Hunter was a good son.
During his senior year at Mackin, his mother repeatedly told reporters that she wanted him to ignore whatever money the 76ers would throw at him and instead go to college. He obeyed his mom's wish.
Hunter now says he did his due diligence, speaking with professional agents about his options and even going to a 76ers workout when the team was in town to play the Washington Bullets to pick the brains of Julius Erving and George McGinnis, his favorite players. Erving had just come over from the ABA, where Skip Wise, an underclassman from Clemson, had recently thrown away his NCAA eligibility by signing with the Baltimore Claws right before that franchise went belly-up. Erving and McGinnis told Hunter that pro ball is a business, he says, and that he shouldn't sign away his chance to get a college scholarship until he got some written guarantees from Philadelphia management about salary and education subsidies.
Alas, the spring of 1976 wasn't the best time for a prep player to be asking a pro team for guarantees. The two pioneering rookies in the NBA, Dawkins and Willoughby, were hardly earning their keep. Willoughby averaged 4.7 points per game in his first year out of high school; Dawkins scored just 90 points in 37 games, a 2.4 PPG average. Dawkins ultimately snapped out of his slump and had a fine career. But Willoughby, whose first pact was for $1.1 million over five years, never shed his bust label.
Not coincidentally, NBA teams didn't sign another high school kid for 19 years, until Kevin Garnett in 1995.
Bottom line: Hunter couldn't wrangle any guarantees from the 76ers. That made it easier to follow his mother's instructions.
And, amid much fanfare around D.C., Hunter decided on a school located just seven miles from his boyhood home, the University of Maryland. That was where Lefty Driesell had been trying to build what was dubbed "The UCLA of the East" after his 1969 hiring. Maryland under Driesell never came close to matching UCLA in wins or prominence, but he had succeeded in making his program a conduit to the NBA like John Wooden's. The 1973-74 Terps were stocked with future NBA draft picks, including two first-rounders from the 1974 draft (Tom McMillen and Len Elmore); a first-rounder in the 1976 draft (John Lucas, taken first overall by Houston), and '76 second-rounder Mo Howard; and a first-rounder in 1977 (Brad Davis, redshirted at Maryland in 1973-74, taken first by the Los Angeles Lakers).
None of those players were D.C. kids. But Driesell now says the school's administration told him to recruit locally to save money on travel and exploit the talent glut in the nation's capital. So Driesell used assistant coaches and D.C. natives George Raveling and Willie Jones, the latter a legend on the city's playgrounds from his days in the mid-1950s in Elgin Baylor's sphere, to work the home turf hard. During Hunter's recruitment, Maryland also ended up landing several other local heroes, including nationally desired blue-chippers Brian Magid of Blair, James "Turk" Tillman of Eastern, and Billy Bryant of Carroll.
After choosing Maryland, Hunter played a D.C. summer league game against a squad packed with members of the Washington Bullets — NBA stars routinely showed up in the city's summer leagues in the 1970s. The Post's write-up of that game said that Hunter scored 27 points and "had as little trouble against the Bullets as he did last year against his high school competition."
Lefty's local harvest turned bitter before long. Hunter says he was told he'd be groomed as Lucas's replacement. He had an OK freshman season, though he found himself playing a role unlike any Lucas ever played during his first year as a Terp: substitute, since he regularly came off the bench to spell Brad Davis. With Davis departing for the Lakers, the stars seemed aligned for Maryland to become Hunter's team. But things got ugly before Hunter's sophomore season, when his local fame worked against him. The school newspaper, the Diamondback, and the Washington Star, a major D.C. daily that's no longer in publication, reported simultaneously that he was among a group of athletes on academic probation.
"The Star carried the piece above the fold on the front page [of the sports section] with the pictures of [the Maryland athletes], so it looked like they'd robbed the 7-Eleven," says Mark Kram Jr., now a longtime Philly sportswriter, who at the time was a Maryland student writing for both the Diamondback and the Star and had worked on the stories. "It really caused a stir." The athletes then sued Kram and other reporters who were involved, as well as both papers, claiming that leaking grades violated the Buckley Amendment, which is designed to protect students' privacy. The suit, which asked for $72 million in damages, was tossed out by the state Court of Special Appeals, which ruled that because Hunter had "sought and basked in the limelight" by signing on to play with the school team, he "will not be heard to complain when the light focuses" on the possibility of being booted off the squad for any reason, even bad grades.
Kram has obviously grown to regret having a role in the trumpeting of Hunter & Co.'s classroom performance. "Academic probation isn't the end of the world, but it was played up that way," he now says. "The thinking was, as long as somebody's a celebrity, you can blow it up as much as you can." Kram humbly tells me he himself dropped out of school a year after breaking the story because of his own academic shortcomings.
The problems plaguing Maryland basketball became a national story that year. The team, universally included in preseason top-20 polls, lost five of its first seven ACC games. In February 1978, a Sports Illustrated feature about the chaos in College Park essentially said Driesell was overseeing both the most dysfunctional and the most talented program in the conference.
