This summer, Anthony "Jo Jo" Hunter walked through the barbed wire gates of the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland, a free man for the first time since 1996.
He was put away for the armed robberies of two jewelry stores in Washington, D.C. The second of the retailers hit during Hunter's mini-crime spree around his hometown, a vintage valuables specialist called Gold-N-Time, was just four blocks from where, 20 years earlier, Hunter enjoyed the kind of heyday most prep athletes only dream about.
In the mid-1970s, he was a guard and all-around superstar for basketball powerhouse Mackin Catholic High School, and for a time ranked as one of the city's most popular athletes — in any sport, amateur or pro. From Elgin Baylor's day through Kevin Durant's, this town has been fertile ground for hoops players. But the crop of talent during Hunter's adolescence was particularly bumperish — in his first high school game he shared a court with four future NBA players. But among all the profoundly fabulous youngsters working the playgrounds and school gyms, Hunter stood out. His name still pops up on lists of the city's best-ever ballers — all based on his high school play — and conjures the D.C. basketball scene of the '70s like nothing else: In his 1997 whodunit King Suckerman, George Pelecanos sets the scene at a popular basketball playground in the summer of 1976 by having "Jo Jo Hunter, a Player of the Year from Mackin," face Adrian Dantley as an 8-track of the Commodores' "Gimme My Mule" blares from a courtside boom box.
"He was a legend at a time when legends were created on the basketball court, not through websites or social media or national scouting services," says Stu Vetter, one of the most successful high school coaches of all time. "People would fill the gyms to see Jo Jo Hunter wherever he played, even in the summertime." Vetter is now perhaps best known for coaching Durant at Montrose Christian School. But in the mid-1970s, when he was just a newbie coach at Flint Hill in the Virginia suburbs, Vetter would take his players on weekly trips into the District for Mackin games to watch Hunter's every move.
While so many of his contemporaries were coveted by colleges, Hunter was the only kid in town being pursued by the pros. And this was back when the NBA typically shunned youngsters and made everybody but four-year college players prove financial woes to enter the draft — "hardship cases," these early applicants were called.
The Washington Post referred to him in headlines as "Can't-Miss Hunter," a nod to his professional prospects as much as his jump shot. His Mackin coach, Harry Rest, now says what everybody who saw Hunter in high school said when they watched him play: "Jo Jo was going to make it."
Hunter never made it. He had a vagabond college career, with stints at the University of Maryland and University of Colorado, and then a globe-trotting yet anonymous run as a pro that hit four continents and nine cities in nine years. But his name had never appeared on an NBA roster by the time it made the crime blotter. Every city's got tales of the kid with all-world talent whose fame and game peaked early and in his hometown. D.C.'s got Hunter's story.
"Some things didn't turn out the way they should have," Hunter told the Post in 1986. He blamed only himself then, and still does.
His arrest and convictions a decade later provided final certification that Can't-Miss Hunter had indeed missed. His playground peer, Dantley, was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame while Hunter was in jail.
Nobody who followed Hunter's 1997 trial doubted his guilt or questioned the seriousness of his offenses. But lots of folks of similar vintage in his hometown decided last fall that the Jo Jo Hunter who was once a wizard for the ages on the court and a sweet, bashful gentleman off it deserved a shot to undo the damage done by the Jo Jo Hunter who robbed and terrorized store clerks. To them, 16 years behind bars meant Hunter had more than paid his penance.
Barring intervention on his behalf, Hunter's parole might not have come until 2044, which was the scheduled release date listed for Inmate No. 09817-007 in the online database of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
"It's scary to see that date," Harolyn Harrison told me last November. She is Hunter's cousin, and, along with her husband, Jesse, a leader of the effort to get him out. Harolyn is several years younger than Hunter, and even though she never saw him play high school ball, she grew up in awe of his legend. Jesse, a star for D.C.'s Roosevelt High in the 1970s and a local basketball historian whose vintage hoops scrapbook is second to none, admits he has idolized Hunter since childhood. "He's the baddest I've ever seen," Jesse says.
