WASHINGTON (CBSDC) - Nearly forty-nine years ago, a sellout crowd filed into Cole Field House at College Park to witness The Greatest High School Basketball Game … Ever.
Yes, long before the Lakers and Celtics traded blows and championships in the 80’s, and even predating the Game of the Century – the first-ever nationally televised regular season college basketball game – an epic battle between UCLA and Houston in 1968, a fresh-faced Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then-Lew Alcindor) battled DeMatha Catholic High School, resulting in a pair of thrillers in consecutive years.
The date was Jan. 30, 1965.
Power Memorial Academy (New York, NY) had muscled its way into town on the broad shoulders of its senior superstar, the clout of a 71-game winning streak and confidence of a victory over that night’s opponent the year before.
The Stags, bettered by the narrow margin of three points, losing 65-62 in 1964, returned the favor by stunning Power Memorial 46-43, snapping the streak and leaving their indelible mark on Alcindor’s high school legacy.
“That was the only game that I lost, my senior year,” Kareem told the Junkies Wednesday morning.
“A couple years ago I got a chance to meet Coach [Morgan] Wootten,” Kareem said. “I had never met him. I got a chance to meet him. He’s done such a great job producing great athletes, great student athletes. I’ve really got to tip my hat to him.”
With the fifty-year anniversary of the first of those battles of the ages approaching, I decided to reach out to Coach Wootten for comment on the games, and, although I was completely undeserving, the legendary coach was more than gracious with his time.
“Well, obviously it was a tremendous win because it was the only loss that Kareem had in high school,” Wootten said via phone interview Wednesday afternoon.
“I think more significantly, it was great for the DeMatha program and certainly projected us to a national level, but it was great for high school basketball all over because Time magazine was there covering it, Newsweek was there,” he said. “All of a sudden high school basketball in general was elevated, I think, by that game. People started to really take a good look at who the good teams were around the nation, they started ranking the Top 25, they knew who the good teams in California were, Indiana, and all over the nation.”
“And of course, against Kareem, I said it at the time, I thought he had the chance to be the greatest player that ever lived,” Wootten said. “And of course he went on to be the greatest scorer in the history of the game.”
In 2013, twenty-four years after his retirement, Kareem remains at the top of the list of the NBA’s all-time leading scorers – above Malone; above Jordan; above Bryant – with 38,387 points.
As history holds, and as the Junkies had recalled earlier in the day, prior to both games, Wootten had his boys prepare for Alcindor’s high-arching length by practicing against defenders armed with tennis racquets.
“We had big Sid Catlett, at six-foot-eight, using a tennis racquet,” Wootten said. “We would practice shooting over that. And I think what that did – the Post has a picture on the front page of the Sports section in Cole Field House, where we were practicing at the time, blocking shots with that tennis racquet – I think that’s the thing that led to the sellout in 1964, the first sellout in the history of Cole Field House.”
“I think people wanted to say, ‘Lew’s coming to town, and they’ve got to use the tennis racquet to get ready for him,’” Wootten cheerfully reminisced.
“The tennis racquet didn’t win it for us the first year,” he said. “They beat us by three points in a great game; a great game.”
Wootten, sharp as a tack, hearkened back to that day in College Park.
“The announcer, with about a minute to go, flipped on the switch during a timeout 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,’” he described the scene. “And there was a standing ovation of 12,500 people when he made that statement.”
“We came back the following year and we won by three,” Wootten said.
And just as Coach Wootten had exchanged losses with Kareem oh so many years ago, now, nearly a half-century later, he exchanged compliments.
“He’s such a classy guy,” he fondly remembered their 2011 TV appearance together. “Let me give you a perfect example of what a class guy Kareem is. Sid Catlett, who was the guy holding that tennis racquet, his father had died when he was two years old. His father was the lead drummer in Louis Armstrong’s band. He was probably the best drummer in his day. And Sid of course, had never heard his father talk.”
“Well Kareem loves to collect old records, old movies, old films,” Wootten went on. “He mailed Sid Catlett a copy of one of the films that Sid’s dad had been in, and Sid, for the first time, heard his father’s voice, forty-some years after that game, and that shows what kind of guy Kareem was to have remembered Sid, and to have done something that wonderful.”
In his own demonstration of class, Coach Wootten relinquished a positive thought about the Junkies he’d been holding onto throughout the interview.
Prior to hanging up the phone, his final words uttered were, “Hey, you got a great show there. Thank you very much.”
Listen to the Junkies’ interview with Kareem below.