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John McNamara to be honored at Navy-Maryland game

November 9, 2018

The last time Maryland and Navy played each other in men’s basketball, Len Bias led the Terrapins and David Robinson starred for the Midshipmen. It was the 1985 NCAA Tournament.

On Friday, Navy will host its fifth annual Veterans Classic, a two-game men’s basketball showcase on the U.S. Naval Academy grounds in Annapolis. After Wichita State and Providence face off in the first game, the service academy will renew its athletic rivalry with Maryland on the hardwood.

I’m sure John McNamara would have loved to be there.

McNamara graduated from Maryland and covered both the Terrapins’ and Midshipmen’s athletic programs during his four-decade career as a journalist. College basketball was his favorite sport, meaning this was one of his favorite times of the year.

But on June 28, McNamara and four of his colleagues at the Capital Gazette were killed when a gunman went on a homicidal rampage inside the Annapolis newspaper’s office.

Navy will reserve a seat on press row in McNamara’s name Friday, publish a write-up about him in the game program and honor him during a timeout. CBS Sports Network also will air a tribute to McNamara’s career.

But I need to ditch this formal, journalistic tone, because we all called him Mac.

I worked for the Capital Gazette for about a year and a half before joining The Washington Times, and in a way, I feel selfish about writing this column. After all, there were four more victims that day: Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters. After all, there have been many more recent victims of mass shootings, including at a Pittsburgh synagogue and a Thousand Oaks, California, bar. They say we’re up to 304 of these events this year.

But I worked most closely with Mac, and my memory of him has weighed on me, knowing this date was coming.

Funny enough, I didn’t know Mac as a sportswriter. Most tributes called him a “sports reporter and editor,” but a few years ago, his assignment changed from the sports desk to the editor of two weekly community papers, the Bowie Blade News and the Crofton-West County Gazette.

From 2016 until early this year, I covered high school sports for the Capital and helped with Navy and other happenings around the area. Come summertime, high school and Navy hit the offseason. So in the summer of 2017, I asked Mac if he needed help on the Bowie Blade News. Pretty soon, I was writing roundups of club swimming results and occasional stories on the Double-A Bowie BaySox.

Mac had a vacation coming up, and, while he was gone, he needed me to handle some of the bigger stories happening in the communities we covered including a story about decades-old unmarked graves found at a local church, and an ongoing debate over a proposal that would put tracks for a maglev train right through Bowie.

Mac, who was only familiar with my work in sports at that point, wasn’t sure I was ready yet. But when he returned, he told me I did a good job.

I can’t explain how much that meant to me. Mac was a man of few words when I was around the office, so a compliment from him carried a lot of weight.

A few months later, I was having an awful day because someone had taken a disagreement about a local sports story I’d done and blown it out of proportion. When I wasn’t expecting it, Mac comforted me. Among other things, he commiserated, telling me he’d also been a recent target of that particular person.

Our exchange happened about this time last year, as Mac was working on a preview of Navy taking on Pittsburgh in the fourth Veterans Classic.

At Mac’s memorial service in July, sportswriter Mike Ashley was one of many to refer to Mac’s passion for hoops. Mac would buy the annual Street Smith’s “Official Yearbook” every season to study up on teams around the nation. He was knowledgeable but approachable and helpful to other people on the Terrapins beat.

Ashley later told me he tried to bring some levity to his remarks that day because people loved Mac’s dry sense of humor. “I think John would have appreciated that as much as anybody,” he said.

I told a Times colleague in June that I was hung up on how easily I could visualize the scene of the crime. That hasn’t changed. The layout of the now-former Capital Gazette office remains imprinted onto my brain. But places only hold meaning like that because of the people we associate with them.

I knew where survivors like Phil Davis, Selene San Felice and Rachael Pacella were seated. And I know exactly where John McNamara would have been when he was robbed of his life.

I can’t and won’t end this on a depressing note. This week, the University of Maryland announced a journalism scholarship in Mac’s honor. His widow, Andrea Chamblee, is finishing work on a book he was writing about the history of basketball in the Washington area. When it is published, it will be Mac’s third book.

I look forward to reading it. In the meantime, I have a basketball game to go to, and I’ll be thinking about Mac long past the final buzzer.

⦁ Adam Zielonka is a Washington Times sportswriter.

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