To start the movement to spring Hunter, the Harrisons asked a group of fellow Hunter worshipers now playing alongside Jesse in D.C.-area senior basketball leagues to write to the U.S. Parole Commission and plead for clemency. The Harrisons just wanted to bring Hunter home. But their Free Jo Jo campaign sparked something more — a reunion of the best and brightest the D.C. basketball scene once had to offer.
The effort expanded quickly and quite organically, with some of the greatest athletic exports in the city's history lending their names and reputations. Among those who aided Hunter: James Brown, the CBS announcer and a onetime stud at storied DeMatha High; Dave Bing, a D.C. playground god and Spingarn High superstar long before becoming an NBA Hall of Famer and mayor of Detroit; and Kermit Washington, a Coolidge High alum and former L.A. Laker who had one of the greatest careers in NCAA history while playing for a hometown school, American University.
"I'm blessed," Hunter now says. "When you're in there, they let you know that parole is a privilege, not a right. Not everybody up [for parole] has the support of the mayor of Detroit."
Since his release, he's been repaying those who helped free him the best way he can: by playing ball with and against them again. A whole lot of ball. One of the many hoops parties with Hunter as guest of honor took place in November inside a small, crowded gymnasium in Northeast D.C.
"Last but not least!" shouts Stacy Robinson, the emcee for this old-timers' game and a guy whose standing in his hometown also peaked in the 1970s, when he was an All-American guard at Dunbar, as he read off rosters filled with names of one middle-aged former local hero after another. "We welcome him home! From out of jail! Anthony 'Jo Jo' Hunter!"
The bleachers, full of fiftysomething men, erupt as Hunter jogs out to center court to slap hands with his similarly aged ad hoc teammates. Their jerseys say "D.C. Legends."
"It's great to have Jo Jo back home," Robinson tells me afterward. "It's a great cause for a reunion. These games with Jo Jo let us think back to the times when we were all just kids playing ball, headed for stardom."
Harry Rest remembers a day in the spring of 1972 when a junior high coach from D.C. Public Schools came by the basketball office at Mackin Catholic High with two kids, one ninth-grader and one a year below. Lots of youth coaches wanted their kids in the Mackin program at the time: The school was a basketball factory from the years when Austin Carr starred for the Trojans in the late 1960s to when Johnny Dawkins held court in the early 1980s. Mackin's cupboards were particularly teeming with talent in the early 1970s, so Rest could afford to be choosy. The junior coach made it clear he was playing favorites. He urged Rest to look at the older boy.
"He barely mentioned the younger kid," Rest says.
Rest sent both youngsters down to the school gym, where some of his better players were working out. It only took a few minutes for Rest to make up his mind. "I told the guy I'll take the older kid — but only if he gets me the eighth-grader, too," Rest says. "I could tell that other kid was special."
That other kid was Hunter.
By summer, other coaches in the singularly stout Metro Catholic Conference, the District's league for Catholic schools, knew about Hunter, too. But Hunter says Rest was the only one who told him he'd have a shot at playing varsity as a freshman. He started the 1972-73 season, however, playing for both Mackin's freshman and junior varsity squads, and remembers averaging "about 35 points" per game at each lower level. The varsity call-up he'd dreamed of came on a January night after he'd already played a JV game, when Rest came into the locker room and announced that the starting point guard, a senior, had been ruled ineligible for being too old. (The player Hunter replaced in the Mackin lineup, David Reavis, who was bounced for being 19, would go on to play at the University of Georgia and be drafted by the Washington Bullets in 1977.)
Mackin's opponent that night was DeMatha, the undefeated and top-ranked team in the city, led by future NBA players Kenny Carr and Adrian Dantley. Mackin put two future pros on the floor, too: Duck Williams and Keith Herron. The NBA had but 17 teams at the time, so having four guys in an entire prep league who would go on to make the bigs would be impressive enough; that much talent in one high school game is simply outrageous. Such was the quality of D.C. hoops at the time.
