The legend of Gary Mays is no legend
WASHINGTON -- Even today, he remains a legend, the finest basketball player this city ever has produced. Hall of Famer. Playground demigod. A man known simply as "Rabbit." I saw Rabbit score 40. I saw Rabbit score 70. I saw Rabbit go against Wilt at the Kelly Miller playground. Talk to older locals about Elgin Baylor, and you'll hear a collection of awe-tinged tales, each more laudatory than the last.
In other words, Baylor has something in common with Gary Mays.
Who is Mays? Nicknamed "Bandit," he's an old-school icon in his own right. Owner of the best sports story you've never heard. Actually, make that stories. Like this one.
Go back in time. Way back. To the city's 1954 basketball championship for black high schools. Held just two months before Brown vs. Board of Education marked the beginning of the end for American apartheid, the tournament semifinals pitted Baylor's Spingarn High against Mays' Armstrong Tech.
Playing on its home floor, Spingarn entered the game undefeated. Nigh invincible. After all, Baylor averaged 37.5 points per game. He wasn't just a future NBA All-Star; he was a leaping, soaring, sweet-shooting scorer ahead of his time, the evolutionary forefather of Michael Jordan and Dr. J. Expecting a coronation, no one in the packed gym gave Armstrong a chance -- until Mays held Baylor to 18 points in a 50-47 Armstrong Tech victory.
The impressive part?
As the result of a childhood gun accident, Mays has only one arm.
The really impressive part?
Basketball wasn't even his best sport.
"Gary was a fantastic baseball player," said Harold Bell, a longtime friend of Mays and Washington's first African-American sports talk radio host. "We didn't see his one arm as a handicap. He held his own and more. To see him catch a baseball and dare you to steal -- dare you, man -- was phenomenal."
That's right: despite having one arm -- granted, an overstuffed anaconda of a right arm to shame Hulk Hogan, but still -- Mays was arguably the best schoolboy baseball player in the District. As a catcher. And that's not all.
Alongside Baylor and future football pro R.C. Owens, Mays helped integrate college sports. He nearly suited up for the Harlem Globetrotters. He swam, hunted, shot a mean game of pool. He drove a cab. Started a construction company. Survived cancer. Once saved a young boy's life.
Now 75, Mays remains the nicest man you'll ever meet. And the toughest hombre you'll ever cross. In a city with a rich African-American athletic heritage -- home to pro football Hall of Famers Willie Wood and Len Ford and basketball Hall of Famers Dave Bing and Baylor -- Mays still stands out, largely because his life story is so unique, so preposterous, you wouldn't believe it if you saw it in a corny, greeting card channel-sponsored movie.
That is, if it wasn't true.
Jim Pratt has a Mays story. Tangentially, this one involves former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson.
A 72-year-old retired printer, Pratt enrolled at Eastern High in the fall of 1954, the first year of integration. He played basketball against Willie Wood. Following high school, he played baseball with Mays in the city's semi-pro Industrial League.
Decades later, Pratt met Thompson at a radio show taping. He told the coach the two greatest things he ever saw in his life were:
1. Thompson hugging Hoyas guard Fred Brown after Brown mistakenly threw a pass to North Carolina's James Worthy in the waning moments of the 1982 national title game and;
2. Gary Mays playing baseball.
"I can't tell you what I had for dinner last week," Pratt said. "But Gary, the first time I saw him play, I was in left field. About 320 feet deep. He hit it over my head. Probably 375 feet. With one arm. You had to see him play."
"You had to see him catch!"
Mays grew up in Burnwell, W.Va., a coal town located on the other side of a mountain from Chelyan, the home of NBA Hall of Famer Jerry West. Mays never knew his father. He lived with his grandmother and eight of his relatives. One of Mays' uncles had a shotgun, a brand new pump-action Winchester. On Election Day 1940, the uncle went squirrel hunting, then left the gun on the back porch. Mays was playing nearby, disregarding a family warning to stay in the front yard. The gun fell off a bench. The blast severed Mays' left arm just below the shoulder.
