“If you go back to when I played at Blair and graduated in 1950, basketball was three months, about 20 games, and that was it,” said Wootten, 81. “I like to think one of the things that got the area going was when me and Joe Gallagher started the Metropolitan Area Basketball School in 1961, and that was the first day basketball camp. People said the kids wouldn’t come because it was too hot in summer, but we had 24 kids the first year for nine weeks. It grew to the point of a year-round philosophy where in the mid-60s, Red Auerbach said there’s not a better area for basketball than D.C.”
Around that same time, Wootten’s DeMatha squad had shaken up the high school basketball landscape by beating Lew Alcindor’s (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) Power Memorial Academy in 1965, ending the New York school’s 71-game win streak. The contest marked Alcindor’s lone high school loss as well as the first sellout in the history of the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House.
“That was the first high school game that brought national attention,” said Wootten, who went 1,274-192 in 46 years leading the Stags. “After that, the impact was tremendous and all of a sudden, a great interest developed in this area.”
The game’s waves spread beyond the private sector. One season after USA Today broke ground with its high school hoops rankings in 1982, DeMatha finished the season atop the rankings. What’s more, three of the first four USA Today coaches of the year hailed from the D.C. area in Wootten, Spingarn’s John Wood and Flint Hill’s Stu Vetter, whose team won the 1986-87 national crown.
“When I started at Flint Hill, we just wanted to be a solid basketball team in our area,” said Vetter, who now coaches at Montrose Christian. “When the USA Today poll started, we happened to have a few good players and Dennis Scott helped make us into a national power. Once that attention comes, you find good players want to play at good programs and this area is fortunate to have a lot of great programs.”
Track record of success
Because of this, the D.C. area has been able to remain relevant amid the recent emergence of basketball-based academies such as Findlay Prep (Nev.) and Huntington Prep (West Va.). While many of the country’s top recruits are drawn to the national exposure and AAU-like approach of these teams, talented players and their parents find comfort in the strong structure and foundation of the region’s private schools.
“Schools in this area are still in the business of educating kids,” longtime Magruder Coach Dan Harwood said. “Not that the private schools here don’t get transfers, but when kids enroll in the DeMathas and Gonzagas, they know they are joining a program where the coach is in the building, the academic foundation is strong and there’s an opportunity for these kids to build a team chemistry that can allow you to reach that national level.”