It was a cold winter morning in December of 1969. Schools were on break, with teachers and coaches like DeMatha’s Morgan Wootten happy for a respite from their responsibilities.
This particular morning, Wootten heard a knock on the door of his Hyattsville home. He went to answer it and discovered ninth-grader Adrian Dantley standing on his doorstep. Dantley, then an up-and-coming star for the Stags, wanted to borrow the keys to the DeMatha gym, so he could squeeze in a workout.
That story would be enough to illustrate the singled-mindedness and dedication that Dantley brought to basketball. The tale grows even more remarkable when you add one key detail.
It wasn’t just any morning. It was Christmas Day.
“Nobody had a work ethic like Adrian Dantley,” Wootten said.
Dantley, the greatest player in DeMatha history and one of the best ever produced in the Washington area, turned 62 last week.
Dantley, as good a teammate as he was, always stood apart from the crowd. He was simply more committed to improvement and excellence than his contemporaries. No one else would go over the the University of Maryland and run the football stadium steps in the sweltering summer heat. When his buddies were going out to parties, Dantley would go later – or not at all. Instead, he’d stay behind and work on his game at the playground or in an alley near his house, where someone had put up a backboard and rim on a telephone pole. There’d be plenty of time for parties later on, he told himself.
Dantley was so devoted to improving that he even convinced Wootten to let him try some weightlifting, believing it would boost his strength and quickness. Dantley had seen what a weight-training regimen had done for Kermit Washington, who’d turned himself from a high school scrub at Coolidge into a first-round NBA draft pick out of American University.
Wootten was dubious. Back then, coaches believed that weight-lifting was bad for basketball players, that it made them too muscle-bound and would adversely affect a players’ shooting stroke.
But, to his credit, Wootten did some homework. He took Dantley over to the University of Maryland and discussed the potential benefits of weight training with the outstanding track coach there, Frank Costello. Costello put young Dantley on a weight training program, Wootten witnessed the results first-hand, and adopted a similar routine for his teams – years before other coaches thought to do so.
It wouldn’t be the last time Dantley led the way for DeMatha. By the time he became a sophomore, the Stags became his team – as they would remain for the next three seasons.
Over the course of his varsity career, he became one of just a handful of players to earn first-team All-Met honors three times and helped DeMatha to a 117-7 record. They finished the season ranked No.1 locally all four years. In Dantley’s junior and senior seasons, the Stags were a combined 60-2.
In his junior year, the Stags finished 30-1, their best record ever to that point. The only loss came against Archbishop Malloy, a New York area power, on a night when Dantley was saddled with foul trouble. But there were few other sour notes as Dantley upped his numbers to 26 points and 16 rebounds per game.
DeMatha returned four starters and its top five reserves for the 1972-73 season, Dantley’s senior year. The Stags picked up right where they left off, running their winning streak to 43 games. They didn’t lose until a Baltimore Dunbar team that had won 37 straight themselves finally downed the Stags at the Baltimore Civic Center in front of a crowd of 8,000.
The loss didn’t slow DeMatha for long. The next time out, Dantley went for 29 points and 25 rebounds in a 75-60 victory over Archbishop Carroll (a team that included future Washington Wizards coach Eddie Jordan). The next day, DeMatha was voted the No. 1 team in the area by the Evening Star and the Washington Post.
But there was more to come. DeMatha beat Western in the resumption of the City Title Game that year, and traveled to Cumberland for the Alhambra Catholic Invitational. Dantley, bothered by a sore knee, didn’t do much in the first few games there.
Wootten, concerned that his star might be brooding a bit, took him aside before the tournament final against St. Leo, the Chicago Catholic League champion.
“It’s your last high school game,” Wootten told Dantley. “Why don’t you go out there and show everyone the All-American that you are?”
Responding nobly, Dantley discarded his knee wrap, went out and scored 38 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in a 116-67 DeMatha rout.
It was a fitting end to one of the great high school basketball careers in area history.