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Watching, playing, discussing, and thinking about basketball has consumed much of my life for the last 40-plus years. After all this time, I’m pleased to say that I’m still in the game. – John McNamara
On June 28, 2018, sports reporter John McNamara and four of his colleagues were killed by a mass shooter at the offices of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis.
But that is not how McNamara’s wife, Andrea Chamblee, wants her husband to be remembered. He was a sportswriter — and for more than a decade, he was working on a book about the storied history of high school basketball in the Washington region.
Chamblee joins us to discuss her husband’s love letter to D.C. hoops: “The Capital of Basketball.”
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Andrea Chamblee Attorney and activist, widow of John McNamara; @AndreaChamblee
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. John McNamara wrote, "Basketball may have been born in Springfield, Massachusetts, but it was adopted and raised in Washington." On June 28th of 2018, sports reporter John McNamara and four of his colleagues were killed by a mass shooter at the office of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. But that is not how McNamara's wife, Andrea Chamblee, wants her husband to be remembered.
KOJO NNAMDIJohn was a sportswriter, and for more than a decade, he was working on a book about the storied history of high school basketball in Washington, what some might call the capital of basketball. Joining us to discuss her husband's love letter to D.C. hoops is Andrea Chamblee. She's an attorney and activist. Thank you so much for joining us.
ANDREA CHAMBLEEThank you for having me. I'm happy to be here.
NNAMDIYou helped publish this final book of your husband, John McNamara, "The Capital of Basketball: The History of D.C. Area High School Hoops" earlier this month. First off, I know I've said this before, but I feel the need to say it again, I'm very sorry about your loss.
NNAMDIWhat can you tell us about your husband John McNamara and “High School Hoops”?
CHAMBLEEWell, I guess I'll start with saying how devoted he was to his friends and family. He was the kind of guy who set the alarm and woke up early and scraped the ice off my car in the wintertime, and started the pot of coffee, even though he didn't drink it. And when his little sister needed to recover after an auto accident in the Third World, where she was volunteering, she stayed with us for a year while she recovered. So, he was always giving the shirt off his back to anybody who needed it. And I was lucky that I was an object of his devotion.
CHAMBLEEAnd he was also devoted to writing and to sports. And I think he was writing this book in his head since his first high school basketball game when he was 14.
NNAMDIHow did you and John meet?
CHAMBLEEWe met after a football game. We were both big sports fans. North Carolina had played Maryland at home, and Boomer Esiason took a blow to the head and was carried off on a stretcher. So, it was Halloween that night, so we went out to toast his health and cross our fingers. And after John filed his story, he did the same. And we met in the Italian Gardens on Route 1, where lots of the students were helping Boomer recover quickly.
NNAMDIWhen did John begin writing "The Capital of Basketball"?
CHAMBLEEWell, he says in his forward that when he went to his first game when he was 14 years old he realized that these high school kids weren't that much older than he was. And he was an arm's length away from somebody who looks like they could be in the MBA someday soon.
CHAMBLEEAnd I think that's when he started making mental notes of the great players and the great games, because he could talk about this at the drop of a hat. And, in 2007, Bob Dwyer from Archbishop Carol, the Lions, passed away, and John was distressed. He said, I can't write my book now without quotes from Bob Dwyer, one of the best coaches who ever lived.
NNAMDIAnd that's when you sprang into action.
CHAMBLEEI said, there are plenty of people who remember Bob Dwyer. Talk to them now. (laugh) Get going and write it. And then he started writing every night, in his den, after work.
NNAMDIWhat's this book about?
CHAMBLEEWell, I think it's a multilayered book. Of course it's about basketball and the people who love it.
NNAMDII can tell you anybody who's a hoops fan in this region needs to look at this book.
CHAMBLEEI hope so. I get great comments on that...
NNAMDIAnd I say look at, because even if you don't necessarily read it, you'll see so many photographs of people that you remember playing hoops in this region, that you'll enjoy it.
CHAMBLEEAnd they came out great. I mean, these are yearbook pictures from the '40s, '50s and '60s, so we didn't have digital cameras back then, but they came out great. There's a picture of Brian Magid passing the ball, and I saw some comments on social media saying, how did they ever get a picture of Brian passing the ball? He never passed it. (laugh)
NNAMDIHe never passed it. (laugh)
CHAMBLEEBut it's also a story of dreamers and mentors. It's a great story of an American city. This city was a hotbed of integration on the basketball court. The adults could keep kids off the baseball diamond and the football field, but they couldn't stop them from playing on a street corner somewhere. And that's where the city really got integrated. And it's a great story of how that developed, too.
NNAMDIWhen did John's obsession with basketball begin?
CHAMBLEEWell, I know that he would've loved to have played for Joe Gallagher at his alma mater at Saint John's. But I think the top five players got a full ride to Division One, so it was quite competitive. So, he wanted to be a newspaper man and write about it.
NNAMDIDid you share his obsession with high school basketball?
