Jo Jo Hunter has thought about that guy a lot, too. During a conversation I had with him a year ago, I asked if he could explain how a beloved local hero found himself in a jewelry store with a gun. Hunter politely declined to respond to that and all other questions about the crime. He was imprisoned at the time and hadn't yet been approved for a parole hearing, so the no-comment route was the safe one.
But, sitting on a bench near Coolidge High a few weeks after his release from Cumberland, I ask the same questions. Hunter tells me he was in 12 prisons in the past 16 years. The first and closest was Lorton Penitentiary, located about 30 miles outside D.C. Years before he was locked up, Hunter would occasionally bring teams of players from the city to scrimmage the inmates, and says he ran into a lot of guys he grew up with. So he had friends on the inside when he joined them as an inmate in 1997. Lorton closed in 2001, and Hunter's cross-country travels began. His spent four years in New Mexico, where none of his friends and family could visit. His marriage dissolved and he became estranged from his son and daughter.
He says he tried to play basketball as much as he could, no matter where he was. He had good luck getting games at Lorton and Cumberland, a medium-security facility where he spent the last five years. Staying sharp wasn't always easy. The most confining of his stints came at Red Onion, a so-called "supermax" facility outside Pound, Virginia, where administrators boast of policies that generally keep inmates away from guards and each other and all other forms of humanity.
Hunter, who says he was sent there after an altercation with prison guards in Ohio, did five years — "Actually, 1,837 days," he says — at Red Onion on the prison's favored "23/7" schedule, meaning he was alone in an 11-by-8 cell for 23 hours a day, seven days a week.
He says he spent the solitary time thinking about how he ended up where he ended up. He now sees that the good guy and the bad guy are one and the same. He'd given up his globetrotting minor league basketball career and returned to D.C. in 1991. He stayed close to the court by running a midnight basketball league at a gym in the Maryland suburbs and serving as a trainer for young players in town. To help pay the bills, a friend from his days playing ball in the Catholic League who was a D.C. lawyer got him a job as a paralegal at a downtown firm. But Hunter says after a few years of the 9-to-5 world, where nobody cheered for him and few folks in the workplace cared how great he could play back in high school, he "fell off track." By the time he was robbing Gold-N-Time, he'd long faced the reality that his workaday existence wasn't going to get him the material things he thought his court skills would bring.
"To be a good person you have to be on an even keel," he says. "I got caught up in a lifestyle, different from everybody else's, and I went down the wrong path. In the world I was in before, I learned a value system. You want certain things. You're impatient [to get them]. But in prison, there's no sense in wanting those things. Nobody has a car there. Everybody gets the same clothes. There's no sense being impatient. Being incarcerated, you have a lot of time to work on your honesty, your sincerity, and your dignity. In there, those are all you got. My value system has changed. It had to change."
Hunter doesn't think staying straight will be a problem. He's very aware he'd still be in a cell now if so many folks from D.C. hadn't put their reputations on the line to free him. And he knows it all started with the Harrisons.
"The letters were monumental in my getting out," he says.
Harolyn Harrison stuck with Hunter from his arrest through his release from Cumberland. Like so many of Hunter's friends and basketball buddies, she swears she didn't know the bad Jo Jo existed. The length of time he'd already served, despite not having any prior convictions as an adult, gave the couple more inspiration: The Harrisons and other supporters thought that Hunter's local celebrity, as it had on several times since high school, worked against him at sentencing. They say the judge didn't want to be seen as taking it easy on a well-known defendant. He could have received life in prison, given the 11 counts. Every case is different, but there is some statistical backing for those who felt Hunter was treated harshly: A 1996 Department of Justice survey of the trials of 231,857 violent criminals tried in U.S. state courts found that the average defendant with multiple felony convictions whose most serious conviction was for robbery received a 101-month sentence, and would serve just four years in prison; the survey found that the average weapons offender would serve another 25 months.
Last year, I called a juror from Hunter's trial to talk about the possibility of his release. The reaction? "He's still in jail? Really?" said the juror, who remains assured of Hunter's guilt and asked not to be identified. "That's terrible."
So, last fall, with Hunter's first shot at parole coming at the end of the year, the Harrisons decided to do more than just feel bad. They decided to lobby Isaac "Ike" Fulwood, the former chief of D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department, who now chairs the U.S. Parole Commission. Jesse, who by day is a police officer with the local airport authority, asked teammates and foes in the 50-and-over division of his rec center league to join his write-in campaign. The response told him Hunter's Q rating among old-school ballers in his hometown was still off the charts.
