- Jordan Brenner, ESPN The Magazine contributing writer
- 0 Shares
YOU WON'T FIND this stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in any DC guidebook. Just over the district line, past the dollar stores and coin laundries, the president's home street winds its way into Suitland, Md. Head southeast just a bit longer, make a pair of quick turns, and you'll pull up to the tidy house of Willie Mae Sullivan.
On this Thursday evening in early September, there's a palpable connection to that other abode back on DC's 1600 block. The 83-year-old grandmother has invited relatives to watch President Barack Obama address the Democratic National Convention, and on this matter, decisions have long since been made. Buttons and stickers supporting the incumbent are artfully arranged on the dining room table. But everyone here is keenly aware of another looming political choice that will affect the family's future more directly than Obamacare or the debt ceiling. And it will come from someone not even old enough to vote.
Sullivan's 17-year-old grandson, Roddy Peters, is too busy scarfing down chicken fingers to ponder how he's ended up in that position. "Roddy, how many pieces is that?" asks his mother, Jamena Peters, pointing out that the as-yet-to-arrive guests will find a half-empty tray. "Seven? Eight?" Peters flashes her a halogen smile, one that he knows can disarm anyone, be it a parent or peer, teacher or coach. Jamena has no choice but to laugh.
It's a welcome break from the sudden stress that has engulfed the lives of the Peters family. A year ago, Roddy was entering his junior year at Suitland High School with a decent shot at playing college hoops. Then he erupted, averaging 23 points per game and lighting up the AAU circuit on his first run through the country's elite. Ranked outside the top 100 before the summer, he's now No. 43 in the nation. He's not a one-and-done, program-altering talent. He's more of a culture changer, representing what might be the first domino to fall in an evolving recruiting landscape that is every bit as political as Capitol Hill.
Two major college programs dominate the local hoops scene -- what everyone refers to as the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia): Georgetown, nestled within the city limits, and Maryland, just 11 miles away in College Park. Search every recruiting hotbed from New York to LA to Chicago to Houston and you won't find a rivalry like theirs. Two elite programs looming over the city, each with a national championship, and yet they refuse to play each other. Everywhere else, schools of similar stature share the same conference (think USC/UCLA or St. John's/Seton Hall) or meet annually (Louisville/Kentucky, Xavier/Cincinnati). But Georgetown and Maryland have played each other just three times in the past 32 seasons -- two of them in tournaments (the 2001 NCAA tourney and the 2008 Old Spice Classic).
The gulf is rooted in a complicated web of history and alliances, but for a moment in the summer of 2011, resolution appeared possible. Maryland's new coach, Mark Turgeon, reportedly discussed rekindling the series with
Georgetown coach John Thompson III. But then this past February, Maryland's athletic director, Kevin Anderson, opened his mouth: He announced that if the basketball issue was not settled, Maryland no longer would schedule games with Georgetown in any other sport. "I find it extremely odd that a competent athletic director would choose that method to try to schedule a game," Thompson told The Washington Post. Translation: Take your threat and shove it.
That such a dynamic can occur in Washington, D.C., is mind-boggling. Basketball is embedded in the city's DNA. Says Mike Jones, who played for the legendary Morgan Wootten at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md., and now coaches the nationally renowned program, "Even though the Redskins are the top dog in terms of franchises, basketball is our sport." And as long as the two most important programs refuse to give the fans what they want -- an annual bragging-rights bonanza -- the recruiting circuit becomes their battleground. And right now, Peters is the prize.
TWO YEARS AGO, Peters didn't even think he'd go to college. He'd been rejected by the private schools in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC), perhaps the best high school basketball league in the country, and spent a miserable freshman year at Westlake High School in Waldorf, Md., where Jamena had moved the family. He missed Suitland, and the family moved back for his sophomore year. On the court, he was better known for being the son of Roddy Peters Sr., who led the school to the 1985 state title, than for his own exploits. He was more interested in chilling on the school's steps and clowning with his friends than dedicating himself within its walls.
