Learning Basketball at “The Rec”

The middle-class, black community of Columbia Park sits in humble repose a few miles northeast of Washington, D.C., its rectangular street pattern a reflection of its commonality. Only a mix of colors distinguishes one tidy, box-like house from another, their front yards the size of half a basketball court, positioned neatly in parallel rows, one house segueing into the next. In the 1970s and 1980s, young boys who wanted to develop their athletic skills flocked to the Columbia Park Community Center, reverently referred to as The Rec, spending tireless hours perfecting their skills on a small, indoor windowless court with a ceramic floor.

Johnnie Walker was one of them. He had spent his earliest years growing up in the Congress Heights section of Southeast Washington, D.C., considered one of the poorest sections of the city, about a mile from where the Anacostia River dumps into the Potomac River. There, it was difficult to ignore young adults shooting heroin and drinking liquor all hours of the day. But at 15, Walker moved to the relative comforts of Columbia Park, where life was humble and simple and drug and alcohol abuse did not become an issue until the late 1980s.

Walker played two years of varsity basketball at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, graduating in 1978. While putting off college for a year, he volunteered as a coach at The Rec, monitoring basketball activities for neighborhood kids and preparing his players for the center’s summer league team. He taught them fundamentals and conditioning with innovative exercises, such as plyometrics, which he learned from Bob Wagner, his former coach at Northwestern. Wagner wanted to build his new program with the best available talent, so he alerted Walker to keep an eye out for Len Bias, a young player at nearby Greenbelt Middle School whom he had heard showed promising talent.

 During practice one day in the winter of 1979, some kid kept peeking through the doors to the gym at The Rec, yelling to his friend Terrence Lewis. Walker scolded Lewis, telling him to ignore the kid and pay attention. The interloper finally gave up and left.

“Who was that?” Walker eventually asked out loud.

“That’s Leonard Bias,” someone said.

 A few months later, while walking to The Rec, Walker spotted Bias riding a bike and approached the ninth-grader, saying he understood that he played for Greenbelt Middle School. Bias tried to sell himself to Walker, saying he was better than Lewis. He told Walker that his parents didn’t let him leave the street much without their supervision, so Walker offered to talk with them and receive permission to serve as his guardian to, from and while he was at The Rec, if he was interested in joining the group. Walker could stop by the Bias house, he told the young man, and meet him so the two could walk to The Rec together.

 “They said yes, but don’t you think his dad didn’t come up and check on him,” says Walker. 

At the time, Bias was in the midst of a critical phase in his basketball development, using a setback to fuel a fiery determination to be a great basketball player. He had been cut from the middle school team twice, in the seventh and eighth grades. “It was one of the big shocks in my life,” Bias said in a 1985 Washington Post article. “I remember going down the steps to look at the [team] list and my name wasn’t on it. I couldn’t believe it. Right then, I decided I was going to show these people that I could play the game.”

 “He kept saying the whole time, ‘God, let me get better,’ ” says his middle-school and high school teammate Reginald Gaskins in the documentary Without Bias. Young Leonard’s biggest motivation came from the teasing, his father recalled in Without Bias, explaining: “He was going to be the best.”

 As he integrated Bias into the group at The Rec, Walker took stock of him as a tall, lanky and raw athlete and a bit of a whiner when he felt he was being fouled unfairly. Walker treated Bias like any other regular in the group, meaning he roughed him up, pushing him after he took a shot. With Walker in his path, there was no such thing as an easy layup. Walker hit Bias with elbows and muscled him away from the basket, acting like a bully a few years before the NBA’s Detroit Pistons made the style fashionable in the mid-1980s.

 Brian Waller, one of Bias’s closest friends at The Rec and a high-school teammate, also endured Walker’s tough training. “He’d give us everything that wasn’t in the rule book,” he says. “When you’re not used to it, you whine and cry. People were fouling [Bias] all the time. No matter how much he whined, Johnnie was still killing him. On Monday and Wednesdays we’d play against the older guys in the gym; that’s how they played. You either step up or you don’t.”

 It took a while for Bias to grow into his body and develop his superior talents. “When he was young, kids used to laugh at him when he played basketball,” said Lee Madkins, the director of the center during Bias’s youth, in a Washington Post report soon after the player’s death. “They never picked him on a team. Then he ended up with everyone wanting him on their team.”

 It took only a couple of months for Bias to adapt to the physical play, and soon he became the intimidator on Columbia Park’s 16-and-under traveling team. In order to set the tone at the beginning of each game during his first summer with the team, he played a role: Columbia Park purposely let opponents win the opening tip so Bias could block or goal-tend their opening shot. 

 As Waller remembers, it helped Columbia Park win every game that summer. Bias also showed his athleticism for his age by finishing off alley-oops. He was the only player on the team who had the leaps to complete the play. Columbia Park felt so confident that players on the bench would read the newspaper toward the end of runaway games. “At that age, we didn’t think if it was embarrassing for the other team,” says Waller.

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