The clap starts like it has for decades now, in the perfect rhythm for a basketball devotee to trot from the sideline to the starting lineup at center court. This center court is the old Catholic high school Mackin in Washington, D.C., down a residential street near Dupont Circle.
For 44 years, these same players, most from the Georgetown University Law Center’s class of 1977, have celebrated this opening day. Nearly all of them still practicing attorneys, the players have held some of the most significant jobs around town. When 9 a.m. on Saturday rolls around from September to late July, they play for two hours, as hard as they work.
Center court circles around Larry Gondelman, a litigation partner at Powers Pyles Sutter & Verville. Gondelman is the reason this game persists. The Supreme Commissioner, as they’ve designated him, organizes games each week and designs the league’s annual T-shirt, handed out on opening day before the annual picture. (Some of his favorites from league seasons past is the one that says: “Dribble Dribble & Shoot LLP,” as if the team itself is a firm, and another T-shirt with photos of all the past annual shirseys bearing the slogan “His-Tee-ry of the game.”)
Before opening day of the 44th season this year, Gondelman sends out a call-to-arms memo to his “loyal subjects.” “What’s it like to play at 65? Well, I’m not 65, at least not on the basketball court. I’m 26 and 34 and 17 and 48 and, sad to say, I’m frequently what’s got to be well over 70,” he writes. Let him know if you’re opting out for Saturday. Or be there on time.
Gondelman didn’t miss the game the morning of his wedding day, so he puts the pressure on his other teammates.
“It’s really just Larry, Larry, Larry and every week, he thinks you’re coming unless you tell him otherwise by Thursday,” said Scott Thomas, another regular player from the same law school class and a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.
Meet the Players
Supporting Gondelman in his most important of roles is assistant Commissioner Thomas McCormick, a former Shaw Pittman partner who played basketball as an undergraduate at Georgetown. Gondelman still remembers the moment he met McCormick on their second day of law school on the city bus, and they talked about basketball.
One year McCormick, now CFO at Bethesda, Maryland-based real estate firm B.F. Saul Co., got the game’s “7’11 award” for being always open, another player said. But it’s Joseph McCormick, Tom’s older brother, who is the league’s iron man.
The elder McCormick’s email address identifies him as “Slow But Still Going Joe” McCormick. He noted that he is the only Vietnam War veteran of the group, having went to law school on the GI Bill. Joe McCormick now works as an in-house lawyer at an electric company in McLean, Virginia. Joe’s son, also named Joe, plays on Saturdays too. He’s “Fast Joe McCormick.”
In 1984, Dan Richard, a regular who is not a lawyer, made a joke of trying to swipe the commissionership from Gondelman. He launched a campaign ruse, faking a 1980 letter from the monsignor who oversaw Mackin announcing that there would be no more fees for the league’s use of the facility.
Richard handed out the made-up letter at the league’s annual banquet, just before the commissioner vote, to make it look like Gondelman had defrauded them for bogus gym fees. Richard had a good laugh, withdrew his campaign and the league awarded Gondelman the commissioner title for life.
What do you need to know about Gondelman’s style of game play? Well, he can’t dribble on his right side.
Jon Rutenberg, an accountant known in the league as “Rute,” is the tallest of the regular players. He has played with this crowd for the last 38 years. “These are the greatest guys in the world,” Rute said.
Henry Miller, a retired tax lawyer, runs and runs, so much so that he escapes his defenders.
Thomas, the ex-FEC chair who now heads Blank Rome’s policy and political law practice, having joined the firm last year Dickstein Shapiro, is another left-handed player. He is also frequently calling timeouts because his shoelaces often come undone, he said.
Peter Kadzik, another former Dickstein Shapiro partner, is now at Venable. Near the end of the Obama administration, he served as head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legislative Affairs. He wasn’t playing much then, but he’s back more often now. Kadzik’s devotion to this crowd runs deep. The morning after the birth of his first child, in 1981, he came to the game. “Visiting hours wouldn’t start until later,” he recalled.
A few other names surface as regulars from over the years. Gene Karpinski leads the League of Conservation Voters, choosing a different career path from his private practice friends. Ruben Castaneda, the author, current U.S. News & World Report writer and former reporter at The Washington Post, also plays regularly.
J. Thomas Lenhart was a litigation partner at Shaw Pittman, until he quit law in 2002 and went to divinity school. He returned to the game one weekend years ago to give it a blessing.
Michael Nannes, chair of Dickstein Shapiro from 2004 to 2013, doesn’t play as much with this group anymore. But he was there on opening day this year. On some weeks, he drops in on a Tuesday night basketball game with federal government lawyers. Nannes is now a career attorney with the Justice Department’s national security division.
On the court, instead of in court, Nannes said he’s a basketball “garbage man” with long arms but “I don’t have any talent.”
Nannes remembers the day in 1974 that Kadzik’s then-roommate Miller, along with Thomas, Tom McCormick and Gondelman, sat in front of him in property class.
One turned around to ask if the others liked basketball. They played soon afterward on an asphalt court outdoors, first on the Georgetown campus, then in Glover Park. Mackin High School became the game’s permanent locale in the 1980s. Gondelman continues to cut a check to the Archdiocese of Washington on the group’s behalf for $304 each Saturday.
Many of the players brought their kids when they were young to sit in the stands during the mornings, and perhaps gave them change to go across the street to the corner store for candy.
“When you get to be in your mid-60s, there’s still an element there of being immature and juvenile, of living in your past a little bit,” Nannes said. “It was what I did on Saturday morning. Brought my kids to the games. My kids looked forward to going.”
A few of the other players joined Gondelman and Tom McCormick because they played in regular games over lunchtime or in the evenings at the downtown YMCA, which is now closed.
“If it weren’t for the Y, this game wouldn’t go on,” Gondelman said.
The penultimate game of the league’s 43rd season, on a humid July morning, was a sweaty reminder of what it’s like for men to play on the same court together for so many years. When the game begins, 11 guys hustle in a five-on-five, dark shirts versus white shirts, with one substitute. Their running form is slightly hobbled, but the game moves fast. Each shot counts as a point, and they won’t call the match and break for water until they reach a total of seven.
The low orange lighting casts the old Mackin court as one that’s both retro and in good shape. A raised bleacher section protects the T-shirt collections that the players bring with them. An industrial standing fan circulates some minimal air conditioning amid a hot summer morning.
“We haven’t seen a new move for 35 years,” joked Gondelman.
“Someone said I lost a step,” piped in the older Joe McCormick. “But I’ve always been this slow.”
In one sequence, the players miss four shots in a row: Two attempted alley-oops, a two-handed shot from outside the arc and a layup that might have looked easy until it didn’t. A few players guard closely and box out. The general pace of play is more friendly than physical.
At one point, the chosen sub grabs a ball and begins shooting at the deserted far end of the court, not needing to look when the game might come roaring back to his side.
One of the nonlawyer players, a younger man, breaks the drought with a jump shot.
And then, Gondelman catches fire. He scores the water-break-winning point three times. He has never done that in 43 years, another player tells me.
They’re not all three-point shots and dunk, but what do you expect? Larry Gondelman loves this as much as anything.