Sherman Douglas learned to dunk not long after he learned to walk.
His mother gave him a little basketball and a small hoop to hang on a door in their Southeast apartment. He was only 3 or 4. She gave him the ball not just on a whim but because she "saw the talent." If men are what their mothers make them, Sherman Douglas owes thanks to his.
Seated at courtside at Capital Centre Sunday, Lorraine Douglas watched 18-year-old Sherman, a Spingarn senior and The Washington Post's high school player of the year, put the last fine touches on his schoolboy career. Against the U.S. all-stars in the McDonald's Capital Classic, the 6-foot Douglas led the area team with 24 points in a losing cause.
"He seems to hold his own," said his mother, smiling at her understatement.
Her son -- who also led Spingarn to a 31-0 season, a city championship victory over DeMatha and a trip to the Rose Garden -- was blowing by on a fast break at that moment. To put it mildly, he loves to run.
On the break, he's something to watch, eating up the court with quick strides. He can take it coast to coast, as they say, or swoop in from the side with a burst, grab a pass and jam it, or, just as likely, bounce a pass to a teammate in better position to score -- all at high speed.
Spingarn was known this season for its "transition game," which could happen in a blink.
"It's a lot of fun, because that's what we do best," said Douglas recently, in his coach's office at Spingarn.
"The players like to play with Sherman," said John Wood, Spingarn's coach, "because he likes to get the ball to the right man. Sherman takes pride in his all-round play." To which Douglas said softly, "That's what I try to be, an all-round ball player."
He averaged 26.6 points his senior year, 8.1 assists. He plays defense. He goes for steals. And although not a "flashy" player, in the judgment of Spingarn assistant coach Robert Burrell -- "He never does anything for show" -- he will only walk on air if he has to.
Case in point: his junior season, big game at Dunbar. Dunbar is unbeaten and leads by two with five seconds left. Not to worry, Douglas throws in a 20-footer to send the game into overtime.
"In a close game, we knew who to go to," said Wood. "When a game gets tough, you don't have to tell one guy to shoot and another guy not to shoot. They go to the person who gets the job done, and on our team Sherman was that person."
"The go-to man," Burrell calls Douglas.
So, in the second overtime of that Dunbar game, Spingarn got three up and went to Douglas one more time. He made the game-clincher the most memorable shot of his life. "I just did a little 360," he said. More understatement.
What he did, in traffic, was get off a jump hook at the end of a 360-degree pirouette just inside the foul line. The ball slammed in off the glass. He was fouled and made the free throw.
Burrell, standing off in a corner of Capital Centre, waiting for the Capital Classic to begin, grinned as he reran the play in his mind.
"He just grew after that. He just got better and better."
The rest is a big part of 1984-85 Interhigh history.
If Sherman Douglas is no longer his mother's secret, he still has not lived a fishbowl existence.
Compared with, say, DeMatha's Danny Ferry -- "When's Ferry announcing? Will it be Duke or North Carolina? It's Duke!" -- Douglas has only lately emerged from working basketball miracles to surprisingly modest attention.
Old Dominion, Syracuse, Connecticut and George Mason are the colleges Douglas and Wood say have shown interest, with modest interest shown by Maryland. Others say that Old Dominion has pursued him the longest; Syracuse has jumped in lately. That's it. He hasn't decided anything and a new entry still could woo him.
He'll graduate on time, said Wood. And Douglas has mentioned that possibly he would like to study business in college. He told this to a friend and adviser, Oscar Phillips, a roving leader for the D.C. Department of Recreation, who has known Douglas since he was in fourth grade. After working two summers as a basketball camp counselor for Phillips, Douglas last summer studied computers in a program held at Coolidge.
"There are a lot of things to consider," said Wood. "If the college has the courses he wants; how much playing time he's going to get; if he wants to go someplace where he can play right away; if he wants to play 10 minutes as a freshman, that's okay, too. These are decisions he has to make."
Like Douglas, the Spingarn team received little preseason publicity. "After Michael Graham (two years ago), some people thought we didn't have anything else. But we were 24-6 last year. Last summer, we won the league at Sidwell Friends."
Phillips believes that because Douglas did not attend the high-powered Five-Star basketball camp run by Howard Garfinkel, he did not get the recognition he might have. Douglas' name came up rarely in preseason basketball magazines and was nowhere to be seen on the prestigious Parade magazine high school all-America lists.
Douglas took a different route. Last summer, he attended a camp at Princeton University called Athletes For a Better Education, which emphasizes classroom work and holds fewer games than all-basketball camps. Several area players went to Princeton. Said Phillips, with a laugh: "If some of them knew there was that much academic work involved, they might not have gone. But I think they're glad they did."
Douglas, the youngest of five children, played basketball for Phillips from fourth through ninth grades. "He could always shoot," said Phillips. And Douglas: "From the top of the key. But as you get older, you just try to work around. As they take that away from you, you go to open areas, find the open shot."
About the time he was leading Tyler elementary to a championship, then moving on to Hine Junior High and playing Boys Club ball, Douglas made a discovery about his game. He was 12 or 13. "When we were losing, I could just take charge of a game. When I saw I could do that, I felt I was a pretty good ball player."
He kept playing, on the blacktop next to Hine in Southeast and the playground at 6th and Brentwood NE. Some of the rims lack nets but, importantly, the courts have lights. You can shoot away the nights, and this Sherman Douglas did.
"He's just all about ball, playing ball," said his sister, Francine.
He's studied it. "He watches games on television," said his mother. And one year Phillips, who has kept close to Douglas off court as well, appointed him ball boy for the Washington team in the U.S. Youth Games, which Phillips coached and Adrian Branch played on. "We went to the University of Richmond and we took him along," Phillips said. "He really enjoyed it. He picked up knowledge of the game very quickly. He's watched a lot of basketball."
A "role" player as a 10th-grader at Spingarn, on a strong team with Graham, Douglas became the team leader last season. This season, said Phillips, "the biggest thing is his floor awareness. He's uncanny for a youngster in high school. He knows the spots to go to when looking for a steal. His passing -- he knows when to bounce pass, when to pass up high." As Burrell said, describing his play mildly, "He doesn't do anything flaky."
Said Phillips: "The thing I'm proudest of is the way he's matured. He wants to do something with his life." Phillips said he's known many youngsters as long as he has Douglas. "A lot of 'em," said Phillips, "bit the dust."
In the Capital Classic, Douglas played guard in the same back court with Earl Moore of Cardozo. During the season, Moore averaged two more points a game than Douglas to win the Interhigh scoring title. He's about the same build as Douglas, who is 165 pounds, has similar speed and quickness, and is deadly on the jump shot. Like Douglas, Moore was overlooked on the Parade all-America team. There may not be a superior high school guard to either.
Douglas is already where Updike's Rabbit Angstrom envisioned one particular playground athlete: He's a natural. The way he moves sideways without taking any steps, gliding on a blessing: you can tell. The way he waits before he moves. With luck, he'll become in time a crack athlete . . . "
After the Capital Classic, Douglas blended with the departing crowd. He had on a brown jacket and jeans, and a blue cap that he wore with the peak to one side. It came down close to his ears and one had to wonder: Is that Sherman Douglas under there?
A big part of some college franchise was walking by, and you could have missed him.