He was 5 years old.
Mays spent a week in a Charleston hospital. Back home, another uncle, Charles Aubrey, taught him baseball. Uncle Charles was a catcher on the town's semi-pro team. The two would play catch for hours -- the man throwing gas from all angles, the one-armed boy learning to not fear the ball.
When Mays left for D.C. at age 12 to live with his mother, one of Uncle Charles' teammates produced a parting gift. A baseball glove.
"I had been playing with a rag before that," Mays recalled.
Local boys tried to bully Mays. He used his right arm to bloody noses. Problem solved. Mays put his glove to good use, too, playing catcher for an adult sandlot team, the Georgetown Panthers, at age 13. Some games, he would purposely make a wild throw early, sailing the ball over the second baseman's head. The reason?
"They would walk the fastest guy on the other team," said Raymond Johnson, Mays' brother-in-law. "Then they would place side bets on if he would steal or get thrown out. That's how Gary's teams made their money."
When Mays tried out for the Armstrong Tech baseball team, coach Major Robinson didn't think a one-armed player could make his squad; by the time Mays was a senior, had had grown into a 5-foot-11, 185-pound laser-armed catcher. Featured in Ebony and Jet, yet largely ignored by white media, Mays nevertheless was named one of three finalists for the Paris Trophy, given to the city's top prep baseball player.
According to the Washington Daily News, Mays batted .375, yielded zero stolen bases and didn't make a single error. The paper noted that Mays was no "sympathy selection," but rather was "chosen for his outstanding ballplaying only." Furman Marshall, a former Armstrong and Spingarn student from the same era, concurs.
"Gary was a strong hitter," he said. "He was real strong with that one arm. When he shook your hand, you would feel it."
Marshall is a taekwondo black belt. He trained with two Korean grandmasters. He once beat Chuck Norris -- really -- in a tournament. He's seen blind martial artists, competitors in wheelchairs, one guy who sparred while breathing from an oxygen tank.
Easily impressed, Marshall ain't.
"Gary would catch the ball with one hand," he recalled. "Then, he would throw the ball out in front of him, put his glove under his nub, catch the ball in midair and throw the person out. To see him play was mind-blowing."
Mays won a sportsmanship award. He didn't win the city's MVP award -- couldn't win, in all likelihood, because of his skin color, the same reason he wasn't invited to play at the whites-only, season-ending All-High, All-Prep Game at Griffith Stadium.
Mays let the snub go. Nothing he could do about it. Such was life back then.
Besides, he had more pressing concerns.
"[Shoot], baseball was easy," he said. "I had to learn to play the piano before I could graduate. Ms. Webster was my teacher. She taught Duke Ellington."
The piano. With one hand. From Duke Ellington's teacher. Gulp. Can Mays still play?
"Oh, no," he said with a laugh. "I learned how to play that damn thing and got the hell out of there."
Ed Wells has a Mays story. This one involves prejudice.
A former teammate of Mays on Armstrong Tech's 1951 city title-winning basketball squad, he spent his childhood learning in segregated schools and playing sports in blacks-only recreation centers. As a teenager, Wells sometimes would travel to predominantly white playgrounds to play pickup with the other D.C. champions.
How can y'all be the city champs, Wells would wonder, if you're not playing us?
In one respect, Wells had it easy. He might have been African-American. But he wasn't disabled. In 1951, Armstrong played a game against Hillside High in Durham, N.C. The home team had a 6-9 center, jumped to an early lead. The visitors were getting blown out. A chant came from the crowd.
Put the one-armed guy in!
"Coaches and ballplayers thought Gary was a novelty," recalled Wells, 77, a retired school principal. "He came in. He must have hit eight shots in a row. Of course, they were one-handed. We won the game. People realized he was for real."
