Forty-five years ago today, a sold-out Cole Field House at the University of Maryland hosted what is probably the most famous high school basketball game ever played. It featured Power Memorial of New York City against DeMatha of Hyattsville, Maryland.
Power Memorial, led by the phenomenal Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), had won 71 consecutive games. Hardly anyone followed high school basketball at a national level in those days, years before ESPN. Yet, Alcindor had managed to become a national legend. His size (almost 7-3 at the time of the DeMatha game), fluidity, and shooting touch had scouts swearing that he would become the game’s greatest center ever. (Some say he accompished this and, in any event, he’s the NBA’s all-time scoring leader).
DeMatha had no superstar and its starting center, Bob Whitmore, was 6-7. Yet there was little doubt (at least at my Maryland high school) that their fab five — Whitmore, Bernie Williams, Sid Catlett, Ernie Austin, and Mickey Wiles — had the potential to beat Power Memorial. In fact, DeMatha had nearly done so the previous year at Cole, falling by a 65-62 margin after Whitmore fouled out (if I remember correctly). Alcindor scored 38 points in that one.
DeMatha coach Morgan Woottten spent the next 12 months gearing up for the rematch. For example, Catlett, who was 6-8, is said to have used a tennis racket during practice to allow the offense to practice against Alcindor-caliber shot blocking.
This time around, Wootten had Whitmore and Catlett double-team Alcindor. The strategy helped limit the great one to 16 points and DeMatha triumphed 46-43. Catlett (only a sophomore) had 13 points and Williams contributed 12.
The game received notice from Sports Illustrated and at least one of the major weekly news magazines. The coverage brought high school basketball a level of exposure it had never enjoyed before.
The two games also put DeMatha and its coach on the map. The program would become perhaps the most storied in the country. When Wootten retired in 2002, his teams had amassed 1274 wins (and 192 losses), and he had already been inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame.
Each member of DeMatha’s fab-five would play major college basketbal — Whitmore and Catlett at Notre Dame; Williams at La Salle, Austin at Syracuse, and Wiles at Maryland. Whitmore would have the dubious honor of guarding Alcindor in the annual UCLA-Notre Dame contest. My recollection is that UCLA won each game, but I think Catlett may have been part of a Notre Dame team that defeated UCLA during one its national championship years after Alcindor graduated.
Only Bernie Williams had any sort of pro career (two years in the NBA and three in the ABA). Catlett had a “cup of coffee” in the NBA. But the fab-five is still remembered after all of these years for their landmark victory, a triumph of teamwork over individual prowess.
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