20 team members and prospective players were attending in Perry's second-floor biology classroom, Room 250. "Where do we want to go after our senior year?"

"College," they responded softly.

"This is a means to an end," Perry said. "If you're not looking to go to college, you shouldn't be here."A Player With Options

The telephone calls from recruiters began in early September 1986, soon after school opened. At first, Anthony liked the attention. But the phone rang so much in the one-bedroom Northwest Washington apartment he shared with his grandmother and father that he couldn't concentrate on his studies. "They ask you the same questions," he said one day. " 'Can I come to visit you?' . . . It's like selling something. They are selling a product."

Within a few weeks, Anthony stopped taking calls himself. His father, Elroy Tucker, answered the phone if he was home. If his father, a commercial painter, was at work or away, his grandmother would politely tell the callers that Anthony wasn't home. Sometimes, Anthony would just take the phone off the hook.

Then, the letters came. One was from Nancy Thurmond, wife of Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who wrote last Sept. 18 on behalf of her college alma mater: "I understand you will be graduating from McKinley High School this year and Strom joins me in wishing you and your coach, and teammates best of luck for a successful senior year and a victorious basketball season. With your bright future in athletics, I hope you will consider the University of South Carolina when looking for a college."

Interest in Anthony became so intense that Anthony and his father asked Perry to screen the recruiters, who were all trying to meet Anthony before Oct. 10 -- the last day that NCAA regulations allow college coaches to recruit high school players face-to-face until the end of the high school season. After that, they would have to limit any contact to phone calls or meetings with Perry.

McKinley's Principal Bettye W. Topps set down a few rules: Recruiters could visit the school only after classes had ended for the day, and they had to talk to the team as a group, not just to Anthony. "I didn't want the other kids feeling jealous," Topps said. "I was trying to maintain camaraderie on that team."

Some coaches met with the team in late afternoon after Perry's study hall, but most wanted to meet Anthony alone. Those meetings generally took place at night, usually at Perry's house, and lasted an hour or two. The coach from Ohio State University went an extra step: He showed a videotape that included shots of the campus, the basketball arena and a taped message from the university's president.

It didn't take long for Anthony to become wary of what he was hearing. "They tell you everything, and some of it you know is not true," he said one day in study hall. "A coach will tell you that you will start when he has 20 other players already playing that position. You have to look at the team and see what they need and then you see how you will fit in. You have to look at the coach. Will he care about you? If I couldn't play basketball, they wouldn't talk to me."

Perry, who has been coaching for six years, had had nationally recruited players in the past. But none like Anthony. He was an outstanding athlete, a natural shooter and a tough rebounder who dominated the game from his forward position. But he was more than an athlete. He was a team leader who had developed from a shy 15-year-old sophomore to a mature, soft-spoken young man. In short, he was the kind of player that college coaches liked to build their programs around.

Perry liked to describe Anthony as both a good student and a great athlete. He was quoted in a Washington Post article in February as saying that Anthony "did well in SAT boards"; Anthony's score of 740 was higher than the 704 average for D.C. public school students last year but lower than the 906 national average and much lower than the average for students accepted at the colleges on Anthony's list, including Georgetown, Syracuse and Maryland.

Perry encouraged Anthony to visit some of the colleges, but he told him not to rush into his decision. "When you have a kid who has options, he doesn't have to make that decision right away," Perry said. "His market value is going up as the deadline gets closer." Handling the Pressure

Once the season began, Anthony stopped meeting with the college coaches himself, but he still felt their presence.

"Just a short note to let you know I was here," said a handwritten note from Stu Jackson, who was recruiting for Providence College. " . . . We are on the verge of being a top 20 team. We are in a good situation for someone like you to grow and to be a major part of helping Providence regain national recognition."

And there was this letter from Syracuse Assistant Coach Wayne Morgan: "This is just a note to remind you that you are our #1 priority recruit, and there is not a day that goes by, that we don't think about you as our starting small forward for next season. I'll be down to see you soon. Anthony, think orange, 30,000 fans a game & National Championship."

At every game, home or away, Anthony's father sat alone in the stands, reliving his own days as a key player on the 1963 team at Cardozo High School. When Anthony was a child, his father took him to the playground, taught him to shoot, coached him in a league in Cheverly, where the Tucker family was living. He remembered how Anthony began recording his height on the bedroom door and how proud Anthony was when, at age 14, he surpassed his 6-foot-4-inch father. But the elder Tucker often reminded him: "You may be taller, but you ain't bad as me."

He didn't hesitate to drive that message home. On Feb. 3, after Anthony broke one of his father's rules by staying out too late, the elder Tucker benched him for a game with Roosevelt High School. Perry tried to talk him out of it, telling him that college coaches would be in the crowd, but Anthony's father stood firm. "I had to get him where it hurts," he said later. "I had to show him where he was hurting not only himself, but others . . . He's just a 17-year-old kid who can play ball."