News clippings from the era support Wells' contention. One photo shows Mays whipping a behind-the-back pass. Another depicts him shooting a leaping hook as Baylor looks on. In a third, Mays soars past a defender for a layup, his canvas shoes and floppy socks roughly level with his opponent's clavicle. Headlines dubbed Mays a "handicapped whiz" and "one-armed sensation."
By his own admission, Mays wasn't much of a student. Still, he wanted to attend college. In the fall of 1954, he spent an extra semester at Armstrong to earn his diploma. He was preparing to leave for Nashville -- to play for pioneering African-American coach John McLendon at Tennessee State -- when Baylor and former Dunbar High player Warren Williams showed up during Christmas break.
Come back with us, they said.
To where? Mays asked.
Idaho, they said.
College basketball in the 1950s was deeply segregated. Granted, Jackie Robinson had starred for UCLA. At Indiana, William Garrett had broken the Big Ten's color barrier. John Wooden's Indiana State team had integrated postseason play. That said, African-American players hardly got a fair shake: most schools didn't recruit them, and those that bothered participated in a notorious gentleman's agreement to not play more than three black athletes at once.
The College of Idaho was different. The school's basketball coach, Sam Vokes, was different. Vokes coached football, too. He needed players. Period. Which is how Baylor and Williams ended up on a Union Pacific train bound for Caldwell, Idaho, a small town located near the Oregon border.
Mays joined them. He took the same train ride, 54 hours long, transferring in Chicago, through the heart of the fading frontier. Idaho was cold. And beautiful. And white. Seemingly all white, save for a handful of migrant workers. Just like the 500-student NAIA school Mays was now enrolled in. When Mays went out in Caldwell, people stopped. They stared. Not with malice. With surprise.
"They had never seen black people!" Mays recalled, shaking his head. "But Caldwell is a beautiful place. You can play golf in the morning and afternoon. You can ski at night. And the people were good to us."
The locals weren't just friendly. They were in love. After all, the school's basketball team was suddenly as unstoppable as its roster was improbable. Baylor averaged 31.3 points and 18.9 rebounds a game. R.C. Owens, the future San Francisco 49er, grabbed 37 rebounds in a single contest. The Coyotes went undefeated in the Northwest Conference, and a team that had total gate receipts of $2.40 just a few years earlier was now turning away fans.
Mays hardly played. He didn't care. He was having too much fun. To wit: according to a Seattle newspaper, Mays and Baylor would put on "Globetrotter-like" dribbling exhibitions during halftimes.
"Caldwell became a town when we were out there," Mays said. "And I had the best seat in the house. On the bench."
Ed Bonomino, a longtime Caldwell resident and College of Idaho graduate who was a football teammate of Owens', says Mays had a greater impact off the court.
"In those days, we were going through some real headaches as far as diversification was concerned," he recalled. "But people really took to Gary. He fit right in and made things good. People still remember him."
Mays played baseball for the Coyotes. He worked at a Caldwell sporting goods store. He befriended the white owner, Pat O'Connor, a well-known war hero. The two would go hunting, Mays borrowing a shotgun from a local dentist. O'Connor took Mays on sales trips along the Oregon border. Speaking to schoolchildren, Mays would tie and untie his shoes. Jaws would drop. Uniforms would be sold. When Mays went fishing, a group of white men invited him over to chat. One was Cecil Andrus, the future governor of Idaho and Secretary of the Interior during the Carter administration. Another was Steve Symms, a future U.S. Senator.
In an March 7, 1955, article, Sports Illustrated intimated that the College of Idaho was winning games by admitting academically unqualified athletes. Left unsaid? The same athletes were black. Baylor reportedly earned B's during his first semester. No matter. Vokes clashed with school administrators. He was fired following basketball season. Baylor decamped to the University of Seattle, which he later led to the Final Four. Mays went back to school in the fall, but didn't like the new basketball coach. He dropped out. He returned to Caldwell in 2005, when the Coyotes' 1954-55 basketball was inducted into the school's Hall of Fame. Owens was there. So was George Makini, a teammate from Hawaii.
