The Capital of Basketball
- By John McNamara, with Andrea Chamblee and David Elfin
- Georgetown University Press
- 336 pp.
- Reviewed by Christine Brennan
- December 19, 2020
This thoroughly researched work illustrates how much the sport owes the city.
The stories told in The Capital of Basketball: A History of DC Area High School Hoops are rich and textured, describing a patchwork of neighborhoods, basketball courts, and young athletes that tells the history of not just a sport, but of a city.
But it’s the story behind those stories that makes reading this book both a compelling and poignant experience. The author, longtime Washington, DC-area sportswriter John McNamara, passed away more than a year before it was published. John and four of his colleagues were murdered by a gunman in the newsroom of Annapolis’ Capital Gazette on June 28, 2018.
In the midst of her unimaginable grief, Andrea Chamblee, John’s widow, went into his den and found his files. Some were printed. Others were on his computer.
After a year of “waiting, guessing, and grieving,” she writes in the introduction, the discovery of the makings of John’s book — this book — “gave me something more than a distraction. It gave me a sense of purpose. John wanted to be remembered as a sportswriter.”
That he will be. This book leaves no doubt. As John writes in the preface, he was a DC basketball fan from the get-go, watching and writing about the game as often as he could. He enjoyed basketball at all levels, but it was the boys’ high school game that provided a special allure. “I kept following the game, and the game kept following me,” he says.
He jokes about his “brief flirtation with the news side of newspapers — a lapse in judgment, I grant you,” as he quickly returned to the sports page. Clearly, that’s where John belonged. This book is a testament to that decision.
John’s book is wonderfully reported and researched, as thorough a history of DC boys’ basketball as you’ll ever read. Many know that the game was invented by Dr. James Naismith in Springfield, MA, in 1891, with two peach baskets nailed 10 feet above the floor at opposite ends of the court. But who knew that Naismith’s game was played with nine-man teams?
It was in Washington that basketball evolved into a game of five players per side, John reports. Fast breaks started in DC, too, as did strong defense. “Basketball may have been born in Springfield, but it was adopted and raised in Washington.”
And it was nurtured to prominence by a city and area that, in spite of segregation, welcomed the rise of the African-American player, an historic development in difficult times.
The book is filled with wonderful nuggets. As John describes a return to prominence of the boys’ basketball team at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, MD, in the early 1960s, he mentions “a remarkable period at Blair”:
“During the 1960s, the large, leafy, sprawling campus at the edge of Sligo Creek Park served as a sort of social incubator for some extraordinary individuals who went on to become rich, famous, or both.”
Included among Blair alumni royalty are Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein and NFL tight end Bob Windsor, class of 1961; presidential aide and actor Ben Stein and Major League infielder Roland “Sonny” Jackson, class of 1962; actress Goldie Hawn, class of 1963; newscaster Connie Chung, class of 1964; and novelist Nora Roberts, class of 1968.
But make no mistake, this is a sports book. More specifically, it’s a basketball book — a celebration of the exploits of the great boys and men who played the game locally. It is filled to the brim with exquisite, encyclopedic detail. And the photos! Dozens of them going back to 1910. There’s a young Red Auerbach peering out from the 1940s. A young James Brown from the 1960s. A young Len Bias from the 1980s.
As you pore over the pages and travel through the decades, you inevitably come back to the stark realization that the man who wrote these words is gone. Andrea’s dedication at the front of the book is heart-wrenching: “To John: We promised each other we would spend the rest of our lives together. You kept your promise. You spent the rest of your life with me.”
She finishes this way: “Because of a mass shooter, this is the last promise I can keep for John: By editing and publishing his book, I can make sure he will be remembered not just for how he died, but for how he lived.”
She succeeded. Every page of The Capital of Basketball is a reminder of how talented John McNamara was, and of what we all have lost.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2019.]
Christine Brennan is an award-winning national sports columnist for USA Today, a commentator for ABC News, CNN, PBS NewsHour, and National Public Radio, a bestselling author, and a nationally known speaker. Named one of the country's top 10 sports columnists by the Associated Press Sports Editors three times, she has covered the last 18 Olympic Games, summer and winter.