His father felt pressure to keep after Anthony, especially after he and Anthony's mother separated in 1984. Anthony, an only child, was 15 at the time and had lived in Prince George's County all his life. After the separation, Anthony and his father moved to his grandmother's apartment in the District, and Anthony transferred to McKinley from Fairmont Heights High School, which he attended for ninth grade.

Anthony's father worried that his son wasn't being challenged academically at McKinley. It bothered him that Anthony had taken senior English in summer school rather than during the nine-month school year. Although the summer course was only six weeks long, Anthony had to spend four hours a day in class rather than the customary 45 minutes. Nonetheless, Anthony's father thought it was the easy way to pass the required course. "I think he does just enough to get by," he said one night at a game.

Students usually go to summer school to pass a course that they have failed during the regular year, not to take a required course early. It was Coach Perry's idea for Anthony to take English during the summer. "We knew that English was a tough course," he said. "We wanted to make sure that he had his core curriculum out of the way so it wouldn't interfere with his senior year and graduation."

As a result, Anthony's courses last year were geometry, chemistry, graphic arts, economics/government, typing and computer science for one semester. Unlike many of the students, Anthony generally did his homework, usually under the watchful eye of Coach Perry during study hall. "I got to be careful. People are always looking at what I am doing," Anthony said.

Throughout the season, Anthony struggled to balance his school work, the games and the recruiters. The team played at night, usually at 8, at least twice a week; the day after a game, Anthony was tired and had trouble making it to his first-period geometry class on time. Some days after a game, he was absent.

His geometry teacher, Anderson Ridley, wasn't satisfied with his performance. "When he comes, he does his work," Ridley said one day. "I told him, 'Man, if you want a scholarship, you've got to come to class to pass.' " Ridley gave him a failing grade for the second advisory, a nine-week period that ended in late January, the middle of basketball season.

The failing grade did not affect Anthony's eligibility because his other grades were good enough to maintain his C average. Still, Perry was upset and told Anthony to bring the grade up. At various times during the year, he warned Anthony and the rest of the team about doing their work and getting to class on time. "How can you walk past your teacher and speak and grin and not go to your teacher's class?" he said during study hall one day. "Some of you have some gumption and nerve."

As the end of the season neared, Topps became worried. "He's under too much pressure," Topps said Feb. 16, the day before McKinley's most important game of the year. "A girl who is performing at Tucker's level will not get that attention. Everytime I pass Anthony . . . I ask him how he's handling the pressure."

At a faculty meeting the following morning, Topps urged everyone to "put on your maroon and gray and come out tonight and cheer." The game was a sellout. Students arrived in designer jeans, expensive jogging suits, gold necklaces and bracelets. The recruiters were out in force, including Georgetown's John Thompson and the University of Maryland's Bob Wade.

Anthony's last-minute heroics nearly brought McKinley a victory -- he scored 23 points, including two crucial baskets to force the game into overtime -- but Dunbar won. The next day, Topps met with the players in her office. "You're still No. 1," she said. "I'm proud of you . . . . You are probably the best team we have had since I've been here." As she talked, Anthony looked at the floor and fingered his Walkman, which was not turned on.

The season ended with McKinley and Dunbar tied for the interhigh championship and Anthony as the league's leading scorer with a 24-point average. He was selected for several All-America teams and invited to play in a nationally televised all-star game in Philadelphia on Sunday, April 12. Topps announced at a March 23 faculty meeting that Anthony might have to miss several days of school because of the all-star game.

At that point, geometry teacher Ridley said loudly, "He may be failing from me." Topps stopped and turned to Perry. "Tell Anthony to see Mr. Ridley quick," she said.

When the third advisory grades came out the following week, Anthony just escaped failing. Ridley gave him a D, and at the end of the year, Anthony passed the course. 'The Best School for Me'

A few days after the faculty meeting, a rumor swept through the school that Anthony had made up his mind on which college to attend. It was spurred by an article on The Washington Post sports page about Dennis Scott, another area All-America who was considered by some as the best high school prospect in the country.

Scott announced that he was going to Georgia Tech, bypassing Georgetown and several other basketball powers. But in the same story, Georgetown Coach Thompson said he had not offered Scott a scholarship and that his No. 1 priority was Anthony -- who was his pick for best player in the nation.

The school was buzzing with the Thompson quote. "He better go to Georgetown after what Coach Thompson said about him," teammate Orlando Vega said. Everyone knew that Anthony had narrowed his choices to Maryland, Georgetown, Old Dominion and Syracuse, but Anthony wasn't saying anything more. Only Perry knew the winner.

Anthony's father thought he knew. He was most impressed with Syracuse's basketball program, which seemed perfect for Anthony's style of play, and he was certain his son had decided to go there. His son hadn't mentioned Georgetown much, so he thought Georgetown was out of the running.

Perry scheduled a news conference for Wednesday, April 1. Anthony's father was unaware of the news conference until he read an article about it in a newspaper on Monday, March 30. "I nearly hit the ceiling," Anthony's father said. But he decided not to bring it up.

