Every book is a labor of love. But few channel the dedication and the emotional weight of three people united through marriage, friendship and tragedy the way “The Capital of Basketball: A History of DC Area High School Hoops” (Georgetown University Press) does.
On June 28, 2018, a man walked into the Capital Gazette offices in Annapolis and killed five journalists, including John McNamara. The 56-year-old had covered sports in the Washington region his entire adult life, especially basketball, and had been slowly compiling that history over the course of more than a decade. “The Capital of Basketball” is the culmination of the efforts of McNamara’s widow, Andrea Chamblee, and his friend David Elfin, who picked up his notes to bring his work to fruition.
The text itself is a meticulous history of the players and coaches that defined D.C. area basketball, broken down by the decade. Anecdotes and line scores are preserved for posterity, chronicled in painstaking detail, thanks to more than 150 interviews and countless hours of research. While the writing showcases the kind of granular attention to detail that would appeal to any sports fan, it’s also an impressive historical text that demonstrates how basketball’s influence stretched beyond the simple happenings on the hardwood, helping the city contextualize the broader societal changes taking place.
“I think (basketball) is baked into the culture of Washington D.C.,” Chamblee said in a recent conversation with WTOP. “It’s woven into the fabric here. Every American city has a story and in D.C., it’s basketball.”
Make no mistake — this was not the beginning of some series of books about the history of hoops in cities around the country. D.C.’s history, and McNamara’s knowledge of and dedication to it, were the driving forces for this book.
“This is his passion, this is what he cared about,” said Elfin, who also co-wrote “Cole Classics! Maryland Basketball’s Leading Men and Moments” with McNamara. “Washington D.C. — no place else.”
The history that McNamara brought to life starts with E.B. Henderson bringing the game to the District in the early 1900s and continues up through Bob Dwyer’s Archbishop Carroll teams of the 1950s — the first integrated teams in the city, a full two decades before the T.C. Williams football team memorialized in “Remember the Titans.”
“Adults have kept black and white kids off the gridiron, and off the baseball diamond, and obviously out of tennis courts and golf courses,” said Chamblee. “But they couldn’t stop kids from playing on street corners together.”
That has remained true, and high school hoops have enjoyed an outsized foothold in the District, even as professional sports have filled out the city’s offerings. One of the hottest tickets in town remains the Washington Catholic Athletic League tournament, which has been host to some of the greatest games in the city’s history.
“We had the Redskins and the Senators and nothing else until the Bullets showed up in December of ‘73, and college sports were not great until Lefty Driesell got here in about 1969,” said Elfin. “So really, high school basketball had a chance to shine in this city where maybe in some other bigger cities that had more stuff going on, they didn’t.”
Still, despite years of effort, it wasn’t clear the book was going to make it across the finish line. Late in McNamara’s career, as cutbacks and restructuring hit the Gazette, he was taken off the Maryland beat. Adding insult to injury, he found out via Facebook. The sting hit him on an existential level as well as a practical one. More than a decade into the book, he couldn’t shake a question, which he posed to Chamblee: Who wants to buy a sports book from someone who’s not a sports writer?
As a result of that, for Chamblee, the project was a dedication to McNamara’s legacy. Both she and Elfin give the other credit for pulling it all together, and to Georgetown University Press for turning the finished product into something they can all be proud of.
“I felt like I couldn’t afford to fail to make sure John was remembered as a sports writer,” she said. “So whether this was going to be a self-published, ugly book on Amazon for 99 cents a chapter, I was going to do it … It’s something I just can’t get over, that it’s a real book.”
Getting the book to press was also a chance to say thank you for all the little graces bestowed along the way in a life lived together.
“John spent our whole marriage doing nice things for me — scraping the ice off my windshield, and making my coffee, and putting away the laundry that I could wash but I hated putting away — and I always told him I was behind in the gestures department,” said Chamblee. “So this is my chance to catch up.”
Elfin and Chamblee will be at Barnes & Noble in Rockville, Md. at noon on Saturday, Dec. 7 and at the 11th Annual Takoma Park Book Fair from 2-5 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 14.