When he wasn’t covering a game, John McNamara would bunker down in the den of his home in Silver Spring, Maryland, chipping away at the book he was writing.
The veteran sportswriter and editor would set up interviews, create photo lists and make phone calls. Dinners at his desk were not unusual. His wife, Andrea Chamblee, often spent those evenings sitting in the living room with her laptop. His door was open, but she knew to leave her husband alone, save for when a great play occurred on whatever game she watching.
That evening work went on for a decade.
As the newspaper McNamara worked for weathered layoffs and staff shifts, including McNamara’s transfer to news, he put his energy into the book. His century-long history of Washington, D.C.,-area high school basketball became his passion project — and publishers were interested.
They even suggested McNamara write a series of similar books covering other cities. “I’m not going to live long enough to write books on other cities,” he told Chamblee.
“Unfortunately, that was foreshadowing,” Chamblee, 58, said.
McNamara was one of the five journalists killed in the Capital Gazette shooting of June 28, 2018. His exhaustively researched and entertaining “The Capital of Basketball: A History of DC Area High School Hoops” (Georgetown University Press), came out Sunday.
“I was a walking nightmare for at least a few weeks; and some days it still feels that way,” Chamblee said. But two weeks after the shooting, she summoned the courage to enter McNamara’s den, which remained as he left it.
Chamblee, a lawyer for the Food and Drug Administration, had time to spare, thanks to the federal government shutdown from late December 2018 to the end of January 2019.
“John wouldn’t have wanted to be remembered for how he died. He wanted to be remembered for how he lived,” Chamblee said.
She would finish his book, the last promise she could keep for McNamara, “who kept so many promises to me; promises that were spoken and unspoken.”
She called on the Washington, D.C.,-area sports community to help fill in the blanks. For example, there were 175 photos on his computer without captions, because McNamara, “a basketball encyclopedia,” didn’t need them. Offers to help poured in.
“John, for all his being a bulldog, was never an anti-anything,” said David Elfin, a former Washington Times sports reporter and friend. McNamara was never antagonistic with coaches or players. He cared. He wrote objectively. Basketball, the game he loved to watch and play, mattered above all. And D.C. high school hoops were McNamara’s lifelong passion. His co-worker, Bill Wagner, would frequently mention players both obscure and well-known to see if McNamara had covered them. The response was always the same. “Are you kidding me? I did that months ago.”
Those qualities, along with McNamara’s 30-plus years covering D.C.-adjacent sports, endeared him to coaches and other beat writers.
“People loved the guy,” said Gerry Jackson, a longtime co-worker in sports. McNamara’s skill as a conversationalist allowed him to get to the heart of the subjects he profiled, Jackson said. But he was full-time compassionate and genuine. Any time Jackson’s wife answered a work-related call from McNamara, it never went straight to Jackson.
“Nancy,” Jackson would ask from his recliner as the conversation stretched well beyond pleasantries, “Is that call for me?”
At the time of his death, McNamara’s manuscript was almost done. Chamblee took McNamara’s “really meticulous outline” on the first chapter, which covers 1900 to 1950, and turned that into a narrative — though she did write the first sentence, a daunting prospect for the one-time sportswriter.
“I felt a lot of pressure to get that first sentence right,” she said. “I still haven’t decided if I overdid it or not.”
Elfin, who collaborated with McNamara on a book about the University of Maryland’s fabled Cole Field House, finished the final chapter of McNamara’s book on the 1990s. He attended McNamara’s memorial at the University of Maryland’s chapel, and then shadowed Chamblee at the reception to see if she was OK. That’s when she mentioned the book.
Elfin felt little pressure. Their writing styles were similar and, unlike their previous collaboration, Elfin said, “John wasn’t there to critique me.”
There was no strict deadline. McNamara had left “very thorough files” — including photocopied Washington Post stories — about the ‘90s. All that was required were a couple of interviews and light research.
“John,” said Elfin, who also copyedited the manuscript, “made it so much easier.”
Chamblee and McNamara were ready to self-publish if no offer came from an outside party, but she’s been thrilled with Georgetown University Press, she said. Elfin worries about Chamblee, who pushed through unfathomable grief to bring McNamara’s book into the world. What happens, he wonders, after the publicity and interest stops?
She wonders the same thing, but she knows she has to let go.
McNamara was a sportswriter, but he and Chamblee were a couple forever. He always made coffee for Chamblee every day, even though he never touched the stuff. He always drove her to the train or the airport if she had to travel for work. Chamblee always felt behind in returning the small gestures that defined their 33-year marriage.
The book is her last chance to catch up.
Jackson received a copy of “The Capital of Basketball” before publication. He does most of his reading at the gym. The book brought him to tears on the Perry Hall YMCA arc trainer. McNamara’s voice came through the pages. Right now, the book is on the floor next to his living room recliner. It won’t be there much longer.
Good books, Jackson said, are best shared with others.
Correction: This story has been updated to change the book’s release date from Nov. 5 to Nov. 3. We regret the error.
Pete Croatto (Twitter: @PeteCroatto) is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a number of outlets, including The New York Times, Columbia Journalism Review, Grantland and RollingStone.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.