It was 30 years ago that coaches from Washington's private and public high schools got together and decided to play a basketball game to determine the city champion. The advent of integration removed any legal barriers from such a match, and the obvious wealth of talent in both leagues seemed to demand it.
"The coaches' philosophy was to try and do a good job against a team we couldn't play before," said Frank Bolden, who coached Cardozo in 1957. "There was a lot of pride involved."
But what began as a simple duel for area bragging rights has since evolved into one of the most prestigious and talent-rich high school games in the country. The City Championship, which matches the regular season champions of the Metro Conference and the Interhigh League at the University of Maryland's Cole Field House, has, quite simply, become the game.
"It's certainly the goal we set for ourselves each year," said DeMatha Coach Morgan Wootten. "Our No. 1 goal is just to get to Cole Field House by the end of the year. If we win it, well, that's just icing on the cake."
His team has come up a game shy this season, losing to Gonzaga, 51-45, in the Metro title game last week. The Stags will have to settle for the preliminary game today at Cole Field House against Dunbar at 4. Gonzaga will play Coolidge in the City Championship at 6.
"It's become a prestige game," said St. John's Coach Joe Gallagher. "The proper perspective has been put on this thing now . . . It's the first time most of these kids have ever been to Maryland. Just dressing in the same place that Len Bias and Albert King dressed means a lot to them."
Wootten's teams have played in the City Championship game 12 of the last 14 seasons. The Stags, led by highly talented players such as Adrian Dantley, Charles (Hawkeye) Whitney, Dereck Whittenburg, Sidney Lowe and Adrian Branch, won eight of those titles, often at the expense of arch-nemesis Dunbar.
Interhigh teams have held their own, though. Dunbar defeated DeMatha in 1976 and came within a basket of winning in 1979; Spingarn earned titles in 1980 and last year. Eastern beat DeMatha in the 1974 City Championship.
But those results pale next to the fact that the game itself exists. After a promising start, including victories by Cardozo in the first two City Championship basketball games in 1957 and 1958, racial tension caused by a 1962 riot at D.C. Stadium (now RFK Stadium) during the City Championship football game forced the discontinuation of the games in both sports for 11 years.
The suspension occurred just when the City Championship basketball game had begun to come into its own. When it started, in the old Uline Arena, crowds of more than 4,000 saw Cardozo beat Gonzaga and Carroll in the first two tournaments, precipitating a move to the more-spacious Cole Field House in 1959.
There, Cardozo ran up against a Carroll team led by a big, beefy center named John Thompson and was soundly beaten. "They ran us right off the floor," Bolden remembers.
The anger and distrust caused by the riot had begun to wane by the 1970s, and both leagues were eager to resume the City Championship. A meeting was finally called in early 1973 at WMAL-TV (Channel 7), which had agreed to sponsor a renewed title game; coaches and administrators from both leagues attended.
"There wasn't a lot to say," Wootten remembers. "We just looked at each other and decided we'd been apart long enough."
DeMatha, which had won the last city title before the riot, fittingly inaugurated the new championship by beating Western, 89-77. Dantley, who now stars for the Utah Jazz of the NBA, had 20 points but was outdone by Western's scrawny guard, Larry Wright, a future Washington Bullet who had 28.
The following year, Eastern, coached by A.B. Williamson, upset the Stags. Williamson, who now coaches Howard, raised some eyebrows by declaring before that game: "I feel we will win, positively," but he said he believed it.
"I remember the tremendous pressure before the game," he said. "You had to have real leaders to win in those days . . . But our kids knew we'd win. They had confidence."
DeMatha and Dunbar met in seven of the next 10 finals, with DeMatha winning all but the one in 1976. The players on those teams reflected their coaches: the Stags were as technical and efficient as Wootten, the Crimson Tide as sleek and stylish as Joe Dean Davidson.
Most observers remember the 1979 final as one of the best. DeMatha had beaten Dunbar, 63-55, the year before but trailed by 60-59 with 24 seconds remaining. Unable to hear Wootten's frantic pleas for a timeout because of the crowd noise, the Stags hurried downcourt and went up by one on John Carroll's 12-foot jumper with 13 seconds left.
Although there was plenty of time left in which to set up and win the game, Dunbar rolled its last two shots maddeningly off the rim.
Lost among the DeMatha-Dunbar rivalry, however, was the performance of St. John's in 1977. After beating DeMatha for the Metro title, the Cadets had to wait almost three weeks for the Interhigh season to end. Despite scrimmaging only once in that time, St. John's got 30 points from Mark Pitchford and a 19-point, 11-rebound effort from Justin Ellis and beat McKinley, 83-72.
Heavy snows postponed the 1980 championship between DeMatha and Spingarn for three days, but that only heightened the drama. The Stags, led by Branch and center Bobby Ferry, certainly had enough talent to win any other year. But the top-ranked Green Wave had 6-11 center Earl Jones.
Branch had 26 points but Jones, who now plays for the Milwaukee Bucks, got 28 points and 13 rebounds to provide Spingarn a 77-69 victory.
But it has been the great teams, not the great players, who have left the deepest imprint upon the game.
Many future stars posted just average numbers at Cole Field House, and only a handful of players has ever scored more than 20 points. But that, according to Wootten, is a sign of the game's strength, not weakness.
"I don't think anyone has ever jumped out as the shining light of the City Championship," Wootten said. "The teams play so hard that no one is capable of dominating the game. There are just too many good players with good support.
"But we have gotten some great games. This game has been a real showcase for D.C. basketball. It has forced a realization that we play the best basketball in the country."