One by one, however, older fans approached Mays. They had memories. Stories. Questions.
Gary, did you really make a shot from three quarters of the court away?
Yes. Hell yeah.
Did one of the baseball umpires take you home after a game to meet his children?
Yes. His name was Jack.
Did you hit three home runs in an exhibition with the Class-A Boise Braves?
Yes. Er, no. It might have been four.
After Mays flew back to the D.C. area, a letter arrived at his Fort Washington, Md., home. It was a heartfelt, handwritten note from Dick Speiss, the white captain of the 1954-55 basketball team:
... R.C. Owens was the first black guy I came in contact with. I didn't realize what you black guys had to go through. Especially on road trips. But that was an education for me.
"I never knew what went on," recalled Speiss, 81, who owns a drive-in theater outside Walla Walla, Wash. "I was naive. But it made it a lot easier for me when I went into the service -- there were quite a few black people, and I already knew they were good guys. I had learned there were no differences between us."
A 1955 copy of the Washington Daily News has a Mays story. This one is black and white and yellowing. And maybe all wrong. The headline reads:
This much is true: for three days in June, Mays was the best player in Griffith Stadium, the same ballpark where he once wasn't allowed to compete in a prep all-star game. The occasion? The Washington Senators' annual tryout camp, home to hundreds of hopeful young men and more than a dozen major league scouts. In a camp-closing scrimmage, Mays threw out a base runner and hit the only home run, a 350-foot drive over the center-field fence. He was unanimously voted camp MVP.
This much also is true: after dominating a group of players that included fellow catcher Chuck Hinton, who went on to an 11-year major league career, Mays did not receive a contract offer. Not one. A scout explained to the Daily News that Mays could never be an effective catcher because "he's at a disadvantage on a ball thrown in the dirt."
To this day, Mays isn't buying it.
"It was racial," he said. "You know why? I had no disadvantages. I could dig the ball out."
Mays grabs a water bottle with his right hand. He flips it between his left shoulder and chin. This happens in an eye blink. The bottle is secure, completely so. It may as well be an egg.
"[Shoot], man, I practiced so much. Having one arm was an advantage for me. I had to work without it. Use my brain. Think about everything."
While attending the College of Idaho, Mays played against the Harlem Globetrotters' West Coast squad in Ontario, Ore. He subsequently received two letters from team founder Abe Saperstein, inviting him to try out. Mays used his brain. Thought about everything. He said no. The constant travel he could handle. He simply didn't want to be a freak show, a one-armed carnival attraction.
"That wasn't for me," he said.
His baseball dreams deferred, Mays settled into everyday life. He worked at a rec center. Ran an underground "numbers" game (an illegal version of the lottery). For years, he drove a taxi. When Mays was 50, he was dispatched to take Rita Gillman, the wife of former Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-NY) from her northwest Washington apartment to Dulles Airport. Gilman saw that Mays was missing an arm. She had a half dozen bags. She refused to get in the car. Mays walked back to his cab, then returned to the building's lobby to collect the $1.30 dismissal fee he was legally entitled to.
Gilman reportedly flipped out. She demanded that Mays leave, called him "unsafe" and ordered her building's receptionist to call the police. Gilman's son paid the $1.30. Mays left before the cops showed up.
GARY MAYS ARTIFACTS
The proof is in the pudding of Gary Mays' amazing life story. These three documents attest to his athletic prowess:
"Then she called my company back for another cab," he recalled with a laugh. "They said, '[expletive] you, walk.'"
In 2002, Mays again found himself making local news. Joshua Delaney, a 7-year-old boy with severe autism, wandered away from a supervised summer school program and onto the Capital Beltway. Mays spotted him while driving to work. He pulled over to the side of the highway. Got out of his car. Walked into the first lane of traffic. The boy was blonde; in the sun, Mays remembers, he appeared to have a halo.