Justin Ellis, a rival of Hunter's as an All-Met center from St. John's in the 1970s and later a teammate at Colorado, was among the first to agree to lobby for parole for his old friend. Emanuel Hardy, a teammate of Hunter's at Mackin, also asked the feds to show mercy. Hardy told me last year that he's sure the only reason he got a scholarship to play for the University of Delaware was because so many college scouts showed up to watch Hunter. John Duren of Dunbar, who was an All-American in high school and later a first-round NBA pick (for Utah), joined in the Harrisons' mail campaign, too.
Word of the effort reached vintage ballers outside the rec leagues and throughout the D.C. area. Kenny Roy, who was one of the stars at DeMatha when Hunter made his Mackin debut and later played with him during summers in the famed Urban Coalition League, told the parole board that he remembered Hunter as "an excellent teammate and role model to kids." "I as well as those who knew him were shocked that he committed this crime as he never showed any signs of criminal behavior throughout high school and college," Roy wrote. "He has already paid for this crime with half of his life behind bars. It's time to allow him to have a second chance at life."
Eventually, a few of the really big names from the city's sporting past became aware of Hunter's situation — and some of the biggest quickly joined the Harrisons' effort. Dave Bing, who has kept close ties to his hometown decades after leaving for an All-American career at Syracuse and Hall of Fame NBA run, remains perhaps the top ambassador of vintage D.C. basketball even in his current role as mayor of the Motor City. Bing wrote down his thoughts on the official stationery of the office and mailed them to Fulwood: "I know only too well that my life could have gone in a very different direction than it has, depending on the decisions I chose to make," Bing wrote. "Mr. Hunter made a mistake and has served  years in prison for that mistake. I respectfully request that he have the opportunity for a second chance to turn his life around."
Long before James Brown became the godfather of NFL pregame shows, he was a prep hoops superstar at DeMatha, and played with and against Hunter on D.C. playgrounds and in summer leagues. Brown, who has a saintly reputation in his hometown, told the parole board that he'd do his best to help his old buddy stay straight if the authorities set him free. "As a friend, if Mr. Hunter is released, I would certainly make myself available to be of any assistance to him," Brown wrote. "I am blessed to be an ordained minister, and as such my principal focus would be to aid in his spiritual growth."
Before agreeing to write the letter, Brown had several conversations with Hunter by phone from Cumberland prison. "I was hearing from a number of players who were writing on his behalf," Brown tells me. "But I wanted to hear from Jo Jo rather than just write a letter because there was a 'movement' for him. It was similar to when I was preparing to interview Michael Vick for 60 Minutes: I wanted to hear it directly from him that he was remorseful. And after talking with him, and feeling that Jo Jo was certainly very remorseful and desirous of helping others not make the mistakes that he did, I wrote it. It's great to see so many guys pulling for him, and I will be cheering for him right along with everybody else."
Hunter was clearly proud to hear that Kermit Washington, a Coolidge alum, had gotten involved, too. Washington, now 61, was a rather anonymous local high school player when Hunter was a little kid. But Hunter watched him work out at American University in the years when Washington, through a ridiculous regimen that included 10,000 jumps per day wearing a 20-pound vest, built himself into one of the best college players ever: He left town in 1972 as one of only six guys ever to average 20 points and 20 rebounds for an NCAA career, a feat no college player has since achieved. (The others in the 20/20 club: Artis Gilmore, Paul Silas, Walter Dukes, Bill Russell, and Julius Erving.)
Washington understands Hunter's desire for second chances. His reputation as a consummate pro and gentleman was forever stained by one incident: the December 1977 one-punch knockout of Rudy Tomjanovich in a Lakers-Rockets game, which almost killed Tomjanovich and garnered Washington a 60-day suspension, at the time the longest ever handed down by the NBA, plus years of anonymous death threats. He has said he grew up wanting to be a member of Congress and was aiming at a run until The Punch, but has all but given up that dream. After learning of Hunter's possible release, Washington volunteered to research employment regulations state by state, to see if Hunter's preseason-only NBA and minor-league basketball stints left him eligible for any worker's compensation benefits that might help ease his transition to civilian life.
