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Monday, March 11, 2002
Updated: March 12, 5:35 PM ET
Hooping it up, D.C. style

By Chris Palmer
ESPN The Magazine

Any local can tell you that basketball is as much a part of the Cap City's culture as crab joints and row houses. Any high school kid can tell you about the trademarks of a D.C. baller: his high socks and the way he rolls his shoulders just before he sweeps your legs out with his wicked crossover. But only those who are truly part of the scene can tell you where to find the heart and soul of it.

Steve Francis
Steve Francis showed off his hops in the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest.
D.C. Hoops is all about creativity and style -- with a purpose. What may look like flair to an outsider is purely functional to a baller from the nation's capital. When Steve Francis puts the ball behind his back in traffic you might think it's flash. But he's really protecting the rock and instantly putting the defender in a position to foul him. And they learn fast in D.C. In junior high they know exactly when to give it up on the break and can flush with authority at the end of their sophomore year. At the summer leagues, AC optional, you'll see lanky 13-year-olds handle the ball and make plays you can't at 25.

Some of the names you know: Steve Francis, Allen Iverson, Moochie Norris, Jerome Williams. Others are less familiar, like Curt "Trouble" Smith, Greg Jones and Earl Tyson -- these guys never found their way into the spotlight, but they still get respect from the pros because of the way they play and the numbers they can put up.

Pros and play-grounders clash at places like the Takoma Park Rec center, Run-n-Shoot in District Heights and Good Luck Rec Center. Places you go to wait 30 minutes to get a run. A couple of invitation-only spots, like Doc's Gym and the auxiliary gym at Cole Field House, are history, but the stories live on.

Without an underground tour guide, a true Beltway hoops insider, you'll never find those spots. But we'll make it easy for you. Let's head to Georgetown's McDonough Arena. For 25 years, future NBA stars and local blacktop legends have coexisted and made their names against each other in the James "Jabbo" Kenner Summer League. Houston Rockets forward Walt Williams learned to play the point there, picking up the nickname "The Wizard" along the way. It's where 'Zo and Dikembe first battled. And a guard named Allen Iverson burnished his rep after scoring 40 points in his first game after being released from prison.

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. 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 he scored 62 himself. With a deadly fall-away in the lane and a slick separation move while going to the hole, the rock-solid, 6-foot Smith matched Francis shot for shot. And there were no freebies either. I know this for sure -- I was there.

The Kenner isn't your typical summer league because defense is as necessary as no-look passes. If you can't strap up, you won't play in the Kenner. The league has sent more than 30 players to the pros. "Growing up in this area you always knew you were getting the chance to play against the best," says Jerome Williams, Pistons forward and former Kenner teammate of AI.

Allen Iverson, already a man of many moves, was schooled on the art of the "D.C. crossover" while hooping it up in pickup games around Washington.
The impact of D.C. basketball can best be summed up in one move: the crossover. More specifically the "D.C. crossover," which an occasional well-informed sportscaster can pick out. Picture this: Allen Iverson driving right, then lunging left, carrying the ball way out there like he's got his hand around somebody's waist. Then sweeping the ball low across his body while some fool falls on his ass.

AI intro'ed the D.C. crossover to the league back in '96. (Don't confuse it with Tim Hardaway's two-step or your run-of-the-mill change of direction dribble.) Now everybody with a handle from Antoine Walker to those no-name Pepperdine kids has his own knock-off. Kobe's cross is an exact dub. Even EA Sports cloned it for PlayStation.

Allen may have brought the move to the League but he didn't invent it. There are many in D.C. who claim they know who did. Back in the late '80s in Northwest D.C., Greg Jones, a notorious streetballer, needed a way to get past quicker opponents. He began sweeping the ball low across his body, carrying it like only someone from D.C. can, to throw people off guard.

"It's just something I used to get open," says Jones (who, as everyone in D.C. knows, once faced Iverson and got lit up for 62 points). He quickly learned the faster he did it the better it worked. He became a master at flipping the move on the break or isolated on the wing. Soon people would pack gyms all over town to see Jones' crossover. He didn't have to score a single point, just so long as he broke somebody down. Legend has it that Jones once tripped up a defender so bad that a stunned onlooker screamed, "Greg just broke his ankles." People have been using the phrase to describe the move ever since. According to legend.

So how does AI factor in -- he's from Hampton, Va. Well, Iverson spent the summer after his freshman year at Georgetown playing in pickup games and summer leagues around D.C. By 1995 every guard in the area had adopted Jones' killer cross. You were nobody without it. Iverson began to notice how D.C. young 'uns so easily could flip that thing from side to side. It seemed to work every time. Up until that time Iverson never needed such a move. He'd always been way too quick and could just blast around people. But in college, and soon the pros, it took more than just quickness to get open.

Allen Iverson
Allen Iverson wraps the ball around Tim Thomas of the Bucks during fourth quarter action in Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference finals.
"It's the D.C. signature move," says Norris, backup PG for the Rockets and possessor of one of the best crossovers ever. "You could see when Iverson picked up the crossover, his whole game opened up."

AI had so much success with the move because it caught the league off guard, literally and figuratively. Players couldn't help but reach and were often left behind as a result. Early in his rookie year the league's rules committee met to figure out what to do with the move since so many opposing coaches complained he was traveling. The refs started calling it tighter and Iverson got whistled more than Heidi Klum at a truck stop. But that didn't stop a generation of impressionable young hoopsters from adopting the move.

And for better or worse it's changed the style of play in the NBA. The one-on-one breakdown game, which many of today's stars have built their games on, nearly put 'ball moving, everybody touches' offenses on the shelf.

So next time you see Greg Jones, you can either blame him or thank him. Just don't reach. That's a Capital offense.

Chris Palmer is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and frequent contributor to ESPN.com