That changed when Jamena called in "Uncle" Charlie. Charles Harley is Roddy's cousin and the football coach at nearby Forestville High, where he's sent nearly two dozen players to D1 schools. Although Roddy Sr. (divorced from Jamena since Roddy was 5) talks to his son regularly, he hasn't been in
good health. Harley's increased involvement filled the void. He emphasized the potential he saw in Roddy's game -- end-to-end speed, a tight handle and a frame aching to stretch to its current 6'4". And he explained the importance of nurturing that talent. "I showed him his transcript and talked about the NCAA process and what he had to do to get qualified," Harley says. "And I told him he had a chance to be great."
Peters listened. With help from what has turned into Team Roddy -- relatives, teachers, coaches and school administrators -- his focus improved in the classroom. And he elevated his play to a level he'd never imagined. His games, as Harley says, became a circus. Reps from the DMV's two most powerful AAU programs, DC Assault and Team Takeover, started showing up to every game and called repeatedly to secure his services. Before long, college coaches were filling the stands too.
That kind of dual recruitment is more complicated, and more rare, than you'd think. No one -- not high school coaches, AAU insiders or recruiting fanatics -- can remember the last time Maryland and Georgetown chased the same kid so deep into the process. In DC, established connections have traditionally helped kids distinguish between local schools early. The Beltway's AAU programs and stocked private schools have been aligned with local colleges or with each other, at least subtly, for years. For example, Big John Thompson never had a DeMatha player on his Georgetown teams, but he openly accepted guys from WCAC rivals like Gonzaga and Paul VI. Gary Williams seldom took a DC Assault player at Maryland, but he always had strong ties to Stu Vetter, the coach at several local prep programs. (Vetter is now at Montrose Christian in Rockville, Md., whose alums include Kevin Durant and Greivis Vasquez.) Takeover and Georgetown are Nike schools; Maryland and DC Assault are repped by Under Armour.
The lines have blurred in recent years, but with so many power brokers in such a compact area, navigating relationships can be a dizzying enterprise. And Peters is new to the rodeo. As a rare public school standout, his late
emergence has spared him the scrutiny of peers who have been overexposed since eighth grade; Peters has been on the periphery for so long, the old rules didn't apply. Yet the attention is still withering. Though Peters enjoyed the spotlight, his scoring took a dip as he struggled to pick an AAU program. He chose Assault in March, not quite knowing the decision making had just begun.
In June, his Assault connections earned him an invitation to the NBPA Top 100 camp, where he was one of the lowest-rated players in attendance. By the end of the week, though, everyone knew his name. He scored 16 points in the championship game while running the team with aplomb. He peeled off a pick-and-roll, keeping his dribble alive while two defenders collapsed on him. He deftly threaded a pass between them, hitting the screener in full stride for a dunk. "It just got me a lot more comfortable," Peters says of his performance. "I would hear all the big-name players and just think, How am I
going to play on the same court? But when you're out there with them, they're just a number next to a name."
Recruiting analyst Dave Telep has seen few players improve as rapidly as Peters. "In the spring, he was not ready to be a high-level, full-time point guard," Telep says. But thanks in large part to the tutelage of former Wizards coach Eddie Jordan, who ran Assault's 17U team this past season, "by the end of the summer, Roddy had learned how to play the position and established himself as an elite point guard."
Just as quickly, prime schools came calling. UCLA pursued him. So did Texas. And on back-to-back days in July, Georgetown and Maryland cemented their interest with scholarship offers. With those two phone calls, a battle commenced that is liable to test the Cold War nature of the local rivalry.
TIME WAS, Maryland and Georgetown played annually. Then Thompson arrived on the scene in 1972. Having established a dominant program at nearby St. Anthony High School, the new Georgetown coach let it be known that DC would be Hoya territory going forward. But Maryland coach Lefty Driesell wasn't one to back down, and political lines formed. Thompson and DeMatha's Wootten, for instance, had been fierce rivals, so the pipeline from DeMatha was shut off (though neither will admit as much). Thompson compensated by making inroads at other DC powers. The breaking point came during the 1979-80 season, when a game ended with Thompson and Driesell shouting at each other. Shortly after, Georgetown knocked off Maryland in the Sweet 16, and that was it for the series.
