Rick Snider: Hoops legend is back on the court

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The return of a legend was epic.

Anthony "Jo Jo" Hunter recently appeared on a local basketball court for the first time since spending 15 years in federal prison. The former Mackin High star's new teammates were seniors, having all earned AARP status. The normally empty District rec center was overflowing in late July.

Hunter dropped 41 points. The next game brought 47. One of Washington's greatest prep players ever looked more like 17 years old than 52. That Hunter was released just two weeks earlier only deepened his appreciation of once more playing before family, friends and long-time followers.

"The reception has been wonderful," he said. "I didn't think I was a celebrity or legend until I left."

Hunter was a renowned outside shooter for nationally ranked Mackin in the mid-1970s, averaging 38 points his senior season before 3-pointers were counted. Otherwise, that number might have swelled to 48. The Philadelphia 76ers wanted to sign him out of high school.

Maybe Hunter isn't one of Washington's five greatest prep players, but he's certainly among the next fistful.

Unfortunately, Hunter didn't dominate at the next level. He chose Maryland over 200 offers because the Terrapins were shown on local TV, but he left in 1978 after two seasons playing point guard. Hunter was a rainmaker, not a setup man.

After spending one year working in a Las Vegas casino that Hollywood star Dean Martin arranged while awaiting a promised scholarship from UNLV that never happened, Hunter played two solid seasons at Colorado.

The Milwaukee Bucks drafted Hunter, but it didn't last. He spent 10 years playing worldwide, learning Spanish and developing an appreciation for the U.S. after seeing severe poverty abroad.

Overall, Hunter's career ranged from Milwaukee and four CBA stops to six overseas stints from Spain to Argentina. When Hunter's career ended, his taste for an expensive lifestyle unfortunately didn't. Hunter was convicted in 1997 of taking $350,000 in cash and goods from Ellis Custom Jewelry Design and Gold-N-Time. A clerk was also shot in the hand while struggling with Hunter.

Hunter was sentenced to 14 to 43 years for 11 felony convictions and served time in Ohio, Virginia and Maryland prisons before being released on July 16. His old Terps teammate Ernie Graham was waiting for Hunter outside the Cumberland prison gates.

The challenge for Hunter now is not scoring over contemporaries. That has always been the easy part. Learning everyday technology after 15 years away is perplexing. Pay phones are gone. Gas pumps now have computers. And the roads seem to go nowhere he remembers. Same with playgrounds and other familiar haunts.

"It's a culture shock for me," Hunter said. "Times have changed, and I have to catch up to the technology."

After touring old playground haunts at Luzon, Turkey Thicket and Edgewood, Hunter realized basketball is also his future; a gateway to helping teens and even adults avoid his mistakes. Hunter has already worked with several groups, recalling his prison experiences in hopes of deterring others.

"The day that I left [prison] as I'm walking out they were pulling up with 40 more guys from Washington," Hunter said. "It's a revolving door. I know it's tough out here, but patience and trying to stay on the right path is the only way to go.

"I'd like to be the voice that tells kids to use my experience to tell them [prison's] real and a reality of where they could be going."

Because that's one court Hunter never wants to see again.

Examiner columnist Rick Snider has covered local sports since 1978. Read more on Twitter @Snide_Remarks or email rsnider@washingtonexaminer.com.

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