Washington, who is now a representative of the NBA Players Association, says he has yet to find any money for Hunter, but hasn't given up. "I just wanted to see if there was any way I could help," he says.
The commission ultimately received 55 testimonials supporting Hunter, almost all from folks who had some connection to Jo Jo Hunter, the teen basketball phenom. Assistance with housing, employment, and spiritual guidance were all pledged.
After getting the letters, an investigator with the Bureau of Prisons interviewed Hunter, asking about the crime he'd committed and his plans for life on the outside. His case was then sent to a panel, which makes a thumbs-up or thumbs-down decision on releases. In July, after months of waiting for a ruling, Hunter learned his release had been approved.
The Harrisons asked for nothing in return for their mercy mission. Jesse, however, coaxed Hunter into promising that if and when he got out, he'd play for his team in the 50-and-over rec league.
"I look at it like I'm in the fourth quarter of my life," says Hunter, now 55. "I've had some bad quarters. But you always try to win the game in the fourth quarter. Now I've got a chance. I might need overtime, but I'm going to try."
After his July 16 release, Hunter quickly reconnected with Hawkeye Whitney, his only rival for prep basketball supremacy back in 1976. Theirs was a talk-only reunion. Whitney couldn't play ball again if he had to. Old injuries have left him, at 55, disabled and not able to work.
"I just wished Jo Jo luck," says Whitney. "I wanted to tell him that in our lifetimes, we all make mistakes. It's what you do after you make your mistakes, what you do to get over that hurdle."
Whitney can provide Hunter with almost too much perspective. Whitney, unlike Hunter, left town after high school, taking an offer from NC State, where coach Norm Sloan had developed what a 1980 Washington Post story referred to as a "pipeline" that brought D.C.-area talent to the Raleigh, North Carolina, campus. (DeMatha alone provided the Wolfpack with stars Kenny Carr, Whitney, Sidney Lowe, and Dereck Whittenburg.) Also unlike Hunter, Whitney flourished from the start in college, averaging 17 points and six rebounds a game for his NC State career and leading the team in scoring in three of his four years.
The Kansas City Kings took Whitney in the first round of the 1980 NBA draft. He was playing well in the first half of his rookie year when he landed awkwardly after a dunk and tore all the ligaments in a knee.
Joint surgery has evolved in the last 30 years. Back then, the process was pretty much just removing parts, not repairing them. When doctors took out Whitney's ligaments, much of his game went with them. He was out of the NBA after the next season. Like Hunter, Whitney had no post-basketball plan, and ended up back in D.C. Home wasn't a healthy place for him, either. He spent years addicted to cocaine. On January 26, 1996, a month after Hunter robbed his first jewelry store, Whitney accosted a random guy at a Metro train station in Alexandria, Virginia, at gunpoint, forced him into a car, drove around to area ATMs, and ordered him to withdraw money. Whitney's total take from the robbery was $1,600.
Whitney's victim turned out to be Mark Fabiani, who was President Clinton's special counsel at the time. (He went on to work as Lance Armstrong's flack.) Fabiani, in fact, had spent the hours before his kidnapping giving the administration's spin on what Hillary Clinton had told the federal grand jury investigating Whitewater that day.
You don't rob the sitting president's attorney and get away with it. Whitney was charged by then–U.S. Attorney Eric Holder Jr. with kidnapping, armed robbery, and weapons violations. He pleaded guilty to kidnapping and, though facing a possible life sentence, instead received just under six years in jail. Whitney, who in recent years has been very open about his substance abuse and other mistakes, was paroled in 2000, after only four years of incarceration. (Hunter's supporters now say Whitney fared better than Jo Jo because Hawkeye had local icon Morgan Wootten in his corner pleading his case before sentencing. Hunter, whose coaches Rest and Driesell had left the area by the time he hit bottom, had no community pillar standing up for him.)
As with Hunter, those who knew Whitney from his school days remembered him as a sweet guy incapable of the conduct described by police. Some of their faith was restored when it came out that before releasing Fabiani, Whitney returned a Rolex taken early in the abduction, and also dug into the stolen loot to give Fabiani cab fare to get home.
Whitney, now 55, has spent a lot of time reflecting on what went wrong, and his theories perhaps can apply to some other wayward superstars who owned D.C. during the Golden Age of schoolboy hoops. "I guess for me it was like what happens with child actors," he says. "You're put on a stage out front at such a young age, and you don't get to know yourself until later in life. Not everybody can handle that. Being a ballplayer, you go to the different levels, and the lanes just got faster and faster. I wasn't prepared."
