On the morning of May 28, 25 years ago, I awoke to a terrifying sound coming from my mother downstairs.
Something I had never heard before. Something like, “No!” with Irish defiance and maternal heartache. Something was really wrong. Within seconds my father came into my room with the news that my friend and classmate Steve English had died the night before.
We had recently read A Separate Peace in school and I kept picturing Steve as Phineas, which was an apt comparison. I couldn’t imagine what had happened. “Why was Steve climbing a tree!?” This dreary, dazed wondering seemed to last an eternity, as I tried to wrap my head around what I had just been told. The most graceful kid I had ever seen, I even remembered that I had tried to imitate how he stood during the Gospel at Mass when we were in lower school. He was so at ease with himself. But it was actually just a few seconds between my mother’s cry and my father telling me that he had been in a car accident.
It was the first clumsy physical action I had ever seen him make.
-A Separate Peace
I felt nothing, numb all morning until my uncle Rich came over. Rich was our math teacher and the Varsity basketball coach at The Heights, where Steve and I were sophomores. We had been students together at The Heights since the 3rd grade. Steve’s dog had bitten me above the eye in 4th grade, and since the 6th grade, several of us would spend Friday nights at the English house because they had a half basketball court in the side yard and we could play 3 on 3 or 2 on 2 all weekend. As soon as I saw Rich, that’s when I started crying. Because he came over, that meant it was real.
Steve had grown up on that half court, getting a basketball education from his older brothers. Both Joe and Mike were fierce competitors and great guards. Without older brothers of my own, Steve’s toughness and trash talking were my substitute, his older brothers schooling me by proxy. I was usually one of the worst of the bunch in the 3 on 3s, but the English half court is where my game grew up too. Steve was a shooter, I was supposed to be a point guard. But he picked my pockets all the time. He was better than me in every way. I thought I loved basketball. Steve loved it more.
He had never been jealous of me for a second. Now I knew that there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us. I was not of the same quality as he. -A Separate Peace
The three point shot had been introduced in high school between oldest brother Joe English’s tenure as the point guard (the best high school point guard I ever saw play) for a Heights team that went 31-4 without a gym to practice in (they were even featured on the local news shoveling snow from the courts before practicing with gloves and winter coats), and Mike English’s arrival on the Varsity as a three-point gunning sophomore. We had all heard the story that Michael Jordan had been cut from his varsity team as a sophomore, so making the varsity as a sophomore became a benchmark of greatness in our minds.
I had grown up watching Steve’s older brothers play basketball. My father was the headmaster of The Heights and my uncle coached Junior Varsity and later Varsity. I rode along with Rich in the team van to a lot of the JV games, and Steve would be there with his parents. Rich even paid me to cut out the high school scores from the Washington Post and tape them into a notebook as part of scouting opponents.
“Watch that purgatory they call a gym. No drive 12 foot in.” Shooter, in Hoosiers
The Heights developed a rivalry with another Catholic boys school, St. Anselm’s, who hosted the oldest basketball tournament in Washington, D.C. As far as Rich was concerned, The Heights was cursed in the St. Anselm’s gym, and I believed him. Steve and I never saw The Heights win there growing up. Was it merely Purgatory? Or was it worse? But we did become basketball “junkies” there, spending the three day tournament weekend watching as many games as we could, as well as shooting around at halftimes and between games. Gym time was at a premium for us after all.
After The Heights built a gym we traded home wins with St. Anselm’s for a few years… but could never get past St. Anselm’s in their gym, in their tournament. St. Anselm’s won in 1989 when Mike English was a senior, and St. Anselm’s repeated the next year, defeating The Heights 72-71 in the championship game. We were sophomores and Steve was the starting shooting guard for The Heights. And man could he shoot. Varsity as a sophomore on a team that went 21-12!
Steve had developed an unorthodox shooting style that violated many of the fundamentals you learn growing up. However, he violated the fundamentals in pretty much the same way that Larry Bird did. His right elbow was pointed a little bit out. He got a little bit of his left thumb and index finger on the ball during the shot and follow through, and he brought the ball back to his right ear. He also had an ability to square up and release the ball in one motion incredibly quickly. I remember watching one game against Newport Prep, a local power at the time, and they tried to extend a zone defense to stop him. He just kept moving back and draining threes. If they had extended any farther he would have been hitting them from the parking lot.
He was not one dimensional either, though he seemed to understand better than the rest of us that the three pointer was an equalizer for guys like us, that it was more than a gimmick. He played hard all the time. He wasn’t a shooting prima donna: he played defense, rebounded, drove the lane. And like his older brothers, he never ever committed a foul. The refs were just wrong.
It was almost as if he had a plan, when the three point shot was introduced in 1987 and he was in 7th grade, he made it his mission to be devastating at it. And he succeeded. He had over 100 threes as a sophomore. Nobody in the DC area was even close to that. The second place three point shooter in Montgomery County was a great shooter, but was still over 40 behind Steve, and he was a senior. Steve was going to be a special player, because he already was a special player. When I talked about being the varsity point guard for our upcoming junior year he said something like, “Just pass me and Tony [Diggs] the ball. That’s all you need to do.” He was so confident, but had the work ethic to back it up. And he had such a love of the game to make the package complete. [Full disclosure: I was a heist sophomore year as the point guard on JV. So he was right to remind me of my proper role.]
