Summer-league Hoops St. Anthony's and DeMatha almost played each other, back when everybody cared.

Ringer Stinger: Coaching feud cost DeMatha’s Roy a chance to play rival St. Anthony’s.

Summer-league basketball used to own this town.

Kenny Roy was a part of the biggest summer-league game of all: the June 1970 matchup between his DeMatha basketball squad and the John Thompson–coached team from St. Anthony’s, the top two prep programs in the city, outdoors on the asphalt at Jelleff Boys Club.

“It took a summer-league basketball schedule to accomplish it, but DeMatha and St. Anthony’s high schools will finally meet,” said a preview piece in the Washington Post that appeared the morning of the event.

Roy describes the game as both one of the most anticipated sporting events he ever played in and “the greatest game never played.”

“There must have been 5,000 people at Jelleff that night, and everybody was just ready to get it on,” says Roy, 55. “We’d done all the talking. Finally, it was going to happen. This was the game everybody wanted to see. And then John Thompson pulls what he pulls. What a disappointment.”

In scoring terms, here’s how the game turned out: DeMatha 108, St. Anthony’s 26.

Roy’s agony of victory, however, resulted from Thompson’s behind-the-scenes shenanigans. The Post write-up of the game said St. Anthony’s, which had a high-powered roster full of future NCAA Division I talent, had dressed out “a team of pickups and scrubs.” Thompson sent them in for a slaughter as lopsided as General Custer’s squad at Little Big Horn. In an interview days later with the Post’s Ken Denlinger, Thompson, who didn’t show up at Jelleff the night of the massacre, admitted that he’d stocked the summer-league roster with nonplayers from his school just for this one-night prank. “Nobody who will be on the [St. Anthony’s] team in the fall played” against DeMatha, he boasted. And Thompson confessed he did it all to get back at DeMatha coach Morgan Wootten for ducking his team in the past.

The Jelleff matchup was the peak (or nadir) of the rivalry between the two Hall of Fame coaches.

DeMatha had Roy, who would go on to play both football and basketball at the University of Maryland. The Stags also had Adrian Dantley, the recent basketball Hall of Fame inductee and one of the greatest players this area has ever produced.

St. Anthony’s, meanwhile, was loaded with future Georgetown Hoyas: Jonathan Smith, Greg Brooks, Aaron Long, Alonzo “Cheese” Holloway, and Merlin Wilson.

Thompson said Wootten blackballed St. Anthony’s from some big-money postseason tournaments, most notably the M Club tournament at Cole Field House a year earlier. Wootten, in turn, charged Thompson with using bullying tactics to gain an advantage for his team—Thompson once told the press the DeMatha coach was scared to play him on a downtown court such as Howard University’s Burr Gymnasium.

So all followers of local high-school hoops got weak in the knees when they heard that St. Anthony’s and DeMatha were actually going to play each other on the blacktop at Jelleff.

Tom Ponton was at the game. He was a grammar-school-aged fan of St. Anthony’s. His older sisters had both attended the school, and he went with his father to root on the Tonies.

“There were so many people at Jelleff, we had to park about four miles away and walk,” says Ponton. “I’d never been to an outdoor basketball game before, and we walk up and there’s about 4,000 people all around this little court, an amazing scene. But by the time we get there, it’s in the middle of the second quarter, and DeMatha’s up by 50 points, and everybody’s talking about how John Thompson sent his freshmen in. After all the trouble it took just to get there, it was just a big disappointment.” (Ponton, despite his early St. Anthony’s allegiances, ended up not only attending DeMatha—class of ’78—but working there, too; he is now DeMatha’s director of development.)

Merlin Wilson, high school all-American at St. Anthony’s under Thompson, defends his coach’s ploy all these years later.

“We knew all the DeMatha players from the playgrounds, and there wasn’t anything between us, you always want to play the best. But this was on the two coaches, just going at each other, this was their deal,” says Wilson, who played pro ball overseas for a dozen years after leaving Georgetown in 1976. “But we knew [Wootten] wouldn’t play us [in a regular season] and pulled out of tournaments, kept us out. If his team was all that, why wouldn’t they play us when it mattered?”

The game, regardless of its onesidedness, remains symbolic of how powerful summer-league ball once was around these parts. The court where it happened was torn down earlier this decade to make room for a parking lot. Bob Stowers grew up in Glover Park, spent much of his youth at Jelleff, and now runs the club. He thinks about the old court, and what took place there, when he’s parking his car.

“Looking back on it, I don’t know how the summer leagues here were ever a success, to tell you the truth,” Stowers says. “The games were played outdoors, in the heat, on a court that was small for a junior high game, with trash and broken glass, and a brick wall on one end, with the poles holding the baskets right there on the court, so you had a great chance of running into either the wall or the pole. But, for a time, a lot of people showed up at Jelleff.”

