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Student of the Game/ Ali's Gold

For John Walsh, matching up the country's best high school teams is its own reward.



For the past several months, basketball promoter John Walsh has been plotting and planning and working the phones. Last Saturday he got what he wanted. The country's number one team, the DeMatha High Stags, flew in from Maryland to battle the third-ranked King High Jaguars.

For better or worse the big game, the climax of a high school triple-header at Loyola University, represents the future of big-time high school basketball--teams crossing the country for marquee events. "I dreamed of this game--I worked at getting it for a long time," said Walsh beforehand. "I knew I could probably get King, because they're here. But bringing in DeMatha--that was the key. Even now I can't believe it's coming off."

In many ways, Walsh is the antithesis of the glamour events he promotes. Low-key and rumpled, almost unkempt, he runs a one-man operation out of his south-suburban home. "I don't have great connections. I graduated from Fenwick High in 1960, went into the army, coached the NATO team in Europe, and came home. I worked in construction, but basketball's my passion. I love high school ball. It's purer. It's about love of the game. But what I saw here really upset me. You go to some Public League games and there's 13 kids in the stands. While some of our kids got national attention, a lot of teams went unheralded. They weren't treated as powerhouses because they couldn't travel for financial reasons. They couldn't play in front of the big crowds. I figured, let's bring the big games here."

By the early 1990s he had retired from construction and was promoting high school basketball full-time. Every January he organizes the Hoops in the Loop tournament, featuring the city's best high school teams. "We geared it to Dr. King's birthday and dedicated it to promoting nonviolence," said Walsh. "In 1994 I put together my first big all-star game when I got a national team, including Stephon Marbury and Antoine Walker, to play a team from Bosnia."

In 1995 he arranged his first great showdown, bringing Rock Island to DePaul's Alumni Hall to play Farragut. "That was the Farragut team with Kevin Garnett and Ronnie Fields. Alumni Hall was packed," he remembered.

"This is my life, this is my love. I spend all year putting these things together. I talk to coaches. They know me. They see I'm for real. I make no apologies for what I do. This isn't about money. If you're looking for money, forget about it. I get some sponsorship, but most of the money comes from the gate. Sometimes it comes out of my own pocket. I lose money on some events.

"The schools do it for exposure. There's no other reason. They don't get rich either. I pay their expenses, transportation, hotel, food. For the January event the schools get 30 percent of however many tickets they sell. If a school sells $1,000 worth of tickets, they get $300."

Over the years he's brought teams from Missouri, Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin to Chicago. But the DeMatha-King game was his crowning glory. In some ways the two schools are opposites. DeMatha is a Catholic school in Hyattsville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C.; King is a public school on Chicago's south side. DeMatha's coach, Morgan Wootten, is a legend, having won more games (1,155 and counting) and coached more seasons (42) than any other coach in high school, college, or the pros. King's coach, Landon "Sonny" Cox, is a legend for other reasons, envied and loathed by many of his peers, who accuse him of recruiting their best players.

Yet King is limited to students who live in Chicago, whereas DeMatha, a private school, can draw the best young players from its entire metropolitan area.

"I've been working on getting DeMatha to come here for a long time," said Walsh. "At the end of last year you could see this as a dream matchup, because we all knew these were two premier teams. DeMatha has those great guards in Joe Forte and Keith Bogans. And King has the big center, Leon Smith, and [all-star junior guard] Imari Sawyer. So I just got on the phone and wouldn't get off. Finally, Wootten agreed. Both coaches were taking a risk. As long as they never play each other they can both claim they're the best. I think they wanted the challenge."

Once those teams had signed on, Walsh decided to make the event a grand tribute to Public League basketball. "I invited all the current Public League coaches and most of the great coaches and players of the past," said Walsh. "I spent four months tracking people down. A lot of them have moved to other cities."

And so on Saturday the scene was set, as 5,300 jammed Loyola's Gentile Center, ringing the court with great names from the past. There were coaches Stuart Menaker, Manny Weincord, George Stanton, and Larry Hawkins, as well as such all-time-great players as Howie Carl, Harvey Babitch, George Wilson, Bo Ellis, Levi Cobb, Charlie Brown, and Juwan Howard.

In some respects the opening game was the highlight. Indiana's heavily favored Bloomington South Panthers were supposed to be one of the nation's best teams (ranked 13th by USA Today), but they fell apart under Chicago Westinghouse's smothering trap defense and lost 51-31. It was a lousy day for Indiana basketball, as Gary's Westside Cougars lost the second game to Milwaukee Vincent, the defending Wisconsin champs.