A few months after Steve’s first and only appearance in the St. Anselm’s Tournament in 1990, the tournament he had been attending as a fan since about 5th grade, he left us. Some of us were altar servers at his funeral Mass. Our charismatic, graceful, athletic friend was gone.
The following year, as juniors, we actually won the St. Anselm’s Tournament for the first time, beating Shenandoah Academy.
“Listen, pal, if I can’t play sports, you’re going to play them for me,” and I lost part of myself to him then, and a soaring sense of freedom revealed that this must have been my purpose from the first: to become a part of Phineas. -A Separate Peace
Six juniors had been classmates with Steve, three of us since the 3rd grade. We had grown up on the English family’s side yard half court. I was the starting point guard. Tony Diggs was our best player and scorer, as he had been at every English half court hoops sleepover since 6th grade. Denis Mitchell was our Do Anything and Everything undersized forward, as he had been at every English half court hoops sleepover since 6th grade…
During the awards ceremony that year, St. Anselm’s coach Brian Murphy and the St. Anselm’s community debuted a trophy in Steve’s honor for the player who made the most three-pointers in the tournament. It was a touching tribute by St. Anselm’s and a testament to the best aspects of a great rivalry.
In 1992, in what would have been Steve’s senior year, we repeated as champions, finally beating our rival St. Anselm’s on their home court. The team that had grown up at the English’s won it’s final 15 games, 6 in overtime and was the first Heights team to be ranked in the Washington Post Top 20. It is still the highest ranking that any Heights team has achieved.
Steve’s younger brother Nick was all set to win the trophy a few years later. But a snow storm kept Shenandoah Academy from making it in for the third day of the tournament. Georgetown Day had already been eliminated but they were nearby and agreed to play in their place. One of their players hit some threes and ended up winning the trophy. It was heartbreaking for Nick, and for the rest of us. But we knew how hard he had worked to win it, and he really had won it. He put on a shooting show worthy of his brother.
After the championship game in 1992 Rich was talking to coach Murphy and said, “I hear you guys are going to be building a new gym!” Murphy responded with a wink, “Yeah, but we’re still going keep this gym, just to play you guys!” He knew about the curse too.
Many years later I had the opportunity to help start a school with my old Calculus teacher and basketball coach (and uncle and godfather). I ended up becoming the first Athletic Director at The Avalon School and even coached one year of varsity basketball. I was not able to beat St. Anselm’s. A few years later Avalon was invited to participate in the St. Anselm’s Tournament. I had gone off to business school and Rich had taken his rightful place as the head ball coach at Avalon. He called me up after the tournament to tell me that they still had the Steve English Trophy, but that people didn’t quite remember the story behind it, the rivalry with The Heights, Steve, his brothers, etc. A player from The Heights had won the trophy that year and nobody from The Heights knew that it was named after their greatest shooter ever.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Steve’s death, and next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the trophy named in his honor. So I drove up from North Carolina with my two sons to go to the tournament this year. I watched Avalon defeat The Heights in the semifinals on Saturday and go on to win the Tournament on Sunday. Due to the snow storm this year a team couldn’t make it, so St. Anselm’s and The Heights played in the consolation game.
Through the gracious cooperation of the St. Anselm’s Parents Association, a group of us -Steve’s friends, teammates, and classmates- raised some money to sponsor an ad in the tournament program to tell Steve’s story, and to pay for the trophy. We hope somehow to be able to endow the trophy in the future and keep Steve’s story alive. But we also want to honor the generosity and the solidarity of what Coach Murphy and the St. Anselm’s community did in dedicating a trophy to our friend, our teammate, and their rival.
“Everyone has a moment in history which belongs particularly to him.”-A Separate Peace
Below is the ad and a picture of this year’s winner receiving the Steve English Trophy from Steve’s coach, Rich McPherson.
A Thank You:
During the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, The Heights and St. Anselm’s developed a great rivalry in sports, especially in basketball. Steve English grew up watching his older brothers, Joe and Mike, play for The Heights against Kensington neighbors Matt Gerber and Matt Opalack, who played for the Panthers. There was no better place for a younger brother to watch games than the old St. Anselm’s gym for tournament weekend. Nor was there a better place to watch intense high school basketball in general. Unfortunately for us, The Heights could never win in that gym.
Steve grew up to become a great shooter and started at guard for The Heights as a sophomore. He led Montgomery County, MD in three point shooting, making over 100 threes. The next most prolific shooter, senior Jon Landy of the Jewish Day School, was roughly 40 behind him. A few months after Steve’s first and only appearance in the St. Anselm’s Tournament in 1990, the tournament he had been attending as a fan since about 5th grade, he died in a car accident.
The following year, The Heights actually won the Tournament. During the awards ceremony, late coach Brian Murphy and the St. Anselm’s community debuted a trophy in Steve’s honor for the player who made the most three-pointers in the tournament. It was a touching tribute by the St. Anselm’s community and a testament to the best aspects of a great rivalry.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Steve’s death, and next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the trophy named in his honor. We, Steve’s family, friends, teammates, and classmates, want to thank St. Anselm’s for continuing to honor our friend and teammate in this way.
The English family, The Heights class of 1992, The Heights Varsity basketball teams of 1989, 1990, 1991, and 1992.
Eternal rest, grant unto him O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon him.