50 years ago, D.C.’s NBA story began in a high school gym

addByline("Jackson Filyo and Ron Denny”);

In the preseason leading up to the 1971-72 NBA season, the Baltimore Bullets were less than two years away from moving permanently to Washington D.C. As an early first step into its new home, the franchise made one of its first on-court appearances in the greater-D.C. area when it hosted the New York Knicks for a tune-up game at Hayfield High School on September 21, 1971. Two rosters loaded with Hall of Fame talent and championship aspirations descended on Alexandria, Virginia to face off in front of a sold-out crowd of locals. The game was organized by Hayfield High and a local youth recreation organization and tapped into a passionate, growing DMV basketball fandom that has persisted for five decades.

As the NBA begins to celebrate its 75th anniversary season and revives the stories that built the league as it is known today, we go inside the story of one of the NBA’s first venture’s into the D.C. area, told by the people who saw and made it happen.

RON DENNY was a student at Hayfield High School, a member of the basketball team and attended the game as a fan. Denny, who played an integral role in documenting the event, now works as a freelance writer.

CARL SELL, now 85, was a local journalist writing at the time for The Evening Star and president of the Pioneer League, a youth sports league in Fairfax County that helped organize the game itself. Sell is also the former Director of Sports Information at George Mason University.

RICH RINALDI was a shooting guard with the Bullets at the time, drafted just months earlier in the third round of the 1971 NBA Draft out of St. Peter’s College.

Game Letter

RON DENNY: “Once Bullets owner Abe Pollin announced he was building the Capital Centre and planning to relocate the Baltimore Bullets to the Washington area in 1973, a full-court press was started to introduce the team and their product to fans and sponsors. Especially in the untapped, growing Northern Virginia market.”

CARL SELL: “I was in the right place at the right time. Next door to the sports department at The Evening Star was the art department, headed up by Zang Auerbach. Auerbach was the younger brother of Red Auerbach, the legendary Boston Celtics head coach. Zang talked basketball all the time and Red would visit to talk about how the sport was growing better and bigger. Like Pollin, Red was a Washington guy, went to George Washington University, and wanted basketball to be successful in the area.”

In addition to his job as a reporter, Sell worked as president of the Pioneer League, a youth sports organization in Fairfax County that organized events and fundraisers – and played their basketball games at Hayfield High.

CARL SELL: “I had contacts through the Auerbachs and with a Washington area representative for the Bullets who would come by and bug us every single day about this new team that was coming to town. So, one thing led to another, and I talked to the people at Hayfield High and the Pioneer League about sponsoring the game and splitting the proceeds.”

In 2021, it’s difficult to visualize a pair of NBA teams filing into a high school gym for any sort of regulated competition, but in the foundational years of the league’s development, it wasn’t so rare. In fact, it was vital to the league’s efforts to grow the game in new markets.

Rinaldi, who was in his rookie season in the NBA, remembered attending a similar exhibition game years earlier in his hometown of Poughkeepsie, New York. The two teams facing off that day? The Baltimore Bullets and the New York Knicks.

RICH RINALDI: “In 1965, I was 16 years old, in high school and the Bullets played the Knicks at Poughkeepsie High School. I remember watching Walt Bellamy, Willy Somerset, Gus “Honeycomb” Johnson. All these guys were there. I was at center court in the bleachers sitting front row. I was watching them warm up and I just thought, ‘look at this, this is the NBA.’”

Years later, Rinaldi was one of those NBA players shuffling around the country making a living playing basketball and remembers participating in plenty of unique exhibition experiences as the league worked to get its product in front of as many eyes as possible.

RICH RINALDI: “We’d play an exhibition game in Louisville, play an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden, maybe play an exhibition game at the Baltimore Civic Center. I remember I went down to Miami and played an exhibition game down there – and that was a pretty big arena. And then, sure, let’s play at a high school – and then let’s play in a little gym in North Carolina. We didn’t care, man.”

