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an online version of the magazine Spring/Summer 2007
Annals of Hopkins

Med School Hoops

Moan Margolis and John Boitnott revisit the Washington Street site where they once played basketball.
> Moan Margolis and John Boitnott revisit the Washington Street site where they once played basketball.

Fifty years ago, a bunch of first- and second-year students got hooked on pickup basketball games in a makeshift church turned gym.


By Janet Farrar Worthington


It was a church long ago, and it’s a church now. But for a while, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, this small building on Washington Street took a break and became a gym. And during this interlude, it saw some pretty good basketball—played religiously, if you will—by a handful of first- and second-year students at the School of Medicine.

As a gym, it wasn’t that great. It still looked remarkably like a church. “The medical school either bought or rented the building,” says Simeon (Moan) Margolis (M.D.-1957), professor of medicine and biological chemistry here, “and they very slightly remodeled it for exercise. The little basketball court had almost no room under the goals. If you were running fast, you’d run into the wall.”

The ceiling was low, too. “You couldn’t put any arch on the ball,” recalls John Boitnott (M.D. -1957), former pathologist in chief. “But if you threw it straight, you could pretty much shoot from one end of the court to the other.” 

An oasis for exercise in those days, the “old church gym” drew a loyal crowd of regulars—medical students, who lived in nearby rowhouses. “Almost every day, we’d just show up in the late afternoon,” Margolis recalls. “It was the only place where we could get exercise and relief from the pressures of medical school.” Stress-relief therapy from the preclinical grind of subjects like microbiology, anatomy, and pathology came in countless hours of shooting hoops. 

But that pickup game wasn’t just a group of guys hanging out playing HORSE (the old hoop-scoring contest where the guy who misses gets an H and then O, etc., until the loser collects all five letters). HORSE players undoubtedly shot their share of baskets, but several men in the Class of ’57 were pretty skilled basketball players. They’d played in college, and in their second year of medical school they formed a team that took on, and mostly beat, teams from around Maryland.

They met at the gym every day, after pathology and before dinner. As Boitnott, a 6-footer who’d played for Bridgewater College in Virginia, recalls it, they started packing up their notes and reaching for their gym bags well before their pathology study sections were supposed to be over, to the dismay of their section leaders. 


Margolis as a young hoopster.
> Margolis as a young hoopster.

Al Birtch, at 6-foot-2, and Margolis, a scrappy 5-foot-10, had been starting players on the Johns Hopkins University varsity team. Margolis, who played guard, was team captain his
junior year and led the team scoring in every year he played. In fact, his astounding scoring feat of 44 points—he even made 14 of 15 foul shots back when there were no two-shot fouls—achieved in one legendary game against Randolph-Macon College, has remained unbeaten on the Hopkins record books. (In 1997, Margolis was inducted into the Johns Hopkins
Athletic Hall of Fame for basketball and baseball.)

Bob Rutherford, who despite being 6-foot-10 had not played in high school, also had a spot on the JHU team as an undergraduate. “But we were the ones who developed him into a good player,” Boitnott says. This became particularly satisfying for the med students, Boitnot remembers, during the team’s second year. They played the University’s varsity basketball team twice, won both times, “and embarrassed the coach,” who had never appreciated Rutherford’s potential. Rounding out the team were Frank Hoaglund, 6-5 (he was Class of ’56), who had played for the University of California; Lou Schaffer; Wes McBride, 6-4, who had played for Muskingum in Ohio; and the burly Chuck Carpenter, whose college sport had been wrestling and who tended to bump into his teammates by accident but would “always say he was sorry after he clobbered you,” recalls Boitnott.

During that 1954–55 basketball season, the medical students, sporting T-shirts provided by the “Doctor’s Barber Shop,” located on Monument Street across from the Hospital (where the 1830 Building stands today), played eight games against outside teams. Besides the University’s varsity, their opponents included the Martin Bombers (from the Glenn L. Martin Airfield in Middle River), the Bainbridge Naval Training Station, Baltimore City College and two teams from the YMCA. That last encounter in particular is vividly remembered by Margolis. Not only did he dislocate his shoulder, but the other guys won.  

The team didn’t officially disband after that year. They just got too busy to play as they entered the clinical rotations of their third year of medical school. But while it lasted, Margolis says, “it was a great time. It was fun, a terrific opportunity for relaxation. And we had a team that did pretty well.”

Years later, in 1981, Hopkins built a real, full-size gym funded by and named for Denton Cooley. At the dedication ceremonies, Margolis played a game of HORSE with Cooley, the legendary heart surgeon and 1944 graduate of the School of Medicine. The game, Margolis recalls, wasn’t going Cooley’s way, and the big donor earned the first three letters in short order.

 “I looked up into the stands,” Margolis recalls, “and there was Dick Ross [at that time, dean of the School of Medicine] looking stern.” Right at that point, Cooley suggested they change the game to PIG, with him already having the letter P. Switching animals proved his lucky move. “For some reason,” Margolis says, “I never made another shot.” Later that day, Margolis ran into Cooley’s daughter, who said, as he recalls, “‘You threw it! You let my father win!’ But I didn’t.”

Like Margolis, Boitnott vividly remembers all games the group played during that joyous year of after-school sport. But what he remembers most is the saving grace that basketball provided during a difficult time. “It allowed us to complete medical school, to get through the first two years without going crazy. You could get through anything, knowing that in a few more hours, you were going to go play.”    


Janet Farrar Worthington is a former editor of this magazine.

 Ten Years at the Top
 Just Say 'Ah'
 A Kind of Calling
 Circling the Dome
 Medical Rounds
 Annals of Hopkins
Class Notes
 Back to the Future
 Learning Curve
Johns Hopkins Medicine

© The Johns Hopkins University 2007