CHAMBLEEI love watching high school basketball. Around here, there's so much teamwork and physical ability and dedication to the sport. It's just a joy to watch these young men and women now have it out on the court. I do love it. John could pick up the strategy right away, and I didn't have necessarily his eye for that part of the game. Although when I started yelling at one coach to switch it back to man-to-man, John told me I was right, but he said, sit down and be quiet. (laugh)
NNAMDIYou said that this was something that John was working on for more than a decade. How much of the book was complete when he passed?
CHAMBLEEIt really was on the brink of completion. He had done the middle, from 1950 to about 1995. He wanted to cover 100 years and end at 2000. But when I went in his den, I saw these three boxes of files, in order by year, and then school and then player. And he had notes for the parts of the chapter he hadn't finished. So, I took on the first chapter. I really just had to assemble it. He had his outline, and he had each quote he wanted to use tacked onto that.
CHAMBLEEAnd David Elfin finished the end, and he also was nice enough to review the whole thing and make sure we didn't have any gaps like missing team names and first names that we didn't...
NNAMDI(overlapping) What made you think of approaching David Elfin?
CHAMBLEEWell, David Elfin is a sportswriter in D.C. for about 30 years. He's a great writer. He had already written a book with John. And when I read that book, I couldn't tell which part was David's and which part was John's. Their voices just meshed so well together, and David know his stuff better anybody. And I asked him to help me, and at that time, we didn't even know it was going to be published. So, he did it out of the goodness of his heart. And I couldn't have done it without him. He did such a great job.
NNAMDIWhat was the process like, editing and ultimately publishing this final work after John was gone?
CHAMBLEEWell, it was on the brink of completion, so, in that respect, there wasn't a whole lot to do with the book. But he had a file in his box, and I know your readers (sic) can't see it, but I brought it in, 170 pictures.
CHAMBLEEAnd he didn't have any captions, because he knew who they were. So...
NNAMDII mean, there was Dave Bing, Elgin Baylor, John Thompson, all of the great basketball players who came through here.
CHAMBLEERight. There's a picture of James Brown when he's 16 years old, and I didn't recognize him as James Brown.
NNAMDIJames Brown went to DeMatha.
CHAMBLEEYes. So, I printed the ones out that were online, and I took the ones he had in his folder, and I carried it around with me for about two months. And I asked every sportswriter, who is this? This is Jerome McDaniels from Fairmont Heights. And I scribbled on the corner who it was. And I ended up on the couch of Morgan Wootten, and he looked at them all and he knew all the players. He didn't necessarily know what game it was or how many points they scored in that game like John did.
NNAMDIBut he knew all the players. Morgan Wootten, the famous DeMatha coach.
CHAMBLEEYes. For 40 years, he's been coaching and he's seen all these players. And once I knew the name I could go to the Charles Sumner Museum and Archives here in D.C. and get the yearbook and find out where that picture came from, and how that player's year went.
NNAMDIAndrea Chamblee joins us in studio. She's an attorney and activist. Her husband John McNamara was one of the five people killed at the office of the Capital Gazette on June 28th, 2018. She helped publish his final book "The Capital of Basketball: A History of D.C. Area High School Hoops." A number of coaching legends contributed words of praise and thoughts to the book about John. Can you tell us about what Gary Williams, Morgan Wootten, John Feinstein and Coach K had to say about "The Capital of Basketball"?
CHAMBLEEWell, they know our town's basketball history inside and out. Coach K from Duke likes to come up here. He seems to relish stealing players away from Lefty Driesell at Maryland and from Gary Williams. So, he was nice enough to point out that if you want to see a great game, come to D.C. And Luis Clark and John Feinstein wrote with John side-by-side at the press row on the basketball court. And we saw Walt Williams play together. He wanted to say what a pleasure it was being part of the book and talking about Prince George's County. So, I'm grateful all these people came forward.
NNAMDIGary Williams did the forward, right?
NNAMDIFrom a great coach at Maryland who took his team to the championship in 2002. But if you're talking about the University of Maryland, we have to mention the saddest case ever at the University of Maryland basketball. And that is the case of Len Bias. We have to mention it because, you pointed out to us, today is his birthday. Len Bias would have been 56 years old today. Can you read a passage from the book about Len Bias?
CHAMBLEEMy pleasure. John has posted his top 10 list of players that went professional. And he says, of course, on that aforementioned list of pros, Northwestern grad Len Bias, class of '82, would have been the 10th to go pro. His Northwestern team went to the Class AAA state title game, losing to High Point 54 to 52 on a Hail Mary shot at the buzzer. Bias, a sculpted 6'8" force of nature, could dunk over you, drive by you or shoot his feathery jumper over you.
CHAMBLEEAlso in 1982, Bias, with 18 points and 11 rebounds, won the co-MVP honors with Johnny Dawkins as the Capital All Stars beat the All American All Stars 82 to 79 at the Capital Classic.
NNAMDISaw that game.