"Coach told me to just bring the ball up and pass it to Duck," recalls Hunter of his debut, where he was the only freshman on the court.
The Trojans lost the game, but Hunter blended with the big boys. "He's an unbelievable 15-year-old," Rest told the Washington Post afterward. "He stabilizes our offense. He has great composure. He looks just like [popular Celtics point guard] Jo Jo White. But I can't get Hunter to shoot enough. That's my problem."
The nickname quickly gained traction — nobody in town was calling him Anthony by the end of the season. And as Hunter's reluctance to put the ball up went away, his game gained renown, too.
"I'm not kidding: Everybody in D.C. changed the way they shot to shoot like Jo Jo," says Rest. "I saw all the kids having the same rotation, the form. Everybody wanted to be like him."
Vetter, at the beginning of his prep dynasty-building career, became an early Hunter acolyte.
"Wherever Jo Jo Hunter and Mackin would play, we'd go watch," says Mike Pepper, a Flint Hill guard who became Vetter's first Division I recruit and the captain of North Carolina's 1981 Final Four team. "Nobody from Northern Virginia would drive downtown back then. But Coach Vetter wanted me to see the best, and that's where the best was."
Tom Boswell, the longtime Washington Post columnist, now ranks as perhaps the nation's preeminent baseball writer. But in the mid-1970s, the District had been without a Major League Baseball team of its own for a few years, and hadn't yet adopted the Baltimore Orioles. So Boswell served as, well, the Boswell of D.C. prep basketball for the city's paper of record, and was on that beat throughout Hunter's Mackin career. Boswell covered the city's prep stars with all the gusto and column inches he would now devote to, say, Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg. He remembers being awed by Mackin-DeMatha tilts of that era, which were always played at neutral sites because neither school could accommodate the crowds.
"There would be a little press section set up at those games, with a few folding tables at mid-court," Boswell says, recalling the quaintness of the scene. "But it was so crowded in the gym that you'd look under the table and find people sitting between your legs. It was the most amazing atmosphere, so loud you couldn't hear anything, much more painful than any NBA game I've ever been to."
The biggest of these matchups came on a snowy night in February 1976, when Mackin and DeMatha were dueling for first place in the Metro Conference and Hunter was fighting for the city scoring championship with DeMatha's center and future NBA first-rounder Charles "Hawkeye" Whitney. The local media and fans built up the matchup, played at St. John's College High School, to a prep version of Ali-Frazier.
And, according to those who were there, it lived up to the hype. DeMatha won in overtime, 84-82, as Whitney dropped in 41 points to Hunter's 38, which came in a more memorable fashion.
"It was almost like Jo Jo was coming down across half court and throwing it up and it was going in," says Tom Ponton, now a DeMatha administrator, who attended the 1976 game as a DeMatha student. "I don't know how many points he would have had if there was a 3-point line. He was making so many long-range jumpers. It was, 'Wow!'"
Former DeMatha coach Morgan Wootten was reported to have been wowed by Hunter, too; he fought through the crowd mobbing the court at the buzzer to get to Hunter just to tell him: "Jo Jo, there's nobody better than you!"
When asked what he remembers about Hunter, Wootten, now an 81-year-old Hall of Famer, brings up that night at St. John's immediately, calling the game "one of the biggest" games of his 46-year coaching career. "And we had a lot of big games," he says.
Hunter's reputation already transcended the Beltway. Rest says that college recruiters came to every Mackin practice "except one we had on Christmas Eve." This was long before texting and e-mail, of course, so recruiting involved a lot more personal contact. The battle for Hunter's services among the colleges became so overwhelming, Rest says, he told all suitors what times they could call the school, and implemented a three-in-person-interviews-per-day limit for his star player. That still wasn't enough to satisfy demand.
Digger Phelps, the Notre Dame coach who by then had landed a passel of D.C. superstars, including DeMatha's Dantley and Mackin's Duck Williams, was particularly eager to add Hunter, Rest says.
