Gary Mays, who should have been really famous, died Monday night. He was 82.
The first time I met Gary was in 2001 when he drove to my house to pick me up to go to lunch. “Put on your seatbelt,” was the first thing he said to me when I got in the car.
He was drinking an orange soda and talking on a cellphone, along with driving. Gary had one arm. I belted up.
I’d wanted to meet Gary for a long time before that day, for reasons involving his missing a limb. I’d heard for years about the legend of “The One-Armed Bandit” from Armstrong Tech who’d shut down another god-like figure in D.C.’s black community, Elgin Baylor of previously undefeated Spingarn, for an upset win back in the 1954 city basketball championships. In another time or another place, or if he wasn’t black, Gary would have been a legend everywhere. That was the last legally segregated schoolboy title tournament ever held in the Nation’s Capital, coming only a couple months before the U.S. Supreme Court released its Brown v. Board of Education decision. The racist system that kept Mays from showcasing his against-all-odds talents against his white peers also limited his renown mostly to neighborhoods on the east side of the Anacostia River. Mays starred in what was called Interhigh’s Division 2, a bracket for the five “colored” schools; Division 1 was for D.C.’s nine white schools. The Washington Post and other local media gave sports at the white schools huge coverage, while the black schools were ignored.
But Mays’s performances got around by word of mouth and through the black press. And so aging African American ex-jocks all around D.C. still spoke of him as a mythical figure when I met him, nearly a half-century after he bested Baylor. He allowed me to become his friend and tolerated my constantly making him tell and retell his glory days tales. And what tales I heard, each one more fantastical than the last, and Gary had a scrapbook to back up every amazing detail with newspaper and magazine clippings.
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He had his left arm amputated just below the shoulder as a five year old in 1940, after he knocked a shotgun off a table chasing a pet around grandmother’s home in West Virginia. He moved to D.C. with his single mother and grew up on the blacktops and sandlot ballyards of the city.
“On the playgrounds, nobody would choose me until I beat them,” Gary once told me. “So I had to beat them.”
By the time he reached high school he was prodigious in every sport he tried. Turned out he was also the best baseball player in the city...as a catcher.
Ebony magazine gave him some national press as a junior at Armstrong with a short article on the one-armed backstop, and a little later Jet gave Gary a photo spread that showed how he threw attempted base stealers out by tossing the ball up as he got out of his crouch, flipping his glove off, and catching the ball in mid-throw. The Washington Daily News, the only D.C. daily that devoted any ink to black school sports, reported after his senior season that “no one has stolen a base on him all season.” The story also said he’d hit .375, and didn’t make an error all year.
For all that, Gary didn’t even get invited to any All-High, All-Prep all-star games, played each year at Griffith Stadium, the home of the Washington Senators; only players from the white schools were eligible. He proved he deserved to be there a year later, when the Daily News sponsored a tryout camp for players of any race. Gary (who was described in the camp program simply as a catcher who “bats right, throws right”) hit the only home run of the camp-ending scrimmage game, and threw out the only runner who attempted to steal on him. Scouts unanimously named him MVP of the camp.
But no professional team offered to sign Gary after that camp, so he got on a train and headed to Caldwell, Idaho, where Elgin Baylor and another D.C. schoolboy star, Warren Williams of Dunbar, were playing basketball for the College of Idaho. A 1955 story in the Caldwell newspaper said that Gary and Elgin put on “Globetrotter-like” ballhandling routines at halftimes of Coyotes home games. The Coyotes went 15-0 in conference play for the 1954—1955 season, the first undefeated season in school history. Sports Illustrated wrote up the successes in its March 7, 1955 issue, and had this to say about Gary:
Mays, known as “The Bandit” because he lost an arm in a childhood accident, captained the Armstrong Tech team, made Washington’s All-Metropolitan squad, caught for the baseball team, ties his shoes and shoots a fine game of pool—” ‘Course I use a bridge,” Mays (no kin to Willie) qualifies.
Gary always told me that the students at the nearly all-white school and the townspeople of nearly all-white Caldwell embraced him and his D.C. teammates from the start. But the school administration didn’t like all the attention the hoops players were getting, and at the end of the best-ever season fired the coach and de-emphasized the basketball program. Gary and Elgin and other surviving teammates were brought back to Caldwell last June for a celebration honoring the squad.
Baylor transferred to Seattle University and went on to almost singlehandedly carry that team to the 1958 NCAA Final Four, and opened the nation’s eyes to the bumper crop of hoops talent being sown on D.C.’s playgrounds.
As the Idaho squad disbanded, Gary got a personal letter from Abe Saperstein, the founder and owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, requesting that he join the team. An offer from the Globetrotters was often more prestigious and profitable than an NBA deal at the time. Gary told me that as much fun as he’d had in Idaho, he was homesick, so he turned down Saperstein and came back to to D.C.
Though Gary largely remained a secret outside of his hometown through the years, Baylor’s dominance on a national stage—he retired from the Los Angeles Lakers in 1971 as the NBA’s second all-time leading scorer, behind only Wilt Chamberlain, and was elected to the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1977—gave longevity and gravitas to Mays’s reputation around the Nation’s Capital. To his last day, folks around here asked him about that game back in ‘54, and wanted the One-Armed Bandit to explain how the hell he outplayed the great Elgin Baylor.
“Elgin didn’t like my nub,” he’d say humbly and with a smile, “so I kept rubbing it against him.”
He eventually started a family and settled in Fort Washington, Md. He often told me he had trouble getting work in later years, for many of the same reasons he wouldn’t get picked on the playground as a kid. But, as he did back in the day, he rewarded anybody who took a chance on him with the best he had. I remember meeting him for another lunch date in August 2002, when he was a self-employed contractor and had successfully bid on a job to install security systems in the sewers around Henderson Hall, a Defense Department facility adjacent to the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., as part of a post-9/11 government contract. It was above 90 degrees that day, with the oppressive humidity typical of Washington summers. But when I arrived at his job, Gary, then 67 years old, was working alone and lugging the biggest cast-iron manhole cover I’d ever seen around the huge parking lot with that one amazing arm. He was already my hero, but, man, I’ll never forget that sight.
I drove us to lunch this time, though.