Joe Gallagher, once the quickest point guard in the nation's capital, pulls his hands from the pockets of his nylon coaching slacks and pinches the fleshy fold under his chin. He is the shortest and oldest man on the court, the one who keeps saying it was lovely, wasn't it lovely, fellas, and causing the hollow echo of balls dribbled against the wooden floor to die suddenly and give way to an endearing silence.
Even the young cadets pitching pennies in the lobby of the St. John's gymnasium grow quiet and strain in their clumsy crouches to hear the voice of the old coach who's been blowing whistles for this Christian Brothers school since 1946. And those words again, giving the ear more of what it's feasted upon all day, Gallagher saying, "We beat 'em good, boys. We beat DeMatha pretty good. And I knew it could be done."
This was several weeks ago, the day after St. John's upset DeMatha, then the nation's No. 1 high school basketball team, 37-36, on a last-shot jumper that drew the home crowd from its seats and rushing onto the floor. Tonight at 7:30, the teams will meet again at Montgomery Blair High School in a Metro Conference playoff game.
Last time out, Gallagher won it against his old friend and rival, Morgan Wootten, and won it on a dream. The old coach woke up at 3 a.m. and flipped up in bed, haunted by the vision that would carry him through the next night and help him end DeMatha's 38-game winning streak. He sketched out a game plan in the iron dark and drilled it into his boys the next day. And I knew it could be done.
Later, Wootten said, "Joe's not only a fine coach who's always on top of the game. He's been around for a few years, but he's never lost the desire to learn and to share what he knows about the game."
Twenty-four years ago, Gallagher and Wootten started what is now the nation's oldest basketball day school, a camp that draws about 1,200 students to the one- and two-week sessions. The school, formerly held at the St. John's campus, now uses the Takoma Academy gym off Carroll Avenue in Takoma Park.
"The first year, we only had about 35 kids turn out," Gallagher said. "It was an all-sports camp back then. We planned to run it six weeks but quickly knocked it down to four. We were charging each camper $25 a week, and by the end of the year, Morgan and I made about $125 each. The next year the number of kids doubled, then it doubled again the next, and then it really caught on. Now we get kids from Georgia, Michigan and once some from Canada. We even had some of this year's Italian Olympic team."
In his second year at St. John's, Gallagher hired Wootten as an assistant coach after observing Wootten's efforts with the football and basketball teams at St. Joseph's orphanage. Their relationship, both Gallagher and Wootten maintain, is that of friends and "healthy" rivals, one sparked at least twice a year when their teams meet on the basketball court.
Capacity crowds gather anticipating the match between Gallagher and Wootten as much as the one between two of the area's most competitive rivals. DeMatha (26-1) is ranked second in The Washington Post metropolitan area top 20. That lone blemish on its record is a source of enormous pride for St. John's, which is 19-6 and ranked seventh.
"I'm never jealous of Morgan's success," Gallagher says. "I feel a part of it. I feel like I taught him a lot. But he's learned a lot from many very capable coaches. He's driven, always out to improve himself. And I like to think I'm the same way."
Wootten, it has been widely reported, earns well over $100,000 a year as a coach, clinician and public speaker. Gallagher says, "I don't make that kind of money," but earns enough with his basketball camps to "give my children a good education and travel some and let my wife have a good social life." Summer is seldom spent at rest; Gallagher calls the season "time when I make enough to survive."
"I've always worked seven-day weeks in the summer," he says. "After World War II, I taught a class in tactics at the Marine Corps school in Quantico. Two years after that I worked at a liquor store. Then there was the time I sold beach property on the Chesapeake Bay. I could make more money in the summer than I could in nine months of teaching and coaching. On top of that, I was always selling life insurance on the side, and I sold lots in resort areas in Florida. I remember once making over $20,000 in just over two months. That same year, I took home about $3,000 from teaching school."
Even as a boy, Gallagher used his summers to make money. He was only 8 when his father died, and Gallagher found work in the mail room at the National Coal Association, where his mother was a receptionist. One of his most vivid memories involves coming home from his summer labor and walking the busy city streets with his grandfather. They had walked all the way down to the gasworks in lower Foggy Bottom, at the present site of the Watergate building, and his grandpa had turned to him and said, "Smell the gas, Joe?"
Washington, as Gallagher remembers it, was different then. Al (Sleepy) Thompson, now the athletic director and football coach at St. Stephen's School, was one of Gallagher's best childhood friends. Thompson's father had moved the family to Washington from Durham, N.C., and opened a barber shop directly across the street from a popular delicatessan. You could buy peppermint patties there for a penny, and those with pink icing won you a prize. Once a month, little Joey Gallagher would go to the shop for a clipping, and Thompson took great pride in knowing his father cut the hair of the greatest schoolboy athlete in town.
"Everybody admired Joe," Thompson said the other day. "I remember being proud as a peacock this one day he chose me as a partner in a two-on-two game. It was on a cement outdoor court, and we played with a tennis ball. It was a little thing, but one I'll never forget, mainly because Joe chose me."
At the beginning of ninth grade, Gallagher enrolled at St. John's, "because I thought the military training would teach me discipline and be good for me, without a father and all," he said. "And the fact that Gonzaga had beaten St. John's was a challenge to me. Most of the kids in my neighborhood went to either Gonzaga or Western high schools. I remember playing quarterback on the football team and finally beating Gonzaga my senior year, at old Griffith Stadium. I thought I had the world by the tail, then I broke my ankle with 30 seconds left in the game. And I learned that you just don't grab the world by the tail at 17."
In his first year at St. John's, Gallagher taught five classes and drove the school bus, transporting his basketball, football and baseball teams from the school grounds at 1225 Vermont Ave. NW to a practice site at 16th and Kennedy streets.
"I knew then that you don't make much money coaching," he said. "But that's not why you do it. I look at the place where the old St. John's school used to be and there's a hotel and apartment building there now. There were only about 350 cadets then, and we'd drill in the streets. Now there's 1,035, but it's still St. John's, and that means more than I could ever say."