In Memoriam: Trailblazing storyteller remembered as a ‘terrific sportswriter’ who ‘clearly impacted’ high school sports

John McNamara, 1961-2018

Capital Gazette reporter and editor John McNamara. Photo courtesy of Capital Gazette

By CHRIS McMANES — As a DeMatha basketball fan since my youth and a baseball coach there for the past two years, it was with great pleasure that I saw the Stags win their 40th conference basketball championship this past season.

What made it especially pleasurable was that I got to spend more than two hours sitting next to John McNamara. One of my best friends in the newspaper business, he enjoyed a nearly 40-year journalism career.

John and I worked together in the late 1980s, early ’90s at the old Prince George’s Journal. He was a sportswriter and editor. I was a sports stringer.

We didn’t see each other very often after the Journal closed except when I covered an occasional Maryland men’s basketball game. John became very good friends with former Terrapin Coach Gary Williams and wrote two books on Maryland athletics.

On Tuesday, July 10, I will join others in honoring John at the University of Maryland Chapel beginning at 10 a.m. He was one of the five victims who lost their lives while working at the Annapolis Capital Gazette newspaper on June 28.

Following the memorial service, I hope to catch up with Chris Howland, Ben Lumpkin and Mark Stewart, three of John’s full-time colleagues in the Journal sports department.

DeMatha Basketball Coach Mike Jones said he didn’t know John very well. But John was the first person to write a feature story on Mike when the former Stag power forward signed to play basketball at Old Dominion University in 1991. Mike still has a paper copy, which he recently shared on Facebook and Twitter.

“I don’t remember talking to him, but I do know that the Prince George’s Journal was the thing [back then] in terms of rankings and All-County teams,” Jones recalled recently at the DeMatha basketball camp. “The Journal did a really good job of covering high school sports. So, it’s something that I read often.

“And reading the Journal often meant reading John McNamara’s work many, many times.”

John would eventually become the sports editor for the Journal. I continued to freelance for the weekday daily. Even after moving to Las Vegas, I received assignments to cover major boxing matches involving Prince George’s County fighters such as Sharmba Mitchell, Riddick Bowe and Sugar Ray Leonard.

John was happy to have a writer reporting from the boxing capital of the world. Particularly when the only expense to come out of his meager freelance budget was usually $50 to $75 per story. I was happy to meet and interview world-champion boxers and get a press pass to see the fights.

So here we were, John and I, on press row at American University watching Gonzaga and DeMatha battle it out for the 2018 boys Washington Catholic Athletic Conference basketball championship. John was working primarily for the Bowie Blade-News and the Annapolis Capital Gazette.

John had reported on DeMatha basketball and the Washington Metropolitan Athletic Conference – the WCAC’s forerunner – since his early days as a sportswriter. Sports was his passion. He loved to attend practices and games, interview players and coaches, and try to coax a good quotation or two out of the participants.

When I asked him who he was writing about since he didn’t usually cover the WCAC, he said, “No one. I just wanted a front-row seat to see some of the best high school basketball in the nation.” We shared a laugh because all writers and photographers who love sports as much as John did have done the same thing. I know I have.

Blazing a trail

Coach Jones said John’s example in covering high school athletics the same way he would the NBA, NFL or college sports helped pave the way for the explosion of coverage we have today. Live streaming (with announcers), video recaps and player interviews are a common feature of every big WCAC football or basketball game.

In DeMatha’s case, visibility helps bring recruits to the Hyattsville campus and plays a key role in keeping the program among the nation’s elite. John was performing that function well before the Internet and social media.

“For someone I didn’t know [and] who wasn’t a part of my family,” Jones said, “I don’t know if I could feel any worse for a man who dedicated his life to a profession that clearly impacts my job. It’s a very sad story. My prayers to his family.”

Nowadays, journalists can work from anywhere. With a laptop computer and WiFi connection, your office is wherever you are. It wasn’t like that when John began writing about sports in 1979 for the University of Maryland’s student newspaper, The Diamondback. You had to head back to your office to compose a story and meet your deadline. Laptops were in their infancy. Most journalists didn’t have one.