Time and new personalities did little to thaw the animosity. From Bob Wade and Williams at Maryland to Craig Esherick and Thompson III at Georgetown, no one even considered a tear-down-this-wall moment. And two realities became evident. First, fear rules the day. "With all the pro teams and Kennedy Center types of things, you don't want to get lost in that shuffle,"
Williams says of the hectic DC environment, in which a limited moment in the spotlight had better be a positive one. "If you lose that game, it would hurt you more than if you'd lost to Kansas." Second, the two programs almost never thrive at once. Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, Georgetown and Maryland have combined to make 16 Sweet 16 appearances, but they've reached that round simultaneously only three times. And success can be tied to which program's feeder connections are delivering the goods. Big John's 1984 national champs featured five DMV natives. Williams' program-changing 1993-94 squad included three DMV starters; that same year, Georgetown won just 19 games and had one DMV starter. And when JT3 resurrected the Hoyas in the middle of the past decade, he did so on the backs of area stars Roy Hibbert, Jeff Green and Austin Freeman.
Williams is the only coach to have bucked the homegrown-success trend. His 2002 national champs used only two key players from the DMV, and after winning that title, his status was such that he could largely ignore the AAU culture that, by all accounts, he abhorred. But by shying away from local power brokers, Williams was often criticized for his unwillingness to chase top local talent, taking the chasm to a new level. For his part, Williams says, "Let's just say we weren't given the opportunity to recruit certain kids in the DC area."
And really, Williams can't take all of the criticism. It's also not a sure thing that local kids will want to stay local. Some prospects will always want to leave, and top programs from across the nation will always descend on DC to mine its talent. Duke and North Carolina routinely feature top DMV players. Mike Brey, a DeMatha alum, is well-connected at Notre Dame. Heck, locals Michael Beasley and Durant -- Suitland's most famous native -- bolted for the Big 12. So conference realignment and the migration of Big East teams into the ACC shouldn't change the landscape that's been established.
Indeed, for Maryland and Georgetown, it's about competing for the kids who want to stay home.
"Georgetown and Maryland were a lot like the Democrats and Republicans," Telep says. "They lived in the same city but rarely played in the same sandbox."
But now the times are changing, with no one off-limits for either school. When Turgeon took the Maryland job last year, one of his first orders of business was to hire Dalonte Hill as an assistant. The former DC Assault coach is a DMV specialist. His relationships reach across the proverbial aisle: Hill is tight with both DC Assault and Team Takeover, is comfortable cozying up to the powerful WCAC coaches and navigates the Beltway's public schools with ease.
To counter, Georgetown created a "special assistant" position last season for its own DMV insider, Kevin Broadus, after the former Hoyas assistant coach resigned from the top job at Binghamton. Broadus grew up in the DMV, played high school and college ball there and has coached at five local colleges. Not surprisingly, Hill and Broadus are the lead recruiters in the hunt for Peters. "They're so close, and they can come anytime and see me play," Peters says. "They talk to me the way I'm thinking in my head. They'll call and say, 'Stay out of the hallway, stay out of the street, make sure you're in class.' They understand." And they make similar pitches: We need you; we're close to home; you'll be joining a family. And though the schools don't rip each another, Peters says that after his unofficial visits at each campus, "I'd get a text from the other one saying, 'Don't commit.' "
The schools need not worry; Peters is still weighing his options. He has an upcoming trip to Westwood and was impressed by his official visits to Xavier and Rutgers. Kansas recently joined the party as well. Meanwhile, everyone has an opinion on what Peters should do. "People would come to games and
be looking for clues," he says. "Like if I wore Under Armour socks, they'd think I was going to Maryland."
Peters hopes to commit before his senior season starts, but there are so many minuscule differences to discuss, so many more phone calls to answer. And yet, there's one thing Peters knows for sure. Like most locals, he wants to see Georgetown play Maryland -- the outcome of which, he assures, would have no influence on his decision. "Right now, I wouldn't even want to play in it," he gushes. "I'd rather watch."
So would most of the DMV folks. But until that happens (if ever), the rivalry will play out in the quest for high school stars. The new coaches no longer carry ancient grudges or fear going after the same players. Peters ticks off names from the class of 2014 whom both schools are already chasing. Still, his decision will set the tone. "It feels good to know that both schools are recruiting me, and I'm the only kid that they've done that to," Peters says. "So I want to make the right decision." Either way, the district will be tracking two game-changing votes this fall.
In ESPN The Magazine's DC Issue, Jordan Brenner writes about the battle between the Terps and the Hoyas. On the court, they keep it civil, but off the court the fight for the preps like Roddy Peters can be intense.