At 8 a.m. on April 1, Assistant Principal Leroy Butler picked up Anthony and his father, and drove them to school in Butler's steel gray Mercedes for the 10 a.m. announcement. They arrived before classes began, and Anthony and Perry met to go over a two-page speech that another teacher had written for Anthony. "That's pretty good," Perry said, handing the pages back to Anthony, who rolled them up in his hand.

Students began arriving for Perry's first-period class. Anthony was sitting in a chair, looking out of place in his gray slacks, blue blazer and white shirt. "I can't believe it," said Niccole Ragins, a 10th grader, placing a hand on Anthony's shoulder and lightly turning him around so she could get a full view of his outfit. "Tucker in a suit . . . . He even has on dress shoes. I can't believe it. He always wears tennis shoes and jeans."

Downstairs, Topps, walkie-talkie in hand, was trying to clear the halls. Anthony's father was pacing outside the 150-seat lecture hall, Room 130, the site of the news conference. He still did not know which school Anthony had chosen. He spotted Perry, and the two men went back to Perry's classroom.

Anthony was waiting. His father asked him, "Where are you going?"

Anthony looked at him and said: "Georgetown."

When Anthony came down to Room 130, his father was nowhere to be seen. Anthony ascended the podium. Behind him, placed so the television cameras could pick it up, were several McKinley signs, including "Renewing A Legacy," the slogan the school had adopted for that year. Anthony steadied himself by resting each hand on the side of the lectern and spoke without referring to the rolled-up pages he had been holding in his hand.

"I am about to embark on a dream," he said to the half-dozen reporters and about 75 teachers and students who had been invited to the event. "I am about to make the biggest decision in my life . . . to go to a university where I hope I will fit in and make a difference . . . . I think I fit in very well both academically and athletically . . . . "

He paused, drawing out the suspense. "This place is the university of . . . "

He paused again, leading some in the audience to believe that he had chosen the University of Maryland.

" . . . Georgetown."

The teachers and students screamed and applauded. Everyone beamed as Anthony took questions from the reporters.

"Anthony, you said you had two other schools. What were they and why did you drop them?" one reporter asked.

" . . . I dropped Syracuse," Anthony started, then stopped. "Well, it really wasn't a matter of dropping Syracuse. It was a matter of choosing the best school for me, and I think Georgetown is the best school for me because of the coach."

Someone asked if he hoped to play professional basketball.

"That's a dream," he said. "That's another reason why I picked Georgetown. If that dream doesn't become a reality, then I will have a life after that."

Another reporter said, "John Thompson believes in discipline on and off the court. Do you think you can handle it?"

"McKinley believes in discipline on and off the court," Anthony retorted. Topps and the rest of the crowd cheered.

A Sympathetic Principal

In the all-star game in Philadelphia, Anthony was a standout, scoring 9 points in 17 minutes, blocking four shots and grabbing five rebounds. At the faculty meeting the next morning, Topps said she had watched the game on television and that Anthony had done "particularly well."

Because Anthony had missed an entire week of classes to attend practices for the game, Topps asked his teachers to let him make up the work. She reminded them of a student who had failed several years earlier because she had gone to Israel and missed a lot of work.

She said she didn't want that to happen to Anthony.

"You can't use the attendance rule for students who do this," she said. "Though it is not official school business, it is an opportunity that few McKinley students have. They said McKinley Tech a whole lot of times" during the television broadcast.

NEXT: Successful teachers


Thursday, May 14, 1987

It was the annual McKinley sports banquet, a night to celebrate the successes of the past year, and 142 student athletes and their parents had gathered at the Officers Club in the Navy Yard to eat, drink and listen to a special guest speaker -- John Thompson, the head basketball coach at Georgetown University.

Thompson had his own reasons for celebrating. A month before, he had won the recruiting battle for McKinley star Anthony Tucker, an All-America who was pursued by more than 200 colleges. But when he stood to speak, he said he had other things on his mind. He wanted to tell them about Sametta Wallace Jackson, his sixth-grade teacher at Harrison Elementary School in Northwest.

She was strict, tough and strong. She was hard on Thompson, and he didn't like it. He couldn't wait to graduate so he could go on to junior high at nearby Garnet-Patterson, where he would fit in better (he was the tallest kid in his class) and where he could "show his latest moves" to the junior high girls.

But Sametta Wallace Jackson changed all that. She flunked him because he couldn't read well. "It was not a popular decision for me," Thompson said. Over the years, he learned to accept it and now believes "it was the best thing that happened to me."

He paused. "All those folks who stroke you on the back may be good to you, but not for you," he said. "I was lucky enough to find one person in my life who told me this is what you will do."

He concluded: "You have to take the responsibility for your own education. You can't blame your teacher, your coach, McKinley Tech . . . . If you want it, you better go get it. The challenge is yours."


Washington Post reporter Athelia Knight spent nearly all of the 1986-87 school year on assignment at McKinley High School, where school officials allowed her to sit in on classes, attend faculty meetings and interview students and teachers about the problems confronting today's urban high school. McKinley was selected because it is an average D.C. high school, as measured by its scores on standardized tests and by the percentage of its graduates who go on to college.