Dantley reffing a JV game in 2015.
Photo: DeMatha

Adrian Dantley just refereed my son Eddie’s rec league game. An NBA all-timer and maybe the best little big man in the history of the game, working a weeknight seventh-grade playoff at D.C.’s Jelleff Recreation Center.

I tweaked my standard pregame pep talk to account for the legend in our midst. Along with the usual paternal nothings—“play hard,” “have fun,” etc.—I told Eddie, “Get a technical foul!” I was laughing as I gave out my Bad Dad counsel, and he laughed, too. But I kind of wished he would. I mean, life is for the retelling, ain’t it? “For the rest of your life,” I told him, “you can say you got T’d up by a Hall of Famer!”

My kids knew about Dantley through NBA2K and Eddie and his 9-year-old brother Eamon thought it was neat to see a guy with such a boffo rating in their favorite video game in the flesh. Clearly, I was more awestruck than them. I’ve been obsessed with local sports history for a long time, and there aren’t many sportsmen native to these parts able to strike more awe than Dantley. And this was at Jelleff, a vintage rec center that back in Dantley’s formative years hosted the infamous DeMatha vs. St. Anthony’s game, the most hyped schoolboy sports event this city had ever seen, and a matchup that also featured two other future hall of famers—pre-Georgetown John Thompson and Morgan Wootten, Dantley’s high school coach at DeMatha Catholic and perhaps the most famous prep hoops coach ever. Because of bad blood between the coaches and a brutal prank pulled by Thompson, that game is still talked about nearly a half century after it took place. Or didn’t take place. More on that shortly.

But first, a brief summary of the greatness of the now 63-year-old Dantley: He was an all-American in both high school (at nearby DeMatha) and at Notre Dame, then captained the USA’s 1976 gold medal-winning Olympics squad. He retired from the NBA in 1991 with 23,177 points, which meant he left the game as the ninth-leading scorer of all time. He led the league in scoring twice, averaged 24.3 points per game over his 15 NBA seasons, and had a four-year run of more than 30 ppg from 1981 to 1984. He shot 54.0 percent from the field, the best career mark ever registered by a player 6-foot-5 or shorter. He was named an NBA all-star six times. (Charles Barkley, who shot 54.1 and scored 23,757 points for his career and is Dantley’s stiffest competition as best-ever non-big who played with his back to the basket, is listed at 6-foot-6.)

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For all his on-court deeds and hall of fame status, Dantley’s lived quietly and taken on fascinatingly regular-guy jobs since leaving the NBA. In 2013, I discovered him working as a crossing guard for Montgomery County (Md.) Schools, getting up at sunrise every morning and coming back every afternoon to make sure junior high kids safely get where they need to be. The school job came with a $14,685.50 annual salary. He didn’t need the money; he made millions in his playing days and always had a reputation for tracking every dime.

“He’s not going to just sit around,” a Dantley associate explained when I asked about the guard gig.

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I’d heard in the years since spotting Dantley in the crosswalk that the same phobia about wasting a day also led him to get into refereeing kids’ games around town. (He’s not in this for the money, either: The referees at Jelleff are provided by the DC Approved Basketball Officials Association, which charges the rec center $42 per ref per game, and out of that fee pays the refs $15 and up based on experience.) And, sure enough, here he was, in standard rec league ref attire, recognized only by a couple geezers on the sidelines. Me among ‘em. I was buzzing just being near Dantley.

Photo: Tim Brown

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And, again, at Jelleff! Mention “Dantley” and “Jelleff” to any DC prep sports obsessive and you’ll likely have to hear about a contest forever known as “The Greatest Game Never Played.”

So here goes: Dantley played at DeMatha for coach Morgan Wootten. Wootten had turned the Hyattsville school into a nationally regarded powerhouse in the 1960s. After beating Lew Alcindor and his ostensibly unbeatable Power Memorial High School squad out of New York in 1965, Wootten and DeMatha were clearly kings of local hoops scene. But by the end of the decade, that dominance was threatened by Thompson, another local icon with national renown. Thompson had played at Archbishop Carroll High School as a kid, where his teams won 55 straight games from 1958–1960 and were regularly ranked as the top prep squad in the country. He left town to play for Providence College, but came back home after backing up Bill Russell on the Boston Celtics from 1964 to 1966, and immediately took over as head coach at St. Anthony’s, another D.C. Catholic prep.