"I remember Digger showed up at my office one morning wanting to see Jo Jo," Rest says. "I said, 'He's already got three appointments. If you go away until 3:30 [p.m.], I'll try to work you in.' Digger went and watched a movie and came back."
Another of Hunter's fervent pursuers: The University of Detroit, coached by future mouth of the game Dick Vitale. Rest recalls warning Vitale that he'd be cut off from the school's talent pool if he made one more unscheduled solicitation. Vitale doesn't remember getting such a threat; he doesn't deny, however, coveting Hunter.
"I sure did call [Mackin] and try to make contact with Jo Jo Hunter," says Vitale. "He was an absolutely phenomenal talent, an incredible scorer, a prolific scorer."
Scouts and coaches from the Philadelphia 76ers began showing up at practices and writing letters, too.
Until the early 1970s, the NBA didn't allow teams to sign college underclassmen, let alone high schoolers. That changed with Haywood v. NBA, a case brought in 1971 by prodigy Spencer Haywood. The U.S. Supreme Court, by a 7-2 vote, ultimately upheld a lower court's ruling that if the NBA's eligibility restrictions were allowed to stand, Haywood's "public acceptance as a super star will diminish to the detriment of his career, his self-esteem and his pride will have been injured and a great injustice will be perpetrated on him." So the NBA, under legal duress, loosened its rules to permit anybody who could prove financial need to apply for the draft. Yet as of 1976, only two players had ever actually jumped straight from high school to the NBA, and they were frontcourt players — Darryl Dawkins of the 76ers and Bill "Poodle" Willoughby of the Atlanta Hawks. (Moses Malone, who had gone from Petersburg High School in Virginia to the ABA's Utah Stars in 1974, was in contractual limbo following that team's folding and the imminent ABA-NBA merger.)
"There were no guards," says Rest. "Jo Jo would have been the first."
Being pursued by the NBA enhanced Hunter's already lofty status among the locals, and generated even more coverage. Not everything reported about the kid was upbeat.
A massive Boswell profile of Hunter that ran in February 1976, just after the Hunter-Whitney showdown at St. John's, judged him to be the most sought-after prep player in the country by colleges and went over the '76ers solicitations. Yet with all the pressure, Boswell wrote, Hunter remained a kid who always smiled and "tried to please everyone." But Boswell also included tales of hardship off the court. The story, headlined "Can't-Miss Hunter Is Halfway There," describes his "Dickensian boyhood," in which he got into scrapes with the law for years for stealing food for his younger siblings whenever "the bills mounted up and the refrigerator was empty."
His mother, Lorraine Raysor, told the Post that Jo Jo "has had to be a man" since he was a little kid.
"I remember when he was 9," she told Boswell. "I told him he might not get what he wanted for Christmas. 'Oh, Lorraine,' he said, he called me Lorraine even then, 'Christmas is for kids.'"
Boswell's piece also noted that everybody around the Mackin star had feared "for years that Hunter would land in a reform school, a hospital or the morgue." He wrote that Hunter routinely knocked on coaches' doors after midnight in distress and looking for shelter from "domestic quarrels" taking place back home, and Raysor told the writer that she would indeed send him out when the situation under her roof "became too unbearable."
It's doubtful that a major newspaper would run such a thorough profile on a schoolboy athlete in 2013. But, again, this was 1976, and Hunter was a major celebrity in D.C.
"I have a clearer memory of the look on Jo Jo Hunter's face when I was interviewing him about his family than I do about anything he did in a basketball game," Boswell now says. "It was a sensitive, wounded face. I can still see that face."
Hunter's high school career ended with the 1976 Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament, then one of the premier high school competitions. Hunter averaged 45 points over three games — still the tournament record — and for the second year in a row was named MVP of the event, held annually in Cumberland, Maryland.
Hunter's next visit to Cumberland came in 2007, when he was shipped into the federal penitentiary there in shackles.