BASKETBALL GREAT TAKES HIS PLACE AMONG TORERO LEGENDS
It all started at the Watts Branch Playground. Stan Washington ’74 practically grew up on those rugged courts in northeast Washington, D.C., famed for producing basketball legends like Elgin Baylor and Dave Bing.
“I probably spent more time on the playground than I did at home,” Washington says. “If anybody needed to find me, that’s where I’d be.”
The 6-foot-4-inch guard forged his talent in the fires of pickup basketball, fashioning his game after greats like Oscar Robertson and Walt Frazier, and starred at Spingarn High School before it came time to select a college.
“I wanted to get as far away as I could,” Washington says. “Things never seemed to work out for guys who stayed close to home.”
Two friends from D.C., Bernie Williams and Curtis Perry, were playing for the San Diego Rockets at the time and urged Washington to pay USD a visit.
“I remember getting off the plane and seeing palm trees for the first time,” he recalls. “I was an inner-city kid who hadn’t traveled much, and I saw those palm trees and I was like, ‘Oooh, this is Hawaii 5-0.’”
Among those greeting him at the airport were Perry, Williams and then-USD head coach Bernie Bickerstaff. Now a Chicago Bulls assistant coach, Bickerstaff didn’t exactly strike a formidable first impression.
“I thought he was one of the players,” Washington laughs. “I was like, ‘Aw, man! This guy isn’t much older than I am.’”
Washington spent his first year under the tutelage of John Cunningham before becoming a three-time All-American who averaged 18.2 points and 5.6 assists while etching his name all over the USD record books.
Washington was selected in the fourth round of the 1974 NBA Draft by his hometown Capital Bullets, but just making the roster of a team featuring future NBA Hall-of-Famers Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld meant that his work was cut out for him.
“You had to really fight for a spot,” Washington says. “They didn’t give you anything. You had to earn it.”
Washington scraped and clawed his way onto the team, and soon found himself guarding Julius Erving in an exhibition game against the New York Nets.
“I remember Dr. J coming at me with the ball and I was like, ‘Ohhhkay, I’m not going to let him dunk on me. It was great just to be on the floor with those guys.”
Washington played in one regular-season game before he was released by the Bullets. He had brief stints in the ABA and on a travelling team in Belgium before the realization set in that his professional career was over.
“You try to latch on wherever you can and when things don’t work out you just have to say ‘Okay, I’ve got to get that 9-to-5,’” Washington says. “You just have to try and replace that part of your life with something that’s hopefully just as rewarding.”
Washington has worked in the social services arena for about 30 years, and currently helps people get on a path to owning their own home as a case manager for the Charlotte Housing Authority in North Carolina.
“That really has been my calling,” Washington says. “You may think your gift is one thing but then you find out what your real gift is. I can still shoot a free throw but this is what God wants me to do. This is where I excel.”
Washington has reconnected with USD thanks in part to former teammate Tommy Davis. On one visit, he found time to play H-O-R-S-E with Gyno Pomare ’09 (“He beat me,” Washington laughs), who surpassed Washington’s all-time scoring record of 1,472 points last season.
“Records come and go, but what I’ve found over the years is that the relationships you developed are what’s really important,” Washington says. “You grow into a family on and off the court. That reaches far beyond athletics.”
Now, what began in Watts will culminate with Washington becoming the 2010 inductee into USD’s Chet and Marguerite Pagni Family Athletics Hall of Fame. Ever the team player, he says the honor is as much about his former coaches and teammates as it is about him.
“I’m extremely grateful and honored,” Washington says. “It makes you reflect on those times and how special they were. I look back at that young man and how he’s grown into the guy I am now, and a lot of that is a direct result of what happened during my four years at the university.” — Nathan Dinsdale