And if you eventually got to use one of your organization’s Tandy laptop computers, it wasn’t very good by modern standards. You couldn’t store more than a few stories. The first screens were tiny and required you to look down on them.

Plus, if you were on the road, you had to ask your hosts if you could borrow their landline phone to unplug the cord and connect it to your computer.

Then you had to pray that it worked. If not, and like John, you were out covering a late high school or college basketball game featuring players like Lenny Bias (Northwestern High and Maryland), his brother Jay (Northwestern) or Danny Ferry (DeMatha), you had to rush back to the office to file your story.

John will no longer be filing or editing stories. He will no longer be mentoring younger writers and editors. He will no longer be laying out the paper so it looked good to readers like me and you.

On a day that the induction of a new class of U.S. Naval Academy plebes would likely have been the top story in Annapolis, a gunman walked into Capital Gazette offices and opened fire. John, 56, and his colleagues Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters were sprayed with shotgun blasts and died in the newsroom. Several of the traumatized survivors might never resume their careers.

When Craig Leydig, Washington Capitals’ assistant equipment manager, brought the Stanley Cup by the paper’s temporary offices a few days after the shooting, it lifted the spirits of those struggling to cope with this senseless act of inhumanity.

If John had still been working as a sportswriter, he probably wouldn’t have been in the office that day. He was because he had recently returned to editing. He normally would have been out interviewing a budding Little Leaguer, a summer basketball hotshot or a girl working to become the next U.S. women’s World Cup star.

He might have even been in Bowie gathering information on an upcoming City Council meeting. Or interviewing Bowie Gym assistant manager Mike Lonergan on the upcoming basketball camp that he and his wife, Maggie, will be leading.

Or maybe John would have been talking to Mike about the three-day August camp Bowie’s own Quinn Cook will hold at the gym. Cook starred at St. Jerome and DeMatha.

Whether John was talking to a youth coach who had never been interviewed or to Lonergan, the only coach in college basketball history to win the Postseason NIT (2016) and the NCAA Division III national championship (2001), he treated all of his interviewees with humility and respect.

“John was a terrific sportswriter and an even better person,” said Lonergan, a Bowie native who first met John in the late 1980s. “He was a true professional who cared about reporting the truth. He didn’t distort facts and try to mislead his readers. You could trust that if you told John something off the record, it would remain that way.

“I feel blessed he was a friend of mine, and I’m sad he’s gone.”

John put just as much effort into writing about people whose stories would often go untold as he did to Maryland head coaches Mark Turgeon, D.J. Durkin and Brenda Frese. John spent much of his early Journal career interviewing DeMatha’s Hall of Fame Coach Morgan Wootten.

John, who lived in Bethesda, was a soft-spoken man who did what all of us should do better: listen. He then took the talents God blessed him with, as well as the skills his professors and mentors honed and crafted a piece well worth your time reading. His storytelling and journalistic skills were among the finest in the nation.

It’s not too often that DeMatha includes a note on a St. John’s High School graduate in its alumni newsletter. Particularly if that alumnus doesn’t have a direct DeMatha connection. But that didn’t stop the Hyattsville school from recently noting the sad and tragic way John’s soul departed this Earth.

DeMatha President Father James Day cited John from the pulpit during his July 1 homily at St. Jerome. He didn’t know John but recalled seeing him on campus many times “interviewing coaches and athletes.”

John Patrick McNamara was worthy of DeMatha making an exception in its weekly communication. He was an exceptional man of tongue and pen, a loving son and devoted husband.

Thank you, John, for quietly teaching me about caring for the games people play and bringing happiness and an occasional tear to reader’s eyes. I never left work in tears before June 28. I am crying as I finish writing this.

And should God ever welcome me to join you in his heavenly kingdom, please save a seat on press row for me. Right next to you.

Rest in peace and love, my friend.

Chris McManes (Mick-Maynz) is a Hyattsville resident.

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