Mays wiggled his left nub. Delaney came to him. Using Mays' cell phone, he dialed his mother's phone number.
"He was a little messed up, and he could see that I was, too," Mays recalled. "So he talked to me. He was comfortable."
Delaney's father was in the military. His mother is from Germany. Mays has a standing invitation to visit the country. He also has a porcelain statuette of a guardian angel, a gift from the family. In a July 2002 news clip from the Washington Times, there is a picture of Mays and Joshua.
The two are sharing a three-armed hug.
Dave McKenna has a Mays story. This one shouldn't come as a surprise. Yet somehow, it does.
A longtime writer for the Washington City Paper, McKenna is fascinated by the D.C.'s sports history. Particularly the history surrounding Baylor. So he started asking around, talking to old heads. Half of them told McKenna to find Mays instead. Bandit's a better story. He shut Rabbit down.
"The first time I met Gary, he picked me up in his car," McKenna said. "He had a cell phone and an orange soda and one arm."
McKenna flashes an incredulous look.
"Gary says, 'Put on your seat belt.'"
The room erupts in laughter. McKenna smiles. So does Mays. It's Valentine's Day. Family, friends and admirers have gathered at Ben's Chili Bowl, a landmark restaurant on Washington's historic U Street. The walls are dotted with pictures of Bill Cosby, Chris Rock, Cornel West and other celebrities. McKenna has been writing about Mays for a decade. The two are close. Mays plays with his children. He considers the old ballplayer a personal hero.
"Look, Elgin Baylor wasn't allowed to play at the playground across the street from his house," McKenna said. "His undefeated team wasn't ranked atop the Washington Post poll. According to legend, his coach went into the newsroom and raised holy hell.
"Plain and simple, if Gary was a white guy, he would have been a god around here. His story was never told for all the wrong reasons. That's a crime."
This night is an effort to rectify that. ESPN's Michael Wilbon, a former Post columnist, is here. So is a local television crew, along with former Olympians Esther Stroy and Lacey O'Neal. It's standing room only. Harold Bell -- who coordinated this tribute -- tells the room that Mayor Vincent Gray has agreed to honor Mays at City Hall. The guest of honor seems happy but sheepish, a bit embarrassed. He's wearing a College of Idaho sweatshirt. He'd rather talk up his 9-year-old cousin Cameron, a budding track star. Or his other cousin, A'dia Mathies, who was Miss Kentucky Basketball. No dice. Everyone here has a Mays story, and everyone is sharing:
"One of the greatest things I ever saw was Gary at home plate," said Dave Harris, who caught the first touchdown pass in integrated D.C. prep history in a 1954 All-Star game. "A Cardozo High player was coming from second base, Herbert Drummond. He was a 235-pound fullback on the football team.
"The ball comes to Gary. There's a collision. Boom! Drummond is on the track field. Knocked his collarbone out. Bandit throws the ball back to the pitcher!"
(Mays later says that it was a squeeze play, and that Drummond was coming from third base).
Said Florence Claggett, a lifelong Mays friend: "Gary knew my family. He would come by our house and give us a quarter. That was big money in the 1950s. He's a Good Samaritan. He adopts everybody's children. I would run into him taking people to dialysis when he wasn't feeling well himself."
Said Bell: "I never saw him drop the ball. I know he had to drop it sometime. But I never saw it."
Said Donna Mays, Gary's wife: "When I was pregnant, he would tie my shoes for me. Right there on the street."
Said Claggett: "Gary can put a watch on with one hand."
Said Sam Jones, another longtime friend: "I saw Gary hit the ball 400 feet. That inspired me. If he could do that with one arm, what can we do with two?"
Said Lajuan Johnson, Gary's sister: "I have two children. Gary taught both of them to drive. Stick shift."
Said Donna Mays: "And the way he swam!"
Said Jones: "You should have seen him. Nobody could steal on him -- "
Finally, Mays has heard enough.