Stacy Robinson has gotten close to Hunter again, too. Robinson is yet another product of the mid-1970s D.C. scene who wasn't prepared for anything but basketball. Thomas Boswell did a warts-and-all profile on Robinson during his senior year at Dunbar, in 1975, asserting that he was known for "skipping school" and "serious grade problems." He went to four different high schools, and when Parade put him among the 20 players named to its prestigious All-American squad that year, it identified him as a player not for Dunbar, but for Crossland, a school in Prince George's County, Maryland, where he'd spent an underclass season. A youth coach told Boswell: "What he needs to do is forget basketball and get through high school." Academics kept him from accepting any D-I offers. He bounced around a few junior colleges before coming back to the streets of D.C., where he was unable to stay straight. He looks at the lives led by Whitney and Hunter, both of whom he expresses nothing but reverence and affection for, and sees a lot of himself.
"There were all these expectations for all of us, but it never really happened for us," Robinson says. "We weren't bad guys, I swear. We were good kids who took wrong turns. Me, I fell into the drug scene and I couldn't bounce out."
He admits that every now and then he's been crushed by a sense that he blew it.
"I remember watching TV a while back and seeing Bill Cartwright at the foul line shooting free throws for the Chicago Bulls in the NBA championship," Robinson says. "And I start thinking of playing against him in these all-star games in high school, and just outplaying him, and, man, I could just bury myself." (The box score of the 1975 Capital Classic, a top annual all-star game played in Largo, Maryland, shows that Robinson had 20 points while Cartwright, the ballyhooed center from California, had just six.)
Robinson, at 56, still plays ball a couple times a week with the old guys. But not Whitney; the onetime DeMatha wunderkind can't even walk these days without assistance. Whitney tells me he's in the process of applying for Social Security disability payments because his injuries keep him from working. But, unlike Robinson, Whitney won't confess regretting anything about making basketball the only priority in his life all those years ago.
"Man, people ask: 'Would you do it again?' I would," Whitney says. "Knowing my knees are bad, that I'm having trouble walking, because of basketball, but I still have those times to share with the guys I did it with. Oh, yeah. I'd do it all again in a heartbeat. I wouldn't trade those days for nothing."
I need to find a job," Hunter tells me after I ask how much basketball he's been playing since his release.
Hunter has interviewed for work as a youth counselor, and he says he hopes to start a business as a trainer of young basketball players. He's been passing out flyers at local courts. The pitch, posted over a photo of him shooting a jumper at Colorado more than 30 years ago: "One of the Best that Ever Did It, Here In DC, shows you How to Become One of the Best to Do It!"
Ed Meyers, the athletic administrator at Mackin, already has an established training practice in the area, Game Plan Sports. Meyers brought Hunter in to help out shortly after he got out of Cumberland. Hunter is introduced to the kids as "one of the top five" ballplayers to ever come out of D.C. Hunter says he wants the youngsters to know his off-court story, too, "so they don't make the mistakes I did," he says.
Through Game Plan Sports, Hunter of late has worked out Marcus Derrickson, a young power forward from Paul VI High School, the latest powerhouse program in what is now called the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference. That's the same league that Hunter starred in all those years ago. (Mackin closed in 1989.) Last season, Derrickson and Paul VI beat DeMatha, 64-62, in the WCAC championship. Derrickson was the only ninth-grader on the court. "He is the best freshman that I have ever coached, as talented as all the kids I've ever coached," Paul VI coach Glenn Farello told the Washington Post after the DeMatha game. Derrickson has already received an offer from Maryland.
Hunter has found time to honor his pledge to Jesse Harrison. His release from Cumberland came just as Harrison's squad, the DMV Lakers, entered the summer league postseason. Harrison noticed that this year's rulebook didn't have anything to prevent his team from expanding its roster for the playoffs. So he added a ringer.
"Jo Jo got out just in time," Harrison says, "and we put him in the starting lineup."
Within a week of gaining freedom, Hunter was playing for the league championship. The Lakers won the title game by a blowout. Hunter led all scorers with 35 points. He didn't want too much praise for his play.
"For the last 16 years, I've just been working out," he says. "Everybody else has had to live their life. So it's not really fair."