CHAMBLEEAnd yet he stayed home to become a two-time ACC Player of the Year at Maryland. When I think of Len, I don't think of how great he was in games, his high school coach Bob Wagner told the Washington, D.C. City Paper 10 years after Bias' death. It's about watching him practice, because it was in practice that you could see how hard he worked to get to that level that he did, and how much he loved the game. That enthusiasm, that incredible spirit is what set him apart.
NNAMDIIt certainly did. Len Bias. In that game, there was Johnny Dawkins who went on to later play for Duke, one of those that Coach K stole. And he himself is now a coach. There were guys bigger than Len Bias in that game. I'm thinking of Brad Dougherty. And Bias was jumping over those guys and dunking on them. It was absolutely amazing to watch. Enough of me, here's James in Washington , D.C. James, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAMESThank you, Kojo. I was fortunate enough to see Dave Bing play when I was about five years old at what was then Lucy Slowe's school. And I had never seen anybody quite that big and anybody who could play quite that well. And, quite frankly, the rest is history. I just wanted to make that comment. And I was lucky enough to be able to play basketball during the '60s and '70s. And Mrs. McNamara's absolutely right. Basketball was just amazing during that time.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Dave Bing, of course, would later go on to be the mayor of Detroit in another life, so to speak. Though much of John's manuscript was close to finished, you were the one who turned his outline on the first half of the 20th Century of D.C. basketball into a narrative. And you wrote the first sentence of the book, which is a daunting task. What was that like?
CHAMBLEEWell, I wanted it to be in John's voice, but I couldn't really hear it in my head. So, I just tried to remember what it was like to watch him play around town. He was playing once or twice a week, up until the week he died. And we just loved driving by -- we would go out of our way to drive by the Sligo Creek basketball courts to see people playing, just to make sure the tradition was carrying on.
NNAMDICan you read the first sentence?
CHAMBLEEIt's hard to imagine a summer in Washington, D.C. with sunny days and muggy nights that aren't pierced with the thumps and grunts of dozens of basketballs and hundreds of players in pickup games pounding out their frustrations and dreams on hot asphalt or in pungent gymnasiums at Tricky Thicket, Candycane City, Kelly Miller Junior High or Sligo Creek.
NNAMDIIt's the first sentence that pulls you in, so you did a terrific job.
CHAMBLEEOh, thank you.
NNAMDIJohn wrote in the book, quoting here, "In terms of value for your entertainment dollar, I still believe you can't beat a good high school basketball game." What was it like attending those games with him? Was he always enthusiastic?
CHAMBLEEHe was always enthusiastic. There was always somebody to be enthusiastic about. I don't think I'll ever forget one February when it was ice cold around here and DeMatha was playing St. John's College High School at St. John's where John graduated from. And he wanted to see the game. And we got there, I don't know, about 90 minutes before tipoff, and the line was already around the school. We couldn't get in.
CHAMBLEEI saw kids sneaking around the back looking for a window that might not have been locked, so they could get in the building. But nobody had any luck. And I said, John, just use your press pass to get in. And he wouldn't do it, because he said he wasn't working and it wouldn't be right to try to get in that way. So, we hung around for about 45 minutes and realized there was no way we were going to get in.
NNAMDI(laugh) Oh, boy. I'm wondering if you can read the dedication in this book.
CHAMBLEEI'll give it a try. My husband, John McNamara, was a sports and news reporter for the Annapolis Capital. On June 28th, 2018, John and four of his colleagues were murdered by a gunman who blasted his way into the newsroom where John worked. I've spent the last year waiting, guessing and grieving. The anguish inhabits me, colonizes me. And when think it's heaviest, it makes its weight feel even more oppressive. But in John's den, I found the files for this book, electronic and on paper, that gave me something more than a distraction. It gave me a sense of purpose. John wanted to be remembered as a sportswriter.
CHAMBLEEWhen John published his first book, "Cole Classics: Maryland Basketball's Leading Men and Moments" about the home of the University of Maryland basketball, he dedicated it to me when he wrote: to Andrea, so many wonderful things happened to be during my four years at the University of Maryland, but you were the best of all. With this, I dedicate his last book: 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. So many wonderful things happened to me beside a basketball court and everywhere else since I met you, but you were the best of all.
NNAMDIAndrea Chamblee was married to John McNamara for 33 years. Thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIAndrea Chamblee is an attorney and activist. Her husband John McNamara was one of five people killed at the office of the Capital Gazette on June 28th, 2018. She helped publish his final book, "The Capital of Basketball: A History of D.C. Area High School Hoops." It was published earlier this month.
NNAMDIOur conversation with Andrea Chamblee was produced by Julie Depenbrock. And our segment about benefits open season for federal employees was produced by Margaret Barthel. Coming up tomorrow, WAMU will be carrying special coverage of the impeachment hearings on Capitol Hill at noon, but tune in at 9:00 p.m. for a special edition of our show. We're visiting Thurgood Marshall Academy in Anacostia tomorrow to hear what the next generation of voters think about these hearings and about national politics, in general. What does civic engagement look like for them? We'll find out. That all starts tomorrow at 9:00 p.m. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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