As basketball's origins in Washington, D.C. have a Georgetown connection, so too does one of its great traditions: the summer league.
For decades, schoolboys in Washington would spend summer weekends competing against teams from a cross town, honing their skills and learning to respect one another. For many of those years, teams competed in segregated leagues, but the rapid demographic changes in Washington between 1950 and 1970 (where a 65% white city became 71% black within a generation) brought a new outlook to the summer experience.
In the 1950's and 1960's, places like Luzon, Turkey Thicket, Sherwood, Kelly Miller, and River Terrace were the proving grounds for the next generation of college (and NBA) talent. In 1970, a group of high school, college and pro players began competing in the DC Urban Coalition League, settling at Dunbar HS after previous stops at American University and UDC. And in 1981, a new tradition began.
A veteran of Turkey Thicket and familiar with the Urban Coalition, coach John Thompson saw an opportunity for a more structured competitive opportunity for his players. Without challenging the format of the Coalition, Thompson and a small group of local coaches launched the James (Jabbo) Kenner League in the summer of 1981 (as cited by other accounts).
Its namesake, Jabbo Kenner (1915-1983) was a former professional boxer who was the first director of the Metropolitan Boys Club in 1937, and served as a coach, friend and mentor to three generations of DC schoolboys, including John Thompson himself. The new league allowed Georgetown players to continue their development in an NCAA-structured environment, and to stay within view of watchful eyes on a college campus (even if the coaches weren't allowed there by NCAA rules).
The Kenner format also appeared to other college coaches, who saw the format as a means to be more productive to college athletes than the Coalition, and soon teams from GW, American, UDC, Maryland, and other schools began to participate. Many of these players also found their way into Coalition games, of course, but the Kenner brand was beginning to develop some identity of its own.
Summer basketball at McDonough in the early 1980's was a little more challenging than it is today--there was no web site announcing schedules, for one thing, and air conditioning did not arrive to the gym until 1988. But the Kenner legacy continued to build, with coverage in the Washington Post beginning around 1986, a high school bracket following soon thereafter, and the arrival of "senior" teams featuring a mix of former Georgetown players, visiting NBA stars, and local hoop legends, not all of which enjoyed the same success at the college or NBA level.
Kenner continued to grow, with more fans making the trip weekly to the gymnasium for a series of weeknight and weekend games each summer. As new recruits arrived at Georgetown, following them at the Kenner League became a priority for fans, By the summer of 1994, Kenner proved the home for one of the most electrifying debuts in local hoop history.
Without fanfare, on August 4, 1994 Allen Iverson took to a basketball court for the first time in 18 months and wowed the crowd (and more than a few teammates) by scoring 40 points a Kenner quarterfinal. "By the Sunday afternoon final, before an overflow crowd inside the gym and a crowd of those outside who could not get in, Iverson finished a combined 99 point effort in three days against some of the best collegiate talent in the city," wrote a 2007 retrospective. "This, of course, from a player that had not played organized basketball in over a year." Years later, a unreleased video of the Thursday debut at YouTube added to the legend that anything can happen at a Kenner game.
Iverson's 40 points was not the Kenner record, however. Six years later, another memorable game saw Maryland star and NBA veteran Steve Francis face a local team led by Curt (Trouble) Smith. Smith, the younger brother of Georgetown All-American Charles Smith, had all the basketball tools but his academics had its share of "trouble", so to speak, and was not offered a scholarship to Georgetown. Smith played briefly at Drake but settled back in Washington and added to his own local legend in a 2000 Kenner game cited at ESPN The Magazine:
"Last summer Steve Francis walked into McDonough with a team he called Francis' Hitmen, sporting a lineup that included himself, The Wizard, Moochie Norris, Jerome Williams and Cuttino Mobley. And lost," wrote Chris Palmer. "[They] dropped a 121-120 decision to a group of D.C. playground legends who made their names against these very same players years ago. They still talk about the battle between Curt Smith, little bro' of former Celts guard Charles, and Francis. The Rockets point guard gave the street legend 59 points from all over the court. The treys from the hash mark, wicked crosses and cradle dunks were enough to make sure Smith would never show his face in the gym again. Except for the fact [Smith] scored 62 himself."
"Growing up in this area you always knew you were getting the chance to play against the best [at Kenner], said Jerome Williams (C'96) in the article.
Many fans might think Georgetown runs the Kenner League, but it does not. The league is an independent effort, whose organizers must raise money from Nike and team sponsors to cover the cost of officials, jerseys, and other organizational costs, and maintain NCAA certification. As summer leagues go, Kenner is among the longest running of its kind, but cannot continue without organizational support and the NCAA's blessing.
The arrival of the Internet era has only added to the league's reputation and its lineups. While cameras are still outlawed and NCAA rules still forbid active coaches from attending, fan attention in the games is stronger than ever. It is also not uncommon to see an NBA star (or two) get into a lineup, working on his skills while enjoying a competitive game (or two) while in the District. With three decades of play behind it, there are a core of regulars that can talk about the relative merits of a Patrick Ewing or a Kevin Durant from their years around the league itself. Since 1981, nearly 200 Georgetown players have played in the Kenner League.
A few things have changed over the years, however. The league was run for over 20 years by long time Wilson HS coach Eddie Saah, who gave up his role as tournament director in the mid-2000's. Nike took up sponsorship of the event in 2007, giving it the somewhat corporate title of "Nike Pro City Summer League-Washington". Thankfully, almost none of the regulars calls it anything but the Kenner League.
Whether it's following the next freshman phenom or appreciating a NBA player from the past, a rare collection of talent makes the Kenner League a must-see every summer, and has become a fixture on the Washington sports scene. With its home court at Georgetown, its role in the Georgetown basketball fabric makes it even more valuable as piece of living history.