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Thompson’s teams were strong right away, and he and Wootten quickly became very public enemies as they both vied to rule the roost. Prep sports were a huge deal at the time, and the Wootten/Thompson soap opera got lots of ink in local sports pages. Thompson frequently claimed that DeMatha was ducking his team. In 1969, he learned Wootten had prevented St. Anthony’s from getting invited to a Christmas tournament in Northern Virginia that DeMatha had signed up for. The Washington Post reported in 1970 that Wootten declined chances to play St. Anthony’s in another tournament at Georgetown University, and again at Howard University. Wootten hinted that he’d stayed away from Howard out of concerns for player safety, since the streets around the university were among those burned in riots set off by Martin Luther King’s 1968 assassination, and it would be decades before the neighborhood would fully recover. Thompson, however, said Wootten’s real fear was losing to St. Anthony’s.

Wootten denied ducking anybody ever. He insisted he thought DeMatha and St. Anthony’s should play in an arena, just like his team had played Power Memorial in front of a sold out Cole Field House crowd, and that Thompson was costing his own school cash by refusing his offers to play in one-off games instead of multi-team competitions.

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Finally, after two seasons of accusations and hype about the rivalry, Thompson and Wootten agreed their teams would play—but in a summer league game.

The contest was set for the night of June 30, 1970, on the outdoor court at Jelleff. DeMatha would be led by Dantley and Kenny Roy, a future Maryland football and basketball player; St. Anthony’s roster, meanwhile, was stacked with future D1 talent, including several players (Jonathan Smith, Greg Brooks, Aaron Long, Alonzo “Cheese” Holloway, and Merlin Wilson) who’d go on to play for Thompson when he took over the program at Georgetown.

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“There must have been 5,000 people at Jelleff that night, and everybody was just ready to get it on,” Roy once told me. “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 Thompson pulled was a stunt only an evil genius could conceive. Instead of giving the overflow crowd a game for the ages, Thompson used the big stage to upstage Wootten.

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Rather than send out St. Anthony’s best and brightest to face DeMatha’s Dantley et al, Thompson fielded what the Washington Post later called “a team of pickups and scrubs.” And the DeMatha coach sent out his regular starting five and, while fuming, told his players to step on the overmatched foe’s throat and stay there.

Final score: DeMatha 108, St. Anthony’s 26.

Thompson bragged after the game about one-upping Wootten, and admitted that the prank was premeditated: “Nobody who will be on the [St. Anthony’s] team in the fall” suited up against DeMatha, Thompson said. He’d put the non-players on his Jelleff roster specifically looking forward to the scheduled June date to retaliate for the perceived ducking.

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“I hope everybody who was there the other night and everyone who is interested was disappointed,” Thompson said. “Then they’ll know how my kids felt last year.”

Thompson left the high school ranks for Georgetown in 1972, a job that Wootten was also in the running for. In his 27 years as head coach of the Hoyas, no player from DeMatha came to play for Thompson. Personal animosity between the coaches had to be a factor, and was likely the primary reason, that there was no pipeline from DeMatha to Georgetown. Thompson, after all, built Georgetown into one of the strongest college programs anywhere, and of all the preps in the country, only Oak Hill, a transfer dependent basketball factory in rural Virginia, has churned out more NBA players than DeMatha.

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Thompson stayed on as a consultant at Georgetown after retiring as head coach in 1999, and the unofficial ban on DeMatha players remained until after Wootten left DeMatha in 2002. In 2007, DeMatha’s Austin Freeman ended the drought and became a Hoya, playing for Thompson’s son, John Thompson III.

History sorta repeated itself for Dantley’s recent return to Jelleff. Eddie’s team was at full strength, but the other team didn’t send its best seventh graders on the court. Not because of any devious plot to further a coaches feud, though. Nah, because only four kids on their roster showed up. The teams agreed to go ahead and play anyway, five-on-four. And while not of DeMatha/St. Anthony’s proportions, a blowout once again ensued.

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Afterward, I worked up the courage to approach Dantley. I asked if he remembered that night at Jelleff back in 1970.

Of course he did.

“Man, thousands of people were here!” he said. “But John wouldn’t play his real guys!”

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I had all sorts of follow-ups ready. But, Dantley politely pointed toward the court, where two new teams of kids had lined up. He had to go back to work.

Eddie didn’t get the technical foul from Dantley I’d hoped for. But as we left Jelleff I heard him taunting his little brother about how he “got to play in front of a hall of famer!” So he got a story to retell after all. Me too.