This day in basketball history — high school basketball goes national

Fifty 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 Lew Alcindor’s Power Memorial of New York City against DeMatha of Hyattsville, Maryland. DeMatha won, 46-43.

The Washington Post has a good article about the game that draws on the recollections of key DeMatha participants. Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), accommodating as ever, declined to be interviewed for the article. Instead, his manager reminded the Post that Power Memorial went on to win its third straight New York City championship in 1965.

Thanks, Kareem. We were starting to think you were overrated in high school.

Here, with a few additions, is what I wrote about the game on its 45th anniversary:

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 accomplished this; 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 Wootten 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.

In case jazz fans are wondering, Catlett is the son of legendary drummer “Big Sid” Catlett. Here’s a nice article about the father (who died in 1951) and son, which casts Jabbar, a jazz devotee, in a favorable light.

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, including seven out of his team’s final nine. Williams contributed 12 points.

The game was covered by Sports Illustrated and the two 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 young 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. UCLA won each game, but Catlett played for the Notre Dame team that defeated UCLA’s national championship team in 1971, after Alcindor graduated.

Only Bernie Williams had a substantial pro career (two years in the NBA and three in the ABA). 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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