Hunter was placed at the center of the mess. From the piece:
Maryland does lead the ACC, and perhaps the NCAA, in discord and petty jealousy, and therein lies the source of the team's drastic slide and [Albert] King's disappearing act. From the opening week of practice Jo Jo Hunter and Bill Bryant, two sophomore guards with impressive high school credentials and unfulfilled egos, have neglected to pass the ball to King when he has been open on fast breaks or has worked himself into an advantageous position while running the Terp patterns. Locker-room shouting matches with Driesell have not changed Hunter and Bryant's attitudes, and their selfishness seems to be contagious. Against Virginia, freshman Ernest Graham ignored three teammates on a 4-on-1 break, barged in for the shot himself and was assessed an offensive foul.
Driesell's team finished 3-9 in the ACC, the worst conference record he ever posted at Maryland.
After his first two seasons of college ball, Hunter was averaging 10.6 points per game and had led the team in free throw shooting and steals. Not bad stats, but not Jo Jo Hunter stats, either.
He quit the team and left the school. Hunter was academically eligible when he departed.
Asked by the Washington Post what went wrong, Hunter confessed, "I didn't think I would ever sit on the bench." The paper also reported that Hunter had been suspended that season for refusing an order from Driesell to enter the game as a sub.
But as he left the campus, Hunter publicly absolved Driesell of any blame. "The trouble was me, not coach," he said at the time. "I still feel he is a good coach and a good person."
And now? "I loved Lefty," Hunter says, "but he didn't know how to coach all that talent. He couldn't keep us happy."
It's hard to argue with that assessment, given how the guinea pigs in Driesell's "buy local" experiment of the mid-1970s fared away from College Park. All the other D.C. blue-chip recruits had also quit the team by the time Hunter left. Magid transferred to George Washington University, Tillman to Eastern Kentucky, and Bryant to Western Kentucky. Hunter tried unsuccessfully to transfer to UNLV, but ended up at Colorado. All four players ended up as the leading scorers at their new schools, and Tillman, whom Lefty barely played, led the nation in scoring for a time at Eastern Kentucky.
Says Magid, "None of us regretted leaving." (The ex-Terps still get along, too: Magid and Bryant have both come to the old-timers' games played in Hunter's honor since his return. And Ernest Graham, cited in 1978 by Sports Illustrated for being under Hunter's and Bryant's allegedly bad influences, was the guy who picked Jo Jo up outside the prison gates at Cumberland to drive him the 107 miles back home.)
Driesell's postmortem on Hunter's stint at Maryland seems inarguable, too. "Jo Jo was a real sweet kid and everybody loved him," says Driesell, now retired and living in Virginia Beach. "But [College Park] was just too close to home for him. I helped him transfer, and told him to get as far away as possible."
Vitale followed Hunter, a recruit that got away, during his college career. And without naming names, Vitale says Hunter was miscoached at the college level. "People tried to make him into something he wasn't: a point guard," says Vitale. "He wasn't a point guard. He was a natural scorer."
Hunter had some moments at Colorado, averaging 17 points a game over his two seasons there and being named to the All Big 8 squad after his senior year. But, perhaps because of his transfer, the damage done by the Sports Illustrated feature, and the academic-eligibility scandals, his stock with pro scouts coming out of college was a fraction of what it was back in high school. The Milwaukee Bucks picked him up in the sixth round of the 1981 NBA draft, but cut him before the regular season. He clung to his NBA dream during a stint in the CBA, and over the next nine years while playing in Venezuela, Argentina, Spain, Sweden, Belgium, Israel, Paraguay, and the Philippines.
I asked Hunter last year if, given a mulligan for decisions he'd made as a teenager, he'd still follow his mother's wishes and go to college. "If I had it to do all over again," Hunter told me from prison, "I'd sign with the 76ers."
His mother died while he was incarcerated. He was unable to attend the funeral.
Time doesn't heal all wounds.
"I was just thinking about him tonight, about getting shot and how it felt," says the woman wounded during one of the robberies that put Hunter in prison.
In May 1996, she was early into an apprenticeship in watch repair at Gold-N-Time, a jewelry and watch repair shop located on Connecticut Avenue NW in a rather moneyed part of downtown D.C. She was working alone when Hunter, wearing a trench coat and a baseball cap, showed up at the front door with a woman later identified by police as Elizabeth Jaime. The employee buzzed in the couple, as was required of all customers. After briefly wandering around, Hunter pulled out a gun, pointed it at her, cocked it, and ordered her to lie down.
She says she started to comply. But around the time her knees hit the floor, she had changed her mind.
"This is true: I had a dream the night before that the store was being robbed, and I told my husband about it that morning before going to work," she says. "As I was trying to lay down, I was thinking I can't just let this man shoot me in the head, because my mother would kill me if I did that. And I was thinking about that dream, and something about that dream told me to fight, to grab the gun. So that's what I did."
She fought the assailant from her knees, and as her hand got on the gun the weapon discharged inches from her head. A bullet whizzed passed her face and into her lower forearm before exiting through her wrist.
