Legendary former DeMatha coach Morgan Wootten sat in the basement of his Hyattsville home last week flipping through a dusty scrapbook full of $1 student tickets, faded newspaper clippings and old telegrams, wondering where all the time went.
“The greatest game ever played, we call it,” he said.
On Friday night, before No. 1 DeMatha faces Bishop Ireton, Wootten and the school’s 1964-65 boys’ basketball team will come from different parts of the country to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their historic 46-43 win over Power Memorial (N.Y.) High and a 7-foot-1 phenomenon named Lew Alcindor.
DeMatha played only five players that night, and the Stags’ starting five all eventually played major college basketball. Three went on to play professionally. Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, won three national titles at UCLA and remains the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. Wootten, now 83, was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000 and retired in 2002 with the most wins (1,274) in the history of the sport.
But Jan. 30, 1965, at sold-out Cole Field House still resonates with all of them. Told through the memories of Wootten and the three living DeMatha players who appeared in the game, here is the story behind that day.
Wootten, who already had built DeMatha into a local powerhouse by the time he first heard about Lew Alcindor, phoned Power Coach Jack Donohue and set up a game at Cole Field House in 1964. Alcindor had 36 points, and Power handed DeMatha one of its two losses of the season, 65-62, in front of a sellout crowd of 12,500. The two schools agreed after the game to play again the following year.
Wootten: “At every practice, even though we wouldn’t tell the team this, we would do certain little things to get ready for the game. I would say, ‘Just to make us a better team.’ But the entire time, obviously, we’re getting ready because Power is coming up and it’s going to be the game of the decade and the game of the careers for these guys. We wanted to be as ready as we possibly could.”
Sophomore forward Sid Catlett : “I’m certainly familiar with the strategy of the tennis racket.”
Wootten simulated Alcindor’s height in practice by having players shoot over defenders holding tennis rackets in the air, an idea he got from future DeMatha principal John Moylan.
Wootten: “The thing that sold Maryland out is there’s a picture on the front page of The [Washington] Post with Sid Catlett on defense, and Sid was 6-7, 6-8, and he has the tennis racket in his hand. I guess that everybody just said, ‘My God, what’s coming to town?’ ”
Senior forward Bob Whitmore : “The [Washington] Daily News had both teams on the front page. We had never had anything like that. We had a pretty doggone good ballclub, but we’d never had that type of exposure. It was quite an incident for Washington, D.C., basketball.”
Wootten: “I think all over the region, people were really excited about this game. They knew, here comes Power Memorial with 71 wins in a row now. We’d won 29. Our last loss was to Power the year before, so we had a good winning streak going. We were the number one team in Washington. They were the number one team in New York, obviously.”
Whitmore: “We were well aware if we did this, it would be revolutionary.”
Wootten: “The first game ended up being a sellout, but only finally as people could buy tickets the night of the game. It wasn’t like the second game. That was sold out three weeks in advance. The tickets were scalping outside for as much as $15 or $20, and that was just mind boggling.”
Catlett: “At the top of Cole Field House, where there were areas to walk into the stadium and concessions areas, that was all packed. Everywhere you looked there was people.”
It was a Saturday night, and when the ball was tipped, snow was falling. National outlets such as Newsweek and Time had reporters on press row inside Cole Field House. Wootten’s wife, Kathy, sat in the stands nine months pregnant, just three days away from giving birth to the couple’s first child. As soon as Power took the floor, though, everyone’s focus turned to one player.
Catlett: “I remember Morgan telling us before the game not to watch him in the warmups.”
Wootten: “They say he’s 7-1. I always say he’s 7-3. But to see him walk out with the rest of his teammates was just an electric thing. Everybody wanted to watch the warmups. Incredible warmups, with dunks and things like that.”
Whitmore: “The guy kept going up and up and up and up. The first thing I thought of was Sputnik. I thought, ‘This guy is going to space.’ ”
Wootten: “I made the mistake the first time of saying no one person can beat us, and he killed us. The second time our philosophy was . . . Alcindor just couldn’t touch that ball.”
Whitmore: “I tried to beat him to a spot. There was a spot he loved to play on. Once the ball got in his hands, it was very difficult to deal with him.”