Eddie Saah, who ran several local prep leagues for decades through the mid-1990s, including Jelleff’s and later the well-regarded Eddie Saah Summer League at Georgetown, has no doubts about why summer basketball isn’t what it was.

“AAU killed the summer leagues here,” Saah says. “Now, it’s all travel teams in the summer, and all the good players are playing for AAU teams out of town. There are leagues in the suburbs now, and some people care, but there’s nothing downtown, nothing like it was.”

Saah watched the dynamic of summer ball change from local school teams playing a whole season together to high-powered AAU squads temporarily stocked with ballplayers from elsewhere: Kevin Garnett, Alonzo Mourning, and Allen Iverson were among the visiting players who made brief appearances in Saah’s D.C. summer leagues on their way to superstardom. Occasionally, that setup led to huge nights—the fire marshal closed McDonough Gymnasium when Iverson made his first post-prison appearance there, and Dean Smith and Jim Valvano were among the college coaches who scouted the talent—but it was hard to build a whole schedule around the out-of-towners.

Roy, at the risk of waxing too nostalgic, says that the summer ball of his youth was as good as it gets.

“You’re not ever going to have that local flavor that we had,” he says. “You’re not ever going to have anything like DeMatha and St. Anthony’s again. That won’t happen.”

 

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Our Readers Say

I alway knew John Thompson was nothing but a fat punk, and this proves my suspicions were correct all along.
I remember those days well. DC basketball was unsurpassed and the organized and pickup games played throughout the city only added to the legacy and tradition of what used to be. AAU has destroyed the pureness of the game and has created many of today's ego-centric players and their AAU coaches. As a result of this manipulation by AAU coaches the pure and healthy rivalries of the past between the area high schools has lost stature and we all lose out.
There's more to the story than what Thompson claims. I have it on good authority since I resided with a coach from DeMatha in my Junior year ( Full disclosure: I was a scrub foootball player who started one game my senior year.) Wotten was more than happy to play Thompson. But Thompson demanded one game only on his court or a court where the stands would be filled with support for his team, such as at Howard University.

Morgan, who was the champ while Thompson was the challenger, said if there was going to be a game, there would be two games, home and away.

Thompson was trying to rig a home town speed trap, but Morgan was too smart for that.

So what did Thompson do when the game would have been on a court favorable to DeMatha at Jelleff's? He copped out.

Thompson knew the truth, but Morgan had the class not to ruin Thompson in the press. The self promoting Thompson could have used some himself.
Thanks for the interesting history lesson. As a graduate of St.Anthony's grade school 89' and DeMatha HS 93' I had no knowledge of this rivalry.I did find it strange when in 8th grade on St. Anthony's basketball team that we were the first team fielded in many years playing in the then All Saints HS.
As a graduate of St. Anthony's grade school 73' and a member of the grade school basketball teams and then attending DeMatha my first two years of high school and also playing basketball at DeMatha, I remember this well. I have respect for both coach's and must admit that I really wanted to stay at St. Anthony's and play for Coach Thompson but he left for Georgetown. I truly learned the game of basketball from coach Wotten.

