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Bob Whitmore, from DeMatha to Notre Dame and beyond, was a leader anyone would follow

Bob Whitmore waves as he is inducted to the Notre Dame ring of honor Jan. 12, 2019. (Michael Caterina/South Bend Tribune/AP)

Mike Brey remembers the moment he realized how truly special Bob Whitmore’s life had been. On Jan. 12, 2019, Whitmore became the seventh men’s player inducted to Notre Dame basketball’s ring of honor. He had starred at Notre Dame in the 1960s and had become close to Brey shortly after Brey became the Fighting Irish’s coach in July 2000.

“Right after I got hired, he called me and said, ‘Anytime you’re in Washington and need something — anything — you call me,’ ” Brey remembered Monday. “When we inducted him, he was so sick we weren’t sure he’d be able to make it. But no way was he going to miss the ceremony.

“One of the nice things about those ceremonies is the people who come back for the day: family, friends, teammates. Bob was 50 years removed from graduation. Just about every one of his living teammates made it back. We’ve never had a turnout of former teammates like that. And more: other grads whose lives he’d touched, friends he’d made through the years. I looked out at the crowd and thought: ‘My God, he’s the Pied Piper. People will follow him anywhere.’ ”

Whitmore died Saturday at 73 after a 20-year fight with pancreatic cancer. That’s not a typo: He lived with the disease for perhaps longer than 99 percent of those diagnosed with it. He was frequently in and out of hospitals, lost all sorts of weight and at times looked awful. But he kept working to help people.

Whitmore grew up in the D.C. area and played for Morgan Wootten at DeMatha. He played a key role in what is generally considered the most important high school basketball game ever played: DeMatha’s 46-43 upset of Lew Alcindor’s Power Memorial team, ending its 71-game winning streak Jan. 30, 1965.

Whitmore and Sid Catlett, both 6-foot-8, double-teamed the 7-2 Alcindor for most of the game — Whitmore in front; Catlett in back. They held Alcindor to 16 points — 14 below his average. Whenever that game came up, Whitmore would point out that the year before Wootten had asked him to guard Alcindor by himself, and Alcindor scored 35 points in a 65-62 Power victory.

“Thank goodness Morgan got me some help the next year,” he would say, laughing his booming laugh. “If Sid hadn’t been back there, Lew would have hammered me again. I was giving up six inches and a lot of talent.”

Whitmore was plenty talented himself. He went to Notre Dame, and even then he was the Pied Piper: Two years later, he was followed by Catlett, Collis Jones of St. John’s and Mackin’s Austin Carr, all of whom would remain lifelong friends. Catlett died in 2017.

In three seasons (freshmen weren’t eligible in those days), Whitmore averaged 18.8 points and 12.4 rebounds. He led Notre Dame to the NIT semifinals in 1968, when the NIT still meant something, and to the NCAA tournament a year later.

He also jumped center for Notre Dame in the first game played in what was then Joyce Center on Dec. 7, 1968. The opponent was UCLA. The opposing center was Lew Alcindor.

Whitmore went to Notre Dame Law School and was a graduate assistant coach on the 1973-74 team that ended UCLA’s 88-game winning streak.

“Guys who played on that team told me that they might have transferred if not for Bob,” Brey said. “Even in the ’70s, being a black athlete in northern Indiana wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to deal with. Bob made sure they came back from breaks where they went home even when they weren’t certain they wanted to come back.”

Whitmore went on to practice law in Washington and continued to work to keep the D.C.-to-Notre Dame pipeline open.

Soon after Whitmore called him to offer help, Brey was planning to come to D.C. to scout and recruit at the High Point High tournament in Beltsville. He called to see whether Whitmore would be willing to go with him.

“He not only came, he brought Jones and [Adrian] Dantley with him,” Brey said. “I remember walking into the gym with them thinking this was a pretty proud moment in my life to be representing a school that had produced these three guys. I hadn’t even coached a game there yet, and I felt like I was part of the place — because of them.”

I met Whitmore in 1994, when we were both asked by Peter Teeley to be founding board members of the Children’s Charities Foundation. I had one job: convince coaches to play in what became the BB&T Classic. Bob and I disagreed once, and it was early on. The board was unanimous in agreeing the best scenario for our tournament was to have Maryland and Georgetown host and bring in two big-time teams from out of town. I said I didn’t think Georgetown would take part, because Hoyas coach John Thompson had no interest in playing Maryland again after losing to the Terrapins the previous November.

Bob volunteered to call Thompson. “He might say no to you,” Bob said, knowing of my prickly relationship with Thompson. “I’ve known him since high school. If I make the call, I think he’ll say yes.”

Thompson’s top lieutenant, Mary Fenlon, returned Bob’s call and told him Georgetown wasn’t interested in playing in “your rinky-dink tournament.” I still believe that Thompson didn’t return the call himself because he didn’t want to say no to Bob.

It was the only time I have ever seen Bob angry. At every year’s tournament, when we would survey the crowd in what was then known as MCI Center, Bob would throw an arm around me and say, “Not bad for a rinky-dink tournament, huh?”

Bob was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer almost 20 years ago. Most people don’t live five years with that variety, even those who are diagnosed early. Many don’t survive a year. My father, who was undoubtedly diagnosed late, lived five weeks.

Bob was in and out of hospitals often for the rest of his life. We would hear his prognosis was terrible, and a few weeks later he would come walking into a board meeting, noticeably thinner but as upbeat as ever, wanting to know what he could do to help. When Teeley would ask for volunteers on a committee or a project, Bob’s hand was always one of the first to go up. He knew if he volunteered to work on something, others would follow.

Bob was in the hospital when he got the call that he had been selected for Notre Dame’s ring of honor. Reportedly, he practically jumped out of his bed.

If you didn’t know Bob Whitmore, you would have bet serious money he would never be able to attend the ceremony. He made it, flying up from D.C. with Wootten and speaking to the Notre Dame team the night before.

“Playing a part in that might be the best thing I’ve ever done at Notre Dame,” Brey said.

And knowing and working with him might be one of the best things I have ever done.