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Director's Cut: ‘The Making of a Goon,’ by Johnette Howard

The Comeback

Jo Jo Hunter never made it to the NBA. But after years in prison, he's finally back in D.C., where he was once the District's brightest star.

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.

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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.

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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 [16] 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.”