I remember in the 10th grade while playing for DeMatha's Jr. Varsity we had a game one day and coach Wotten came into the gym before we left for this game to give us a pep talk. He told us to show them what DeMatha basketball was all about. I found it strange because he'd never given us a pep talk before any other games, just always said good luck. The school we were playing that day....St. Anthony. Enough said!
The Jelleff summer league was fantastic in the early 80's as well! Guys like Johnny Dawkins, Carlton Valentine, Danny Ferry, Grayson Marshall, Michael Graham, Earl and Lynwood Davis and one of the best ever, Kenny Scarborough. DC basketball used to be second to none. Thanks forthe reminder.
As a proud St. Anthony Grad ('84, The Year of the Tonies, the Greatest Graduating Class Ever), I take offense to anyone bashing Big John for trying to open up closed doors. He did what others were afraid to do and has done that all his career. Fighting for an even playing field is a tough job; everyone ain't cut out for it. You can't fight for change and rights and be a punk, so you can squash all that...you wouldn't tell him that to his face and he's an old man now and he still whup that ass.
Maybe Gary Clark can put together a Reunion Game since he is doing such a great job with the Redskins Reunion on August 29th.
Stags! You got to love those Stags. I would add a correction to Merlin's thoughts because the Stags never went anywhere. DeMatha has still been winning championships long after St. Anthony closed their doors as a high school.
Does anybody remember Ballou High basketball team and the Campbell Brothers spanking St. Anthony's at Howard University, one of the biggest upsets in city history?
Im a graduate of St.Anthony's class of 82 ,I agree summer league hoops was the place to be in the summer . I played with and against Johny Dawkins , Earl and Lynwood Davis and others and we remain friends today , the only reason I'm commenting is that the guy that called out THE GODFATHER OF D.C BASKETBALL John Thompson needs to learn to keep it closed , that mouth because we all know that he would'nt open that mouth in public . I know the family and they are all great people ! AAU has killed us !!!
back in 1970 when st. anthony had its powerhouse team coached by john thompson they made a little trip up to new haven,ct. they went to play st. thomas more prep first. lost to them. then played wilbur cross hs. lost to them 74-66. john thompson took his team off the floor and to the lockerroom with a little over two and a half minutes to play. they would not return. why? anybody's guess. he said the officiating. everyone who was there said it was john williamson(1st team all american)danny hardy, roland jones and company. williamson was an otherworldly talent and those talents were on full display that day. he scored 36 points. 3 below his average. though greatly outsized and playing two seniors two freshman as 4/5ths of their starting five, wilbur cross played typical new haven basketball and drove st. anthony's nuts with a combination of street ball, fundamental ball and a visciousness that shook them up. new haven and connecticut high school basketball has proved from the earliest days of the sport to the present that it is as good as anywhere on earth, and better than most.some of the all time connecticut top players...calvin murphy 5-10 norwalk hs, john williamson 6-2 wilbur cross hs, walter luckett 6-5 kolbe hs, charles smith 6-10 harding hs, corneilius thompson 6-7 middletown, alex scott 6-2 wilbur cross hs, michael adams 5-10 hartford public hs, mike gminski 6-11 masuk hs, john bagley 5-11 harding hs, wes matthews 6-1 harding hs, marcus camby 6-11 hartford public hs, mickey heard 6-4 wilbur cross hs, kris dunn 6-3 new london hs, sly williams 6-7 lee hs, doug wardlaw 5-11 wilbur cross hs, walter esdaile 6-5 hillhouse hs, theron mayes 6-2 hillhouse hs, earl kelly 6-0 wilbur cross hs, maurice williamson 5-11 wilbur cross hs, bruce campbell 6-9 wilbur cross hs, roland jones 6-4 wilbur cross hs, rick mahorn 6-10 weaver hs, harper williams 6-7 bassick hs,billy evans 5-11 hillhouse, eddie griffin 5-11 hartford public, kendrick moore 6-2 hartford public, jiggy williamson 5-11 wilbur cross hs, frank viera 5-6 brigeport central hs, frank oleynick 6-2 notre dame hs, barry mccloud 6-0 notre dame hs, ron moye 6-0 wilbur cross hs, vin baker 6-10 old saybrook hs, ernie digregorio 6-0 st thomas more...just to name a few. there are plenty more...some of the girls..nakeshia sales 6-0 bloomfield, tracy claxton 6-0 wilbur cross, maria conlon 5-9 seymore, karen draughn 5-7 wilbur cross, nadine domond 5-10 bridgeport central, tracy lis 5-10 killingly, bria holmes 6-1 hillhouse. I could probably go on a lot longer..but..let it stop here for now. thank you. keep hooping, people!
Let me add one more thing (three years later- LOL!)

DeMatha has never walked away from playing the best teams. In fact, Morgan sought out the best teams to play that he could find both locally and out of state and had his team travel across the country to do it on many occasions, sometimes winning and sometimes losing.

I heard Morgan say in his office that he would play St. Anthony's so long as it was a home and away arrangement.

It was Thompson who had repeatedly played other great teams but only if they played on his home court only. He refused to play those teams on their court.

The bottom line is that Thompson wanted to topple Morgan from being the king of the hill so that he could assume the #1 spot as a coach. And he wanted to do it in an unfair manner.



I remember the DeMatha St. Anthony's riff well. Just wanted to add that DC summer basketball did not die in the 70s, it thrived in the 80s as well. Their was also another very high profile Jelleff League championship game in the summer of 1980 featuring DeMatha vs. Dunbar. That particular day an overflow crowd filled the Jelleff gymnasium to watch Dunbar all-American Anthony Jones & all-met Sylvester Charles going against DeMatha all-american Adrian Branch & all met Bob Ferry, Jr. One of the most exciting high school games I ever witnessed. The gym was filled past capacity & the crowd was electric. Jones & Branch two very similar players did not disappoint as they went back & forth at one another. Bob Ferry, Jr. was a dead eye shooter but it was a back-up guard from Dunbar Micheal Wright who in the 2nd half who shut him down by not allowing him to get the ball. Dunbar won a close well played game. The two teams went on to meet in the 81 City Championship game in which underdog DeMatha handed undefeated Dunbar it's only loss of the season.

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