After all the things he did later in life — as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill, as a talk-radio host, as a community organizer and coach — Sid Catlett would always be best known for a basketball game he played in when he was 16.
He was a 6-foot-8 sophomore at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md., when he took the court on Jan. 30, 1965, in what is still called the greatest high school basketball game ever played.
“Nothing I was involved in was bigger,” Mr. Catlett told the Washington City Paper in 2011.
Mr. Catlett died Nov. 3 at a health-care facility in Atlanta at age 69. He had complications from a brain hemorrhage, said his wife, Tahira Hughes Catlett.
In 1964, DeMatha met New York’s Power Memorial Academy in a rare regional matchup of top high school basketball teams. All 12,500 seats at the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House were sold out. Power Memorial’s star player, 7-foot-2 Lew Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, scored 35 points to lead Power Memorial to a 65-62 victory.
Alcindor, who went on to a Hall of Fame career as the leading scorer in NBA history, was the most storied high school player of his generation, featured in newsreels and on magazine covers. By the time his team came back to College Park to meet DeMatha again a year later, Power Memorial had a 71-game winning streak.
DeMatha in the meantime had won 23 consecutive games under Coach Morgan Wootten, one of the few high school coaches in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. After losing to Alcindor and Power Memorial the previous year, Wootten decided to change his team's defensive tactics by double-teaming Alcindor, primarily with Mr. Catlett and 6-foot-8 Bob Whitmore.
“Sid Catlett was physically what LeBron James is today,” sportscaster James Brown, a former DeMatha teammate of Mr. Catlett’s, recalled Wednesday. “He was muscular, strong and he had a feathery soft jump shot. We were watching grace and greatness in action.”
In the days before the rematch, Wootten had his players shoot the ball with a higher trajectory by having Mr. Catlett hold a tennis racket during practice to simulate Alcindor’s extraordinary reach.
“We had been working on this game for a year,” Wootten told The Washington Post in 1965. “We were sneaking in plays constantly all season with this one game in mind.”
Reporters from Time, Newsweek and New York newspapers covered the game, which was sold out for weeks. Scalped tickets were fetching 10 times their face value.
“The degree of intensity and concentration had built to such a point,” Mr. Catlett told The Post in 1985, “that we felt we had to play the game of our lives.”
Wootten’s defensive strategy worked, as DeMatha took a 23-22 lead at halftime. With less than two minutes remaining in the game, Mr. Catlett made a long jump shot and a free throw to give DeMatha a five-point lead. He scored seven of his team’s final nine points, as DeMatha held on for a 46-43 victory.
Mr. Catlett, the youngest player on the floor, played every minute of the game and was DeMatha’s top scorer, with 13 points. Alcindor scored 16 for Power Memorial.
“Sid played a very key role in holding Kareem to the lowest point total of his career,” Wootten said this week.
“It had been a hard night,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote in his autobiography “Giant Steps.” “I was unwilling to take my uniform off and admit the game was over.”
DeMatha finished the season unbeaten, and the Power Memorial game brought newfound attention to high school basketball.
“It was the first really big national high school basketball game ever played,” Wootten said. “That’s what made it the greatest high school game ever. From that day on, there were national rankings and tournaments. It gave us a national reputation. I’ve never been associated with a greater basketball event than the Power game.”
Sidney Leon Catlett Jr. was born April 8, 1948, in Washington. His father, "Big" Sid Catlett, was a renowned jazz drummer who performed with Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and other leading musicians.
The younger Mr. Catlett had little memory of his father, who died in 1951. His mother, Florence Jackson, worked at the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
Mr. Catlett began playing the drums as a child, “but then I’m 12 years old and I’m 6-foot-2,” he told the Washington City Paper, “and there was no way I’d survive in the community without playing basketball. I couldn’t serve two masters.”
At DeMatha, Mr. Catlett won All-Metropolitan honors from The Post and received a scholarship to the University of Notre Dame, from which he graduated in 1971.
He played nine games for the NBA’s Cincinnati Royals before injuries ended his basketball career in 1972. He later worked as a marketing executive for the Converse athletic shoe company and then as an executive and lobbyist for Motorola. He worked in Kenya for the Peace Corps and during the 1980s was a top aide on Capitol Hill to Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.).
Mr. Catlett later held an executive position with the D.C. Lottery, had a radio talk show on WOL-AM and led workshops across the country as a community organizer.
In 2005 he moved to Atlanta, where he opened a basketball clinic and coached in the developmental department of the Atlanta Hawks. He also had an Internet talk show, produced by his wife, Tahira.
His first marriage, to Sharon Johnson, ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 35 years, of Atlanta; two children from his first marriage, Sidney L. Catlett III of Bowie, Md., and Sadjah Catlett Echols of Houston; two stepchildren, Mahmoud Hylton of Silver Spring, Md., and Hasaani Hylton of Waldorf, Md.; two sisters; and 12 grandchildren.
Over the years, Mr. Catlett developed a friendship with Abdul-Jabbar, his onetime opponent. Abdul-Jabbar, a jazz aficionado, helped Mr. Catlett track down a little-known film of his father playing drums and speaking on camera.
“I had never heard my father speak,” Mr. Catlett told the City Paper in 2011. “So here I was, a guy in his 50s, hearing his dad talk for the first time. It was an incredibly private, emotional moment.”
It would never have been possible, he said, without the Power Memorial-DeMatha game of 1965.
“Playing in that allowed me to hear my father speak,” he said.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Mr. Catlett was born in Chicago. He was born in Washington.
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