The main event began with Sawyer nailing three quick three-pointers to give King a 25-22 first-quarter lead. But then Forte got hot (he eventually scored 36) and Sawyer tired and King, playing its first game of the year, got rattled. DeMatha cruised to an 84-66 victory.

DeMatha's impressive showing ignited talk that they might be the best high school team ever, though a few Public League diehards wondered if DeMatha was even the best on the court Saturday. "I'd like to see them play Westinghouse--their defense was spectacular," said Weincord. "[Walsh] ought to bring them back tomorrow to play DeMatha."

Ali's Gold

With King of the World, his new book on Muhammad Ali, David Remnick seemed to have settled the great debate over the ex-champ and his missing gold medal from the 1960 Olympics.

The debate flared up in August 1996, when Ali received a replacement medal in a ceremony at the Olympics in Atlanta. NBC commentator Bob Costas assured millions of TV viewers that though legend had it Ali discarded his original medal to protest racism, that was an "apocryphal" tale. The medal was merely lost, said Costas.

Well, that spin came as a mighty surprise to those of us old enough to remember the 15 pages Ali devoted to the medal in The Greatest: My Own Story, the book he wrote with the late Richard Durham. According to Ali, he returned with his original gold medal to his hometown, Louisville, Kentucky, only to be denied service at a restaurant whose owner told him, "We don't serve no niggers." A gang of motorcycle toughs at the restaurant chased Ali and a friend to a bridge across the Ohio River and threatened to lynch them if Ali didn't give up the medal. After Ali and his friend beat up the bikers, Ali tossed the medal into the river. He wrote, "My holiday as White Hope was over. I felt a new, secret strength."

I wrote about the matter (in the August 16, 1996, Reader) and so did several other writers, including Kevin Blackistone, sports columnist for the Dallas Morning News, who quoted Richard Durham's son, Mark. "It was such a ludicrous comment I didn't take it seriously at first," Mark Durham told me then. "How could [Costas] say the story's apocryphal? It's in Ali's own book."

It's hard to pin down Ali on the matter since he rarely gives interviews. He suffers from parkinsonism and must speak directly into his listener's ear if he's to be understood. Costas wouldn't comment but his producer stood by their take, telling Blackistone and me it was based on a reliable if anonymous source.

Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, went a step further, actually citing and quoting two sources, including Toni Morrison, who edited Ali and Durham's book for Random House: "In the end, the book was more accurate than not. As for the gold medal story, Ali came to deny it was true when the book came out. I think it was at a press conference where he was asked about the medal and he said, 'I don't remember where I put that.' He also said he hadn't read the book. So he, in a sense, discredited the book in a way that was unfair to the stories he had told Richard in the first place or to the stories Richard may have invented to make a point."

Remnick also quotes James Silverman, former editor in chief of Random House: "The story about the Olympic Gold Medal wasn't true, but we had to take it on faith. After some time, as happens with people, Ali came to believe it. When he was young he took everything with a wink, even the facts of his own life."

Mark Durham says Ali told him the same thing when they saw each other about a year ago. "I only had a few minutes to talk to him," says Durham. "I asked him about the gold medal and he looked at me with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eyes and said, 'I lost it--I just made that other story up. But you got to admit, it's a good one.' I still think Costas should have acknowledged that Ali had told the story in The Greatest."

So that's where things stood, until Ali weighed in with a different version in an interview with Tribune sportswriter Fred Mitchell. "With a hint of bitterness nearly four decades later, Ali recalled the indignity of returning to Louisville after winning a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics, only to be denied entrance to a restaurant in his hometown," Mitchell wrote in the November 15 Tribune. "Ali, in disgust, threw that gold medal into the Ohio River, saying it was not worth having if his freedom was denied.

"The U.S. Dream Team Olympic basketball squad presented him with another gold medal several years ago."


"Yes, Ali said it," says Mitchell. "You could tell he was still upset about not getting served at that restaurant. There was one other detail I left out of my article. Ali said the gold medal the dream team gave him had mud on it."

Presumably, the symbolic mud of the Ohio River.

"Ali told Mitchell that? That's great, that's beautiful," says Durham. "I guess we'll never really know what he did with that medal. Ultimately, it's not even important. I suppose Ali has his reasons for saying different things at different times. The point is it's Ali's life. He speaks softly, but he's still in charge. He's still winking at all of us." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jon Randolph.

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