Catlett: “Our strategy was to sandwich him in.”
Wootten: “Anything they were going to get, they had to throw it over Whitmore’s head, and he was 6-8. Either Sid Catlett or Bernie Williams were behind trapping the ball and trapping the passing lanes. Our two guards, Mickey Wiles and Ernie Austin, did a great job of shoving the ball to the side we wanted it to go.”
Whitmore and Catlett both eventually played at Notre Dame. Wiles played at Maryland and now lives in California. Williams, an all-American at La Salle who played alongside Julius Erving for the ABA’s Virginia Squires, died of colorectal cancer in 2002. Austin, who played at Syracuse, died of cancer in September.
Catlett: “It was a slow-paced game. We had decided we would not get into a running game because Kareem’s outlet pass was just incredible. He could throw it from baseline to baseline, and so we didn’t take a lot of shots.”
Wootten: “I can remember Mickey Wiles hitting a high jump hook over Lew Alcindor, so the tennis racket kind of paid off.”
Whitmore: “We were nervous the whole damn game.”
Wootten: “That’s the only game I ever coached where we only used five guys.”
Senior guard Mickey Wiles : “Morgan was a great conditioner. Over the Christmas holiday when you didn’t have as many games, it was just murder.”
Wootten: “At the half, we were only up by [23-22]. It was a real defensive struggle. It kind of stayed that way almost to about the last minute and a half.”
DeMatha led by two with 1 minute 40 seconds remaining when Catlett hit a long jump shot and a free throw to extend the margin. Two free throws by Wiles and another putback by Catlett gave DeMatha an insurmountable advantage in the final minute. Catlett had seven of the team’s final nine points.
Wootten: “The year before, with about two minutes to go, the PA announcer, during a timeout, had flipped on the switch and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, irregardless of who wins this game, I think you’ll agree we’re watching the two greatest high school teams in the nation.’ Standing ovation from 12,000-plus. So the next year, same deal. . . . The announcer flipped it on, said the same thing and another standing ovation.”
Catlett: “It was unbelievable. The place was going crazy. I still do remember Kareem hollering out at the end of the game, ‘I got Catlett.’ They were getting frantic.”
Wootten: “We’re in business, five up with maybe 10 seconds to go, [and former All-Met] Johnny Jones comes out from the stands. I’m like, ‘Johnny, what are you doing down here?’ He says, ‘Don’t worry, Coach. I got it from here.’ Everyone busted out laughing.”
Through his manager, Abdul-Jabbar declined to comment for this story other than to note he lost six games in his freshman year and Power Memorial still won a third straight New York City title after losing to the Stags. The 1965 loss to DeMatha was his only defeat as a high school varsity starter. He finished with 16 point s and 14 rebounds.
Catlett: “I remember Morgan lighting his cigar. That was a great moment.”
Wootten: “Having been around Red Auerbach all those years, I had to do something to celebrate. It was a great honor. We knew we were playing against a guy that was going to go on to be one of the all-time greatest players.”
Whitmore: “[Abdul-Jabbar] came to our locker room, congratulated us. He knew that we were now the number one team in the nation, and I think that, more than anything, resonated with me. Just the class.”
Catlett: “What was taking place politically — Selma, voting rights — when you place that event and the gathering and the diverse family of people who were in attendance at that game, that was certainly an indication of social advancement, I believe, to its highest.”
Wootten: “I did clinics in Taiwan, and I had a DeMatha shirt on and had a person come up to me and say, ‘I was at the Power game.’ I’ve run into so many people who said they were at the Power game over the years, I’m not sure they could all be seated.”
Whitmore: “It was probably the biggest thing that ever happened to me.”
Wiles: “My wife tells me we’ve milked this for 50 years. She doesn’t understand Washington, D.C., basketball.”
Wootten: “It just seemed from that moment on national rankings started for the first time in a really expanded way. They started crowning national championships more than they had done in the past, and people really became aware of where the great high school teams were around the nation, and it all seemed to just sandwich off of this game. All of a sudden, high school basketball became a national story and has remained so ever since.”