"I want to correct that," Mays said. "[George] Green stole second on me."
"But I wiped him up at third!"
Once again, the room dissolves into laughter.
Donna Mays has a story about her husband. She's sitting at her dining room table. Gary is there. So is their neighbor, Jim Moore. Gary and Donna have been married for 20 years. When they first met, she had no idea about his background. She's from Philadelphia. Over time, she began to hear the stories; eventually, she figured she had heard them all.
One day, Donna and Gary were at a funeral. Older men kept approaching them. "They were like, oh, I remember Gary did this, Gary did that," Donna recalled. "Then one guy is like, 'I remember we were in a knife-throwing competition. The Bandit beat everybody!'"
The couple left. Donna turned to her husband.
Really? You threw knives?
"Gary was like, 'I never threw a knife in my life!'" Donna said.
"Everybody got a fish story," Moore added with a laugh.
The past few years, Mays has been in and out of hospitals with kidney stones and prostate cancer. The latter is in remission; he takes four pills a day for the former. He still has a day job, working for the Prince George's County Department of Housing in Maryland. He and Donna have two children, a daughter and a son. They have a chocolate lab named "Bandit." Spread across the table are photographs, newspaper clippings, genealogy trees. Gary calling signs. Gary at the White House. The stories of his life.
Mays talks about Owens. "Elgin led the country in scoring and made All-America," he said with a laugh. "R.C. got all the rebounds and didn't make anything. He's still pissed about that. Ask him!" He talks about segregated water fountains. He talks about his father, Millard Brown, whom Mays tracked down posthumously. Turns out dad owned a stable, rode a Harley-Davidson, flew his own airplane. Was one of a kind. Mays talks about losing his arm, too, about driving 35 miles to Charleston General Hospital with a tourniquet wrapped around his bloody stump, 5 years old, too shocked to cry, wanting nothing more than to sit up and look out the window.
If Mays' feats happened today, he would be on "Oprah." He would be a motivational speaker. He would be famous, celebrated, set for life. But back then, African-Americans didn't get a fair shake. Does the injustice ever bother him?
He closes his eyes.
"Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, all those guys were catching hell," he said. "All kinds of [expletive]. I didn't need all that in my life. You know what? I'm glad to be above ground. I'll do for anybody that needs it or needs me. It's not about that. It's past. There's nothing I can do about it."
The conversation turns to Baylor. The Armstrong-Spingarn playoff game, the one everybody still remembers. A contest that later earned Mays an honorary Spingarn letterman's jacket. During the regular season, Baylor had dropped 44 and 45 points on Mays' squad -- and would have scored more had the 3-point line existed.
Before the rematch, Armstrong coach Charlie Baltimore told his players they would employ a box-and-one defense. No one knew what he was talking about. He then pulled his team captain aside.
Gary, you're the chaser. You got Elgin. When he goes to the bathroom, you stay with him.
What do you mean, coach?
I mean that I want you to be so close that when he goes to the bathroom, he can't [expletive].
Mays studies a newspaper clipping. The box score reads: Baylor -- 18 points. The accompanying article says that Armstrong never trailed by more than four points, and that the game was tied at the start of the fourth quarter.
... with 25 seconds left, William Burton stole the ball from Spingarn and passed to Terry Hachett, who scored to win the game.
Mays shakes his head. He has a Gary Mays story, too. Actually, it's more like a correction.
"It was less than 25 seconds, and we were winning by one," Mays recalled. "Elgin comes down with the ball, dribbling. He says, 'you and me.' When he got past half court, he did a little head fake."
"I waved my stump. Got sweat in his eyes. I stole the ball and laid it up. The whole game, I rubbed Elgin with my nub. He couldn't stand that."
With that, the Bandit lets out a satisfied cackle. It sounds like a fish story. On the other hand, this is the legend of Gary Mays. Which means it's probably anything but.
Patrick Hruby is a freelance writer and ESPN.com contributor. Contact him at PatrickHruby.net.