At trial, she testified that she yelled, "You shot me, you son of a bitch!" and kept trying to grab the gun with her good hand as blood spewed from the wounded arm. She sensed the robbers just wanted out. She pushed the door-lock button again so the pair could escape. In his haste, she says, Hunter left behind the $20,000 solid-gold clock he'd been holding just before their struggle. Police still put Hunter and Jaime's take in this robbery at $50,000. The injured clerk was dialing 911 when she saw the assailants hail a cab. She grabbed a rag soaked with Rouge jewelry cleaner off the counter and shoved it into the bullet hole in her arm — "That wasn't smart, but it was the only thing lying around," she says — and hoped she wouldn't die of blood loss or chemical poisoning while waiting for an ambulance. Then police refused to let the EMTs in the store for several minutes; they wanted to make sure the criminals were no longer around. Later that day, surgeons repaired some of the injuries caused by the shot, but left bullet fragments and pieces of the bracelets the clerk was wearing that day embedded in her wrist. They're still there. Nerves were severed by the bullet, causing permanent numbness in her fingers and enough loss of dexterity in her digits to force her out of watch repair.
"I loved that job," she says. "My boss had just started trusting me to open up Rolexes. I couldn't do it anymore."
Witness identifications quickly led to Jaime's arrest for the Gold-N-Time heist. She fingered Hunter, and also confessed to pairing up with him for a robbery a few months earlier at Ellis Custom Jewelry Design, another Connecticut Avenue NW retailer. That crime was carried out without any gunplay or assaults, and the criminals netted an estimated $300,000 in valuables. The store's owner was unable to ID Hunter as the perpetrator. But Jaime, described by police as Hunter's high school girlfriend, told the court that she needed drug money, and that together she and Hunter decided robbery was the best way to get it.
For a year after being robbed, the Gold-N-Time employee attended every preliminary hearing, trial session, and Hunter's sentencing on what ended up being 11 felony counts. The Washington Post's write-up said the weeklong trial "put Hunter back in the spotlight for the first time in years." Jaime told the court she got only $400 and Hunter kept the rest of the estimated total take of $350,000. Hunter didn't testify at trial.
Hunter's court-appointed attorney, Glennon Threatt, told the jury that his client had been married to another woman just one day before the robbery at Gold-N-Time, and that the defendant was with his bride and their young son, not Jaime, at the time that crime occurred. Nobody bought it. Given Jaime's damning testimony and the witness IDs, even local criminal defense genius Edward Bennett Williams on his best day likely couldn't have prevented a conviction.
"We knew he did it," a juror at Hunter's trial tells me, requesting anonymity.
But despite the utter absence of reasonable doubt, the juror says it was hard to vote to put Hunter away after learning so much about his bygone athletic potential and all the local adoration. Folks who remembered him as a happy, sweet superstar showed up at the trial in hopes of making sense of what they saw as a Jekyll and Hyde–style tale. Brian Culhane, a star at Bishop O'Connell in the mid-1970s, was among the courtroom onlookers. Culhane says he has fond memories of all the times his teams were massacred by Hunter's Mackin squad. Culhane says he had lost track of his boyhood idol until Hunter's arrest, and was shocked by the case against him.
"Back when we played, the certainties were death, taxes, and Jo Jo's going to the NBA," Culhane says. "I couldn't believe it. I always believed Jo Jo had a good heart. I still do."
Even those hurt most by Hunter could end up sympathetic.
"Everybody was telling me how I shouldn't feel sorry for him, that I was the victim," says the Gold-N-Time employee. "But, hearing day after day about all the promise he'd once had, and knowing how long he was going to be put away for what he'd done, I just felt sad for him. What a shame for such a talented person to stoop so low."
But there were also folks who weren't so shocked to find Hunter at the defendant's table. Police told reporters that Hunter was in a criminal spiral before getting caught, and that he'd been arrested earlier in the preceding year on several theft and assault charges, but all those cases were dropped before going to trial. And Culhane says that during the proceedings Mackin priests in the courtroom as spectators told him their biggest surprise was that Hunter hadn't fallen on the wrong side of the law sooner.
The jury convicted Hunter on 11 counts related to the two robberies; a judge sentenced him to up to 56 years in federal prison.
The Gold-N-Time employee says she and her family and friends kept track of Hunter's whereabouts throughout his incarceration. "My mom called me one day saying that every time she turned her computer on Anthony 'Jo Jo' Hunter's face would appear on her screen, and it was freaking her out," she says.
Turns out the employee's brother had been Googling Hunter on their mother's computer, and the Web page was popping up by default.
But nobody in her family was aware he'd been released until she was interviewed for this story. She says the news upsets her.
"I still think about that guy way too much, more than anybody would believe, and I tense up all over again," she says. "At the sentencing, he told me he was sorry, and he seemed genuinely remorseful for what he'd done, and I'd like somebody to let him know that I appreciate that, and tell him thanks. But I never want to see him again."
She asked that her name not be used in this story, saying she's still afraid of the guy who shot her.