Sell knew this would be a matchup people would pay to see. The year before, the Bullets had gone 42-40, winning the Central Division and securing a spot in the playoffs. A win in their first-round series against the 76ers set Baltimore up with an Eastern Conference Finals matchup against the Knicks. The Bullets came back from down 0-2 to win the series in seven games and advance to the 1971 NBA Finals.

Even with the notoriety of the two teams involved, promotion of the Bullets-Knicks exhibition at Hayfield High happened mostly by word of mouth.

CARL SELL: “We had a hard time getting space even in the newspaper to promote it, so we talked it up through our Pioneer League coaches and managers. We made sure all the kids knew what was going on, where the money from the game was going, and how important it was to the community. Because unless you were a diehard basketball fan, most people didn’t realize how good these athletes were or who Earl “The Pearl” Monroe was at that time. Basketball on television was still in its infancy in 1971.”

CARL SELL: “The Bullets weren’t concerned about the money. They were more concerned about getting their product in front of the public because they were smart. They recognized how gung-ho Northern Virginia was for sports.”

RON DENNY: “I still have the souvenir program from that night. The center spread featured Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier and the rosters from both teams.”

Game Program

RON DENNY: “The sold-out crowd, including me and my fellow Hayfield basketball teammates, didn’t realize it, but we were seeing 10 future Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famers in our high school gym that night.”

The Bullets roster was headlined by three of those Hall of Famers: Monroe, Johnson and Wes Unseld. The Knicks roster featured Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, and Jerry Lucas, all of whom were later inducted into the Hall of Fame as players. Head coach Red Holzman was inducted as a coach, as was Phil Jackson, then a reserve for the Knicks, who went on to win a record 11 NBA titles as head coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers.

RICH RINALDI: “It was intimate. To see the walls under the basket, it took you back to your high school days. I think I can speak for pretty much all of the guys playing in that era – it didn’t matter. I would play on the moon. I would play in Alaska.”

RON DENNY: “I was a little star stuck. I had seen these guys on TV but not up close and personal like that night. I mean, these guys were playing in my high school gym. Are you serious? It was a bit surreal.”

RON DENNY: “There are several memories about that game that have stayed with me for 50 years. I remember a lot of buzz around school that day and that our gym was packed. I had never seen that many people in our gym before, and it could seat 5,000. You could just sense this game was a big deal.”

CARL SELL: “The game was played on a Tuesday night, so you can imagine the disruption and inconvenience it brought to Hayfield. They put up with a lot of extra work but were super, because they understood how important the event was going to be for the community, the youth league, and for their school.”

RON DENNY: “I recall that the Knicks won the game. I found a brief mention of the game online saying it was a tight game, and that Frazier helped the Knicks pull away in the fourth quarter to win 104-92. I’ve held on to the program all these years but not my ticket because – I’m a little embarrassed to say – I snuck in that night. Hayfield is a big school, and me and my cheapskate buddies knew which locker room windows and doors to leave open. Security was a lot different then.”

50 years later, spanning from Baltimore to Alexandria, all the entire D.C.-Maryland-Virginia region, from rec and high school gyms to Capital One Arena – the DMV’s passionate and persistent love for the sport remains as strong as ever.

CARL SELL: “That night was really the start of NBA interest in the Washington area. It started something that grew from there in leaps and bounds.”

RON DENNY: “It’s been phenomenal to see basketball grow the way it has in the D.C. area. Time has proven that Pollin’s instincts were right, and his timing was right as well. The Bullets moved to the D.C. area just as pro and college basketball was about to explode in popularity.”

CARL SELL: “I’m most proud of how everything worked together. It was one of the few times in life where all the people and all the forces and all the ideas and all the talent all came together at one place at one time. That’s what made that event so successful. It was just meant to be.”

Interviews were edited for brevity and clarity.
Photos and additional research: Ron Denny, Carl Sell and Hayfield High School (now: Hayfield Secondary School)