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.
It’s rare that someone would prefer winter in Lincoln, Nebraska to winter in Miami.
But it worked out for James Palmer, Jr.
Palmer, an Upper Marlboro native and former standout at St. John’s and Henry A. Wise, started his college career at the University of Miami. The 6-foot-6 wing played sparingly there, averaging about 12 minutes and three points per game for the Hurricanes.
With prospects for playing time looking bleak, Palmer opted to transfer to Nebraska. There, coach Tim Miles has shown a knack for landing transfers from big-time schools like Terran Petteway (Texas Tech), Walter Pitchford (Florida) and Andrew White (Kansas). All flourished at Nebraska and later pursued professional basketball careers of one kind or another.
“Those guys left a trail for me to follow,” Palmer told the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star. “That shows a good example of Nebraska getting good transfer players and really developing them.”
For years, a string of Notre Dame football coaches has tried to duplicate the sustained success of the program’s glory days.
Notre Dame’s basketball program, meanwhile, doesn’t have that problem.
Mike Brey has seen to that.
The Bethesda native and former DeMatha point guard, now in his 18th season as head coach of the Irish, became the all-time winningest coach in Notre Dame basketball history on Wednesday night, thanks to an 88-58 victory over North Carolina State. That triumph gave him 394 victories at Notre Dame, pushing him past the 393 wins accumulated by Richard “Digger” Phelps, who coached at the school from 1971-91.
In a nice gesture, Phelps was even on hand in South Bend the other night to hand Brey the game ball after the final buzzer.
But a couple of years ago, I got to spend more than an hour on the phone with him. I’d called him for an interview for something I was working on about D.C. area high school basketball. I’d asked for about 15-20 minutes of his time.
What I got was more than 60 minutes of history, philosophy, reflection, gratitude and thought-provoking observations on learning, life and growing up with the game in Washington, D.C.
Both were high school standouts, with Williams playing on Crossland HS team that reached the Class AA state basketball finals three years in a row (1986-88). Ferry, of course, played at storied DeMatha Catholic HS, where the team he played on in his junior year (1983-84) wound up 29-2 and ranked No. 1 nationally by USA Today.
With his selection as the first overall pick by the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2017 NBA Draft, DeMatha’s Markelle Fultz became the fifth D.C.-area player ever to be taken No. 1 overall.
Several accounts (wrongly) trumpeted the fact that Fultz would be the first local native chosen No. 1 overall since Mackin/Notre Dame star Austin Carr in 1971. But that overlooks Osbourn Park’s David Robinson in 1987.
By 1967, legendary coach Morgan Wootten had firmly established DeMatha as the premier high school basketball program in the Washington area.
Taking over the top spot after the Archbishop Carroll dynasty had run its course, the Stags reigned as the best team in the area for the next half-dozen years, and even garnered national attention following their upset of New York’s Power Memorial and superstar Lew Alcindor in 1965.
Throughout that period, league rival Mackin also established itself as one of the best programs around. During a five-season run, from 1961-66, the Trojans – then coached by Paul Furlong – ran up a record of 133-33.
That would be an admirable showing against any level of competition. It was even more impressive considering now-closed Mackin competed in the Washington Catholic League against the likes of DeMatha, Carroll and St. John’s. Then, as now, the league featured some of the best high school basketball around.
But as good as Mackin was during that stretch, it could never unseat DeMatha. The Stags won the league title every year from 1961-66 and would win it again every year from 1968-76.
But 50 years ago this week, Mackin was finally able to knock DeMatha from the top of the league standings and the top of the local high school basketball rankings.
DeMatha didn’t lose often. On the rare occasions the Stags did lose, it took an oustanding player, or team, or circumstance to beat them.
In the first week of March in 1967, Mackin had at least two of the three factors in their favor. Star guard Autin Carr scored 21 points (including the 2,000th of his pep career) as Mackin downed DeMatha, 54-48, on the night of March 3, 1967.
It was, by all accounts, the biggest regular-season high school game of the year, and mabe the biggest locally since the DeMatha-Power clash two years before. To accommodate the huge crowd expected, the game was moved to Cole Field House at the University of Maryland, where a throng of 8,500 gathered to watch the show.
They saw a classic. DeMatha led by nine (16-7) early in the game, but the margin remained within three points for much of the game, with neither team able to gain much of an edge. Mackin’s Richie Ford hit a basket early in the fourth quarter to give the Trojans the lead for good at 42-41. The previous three baskets in the game resulted in the lead switching hands – that’s how close it was.
Carr, who had been hot early, but quiet in the middle, delivered at the end. He sank six consecutive free throws in the last two minutes to clinch the game, the league titles and the area’s No.1 ranking for the Trojans.
Carr was as prolific a scorer as any local high school has ever produced. He went on to an All-American career at Notre Dame and was a first-round draft choice in the NBA. But he had lots of help, too. Mackin had a great distributor and defensive player at the point in Sterling Savoy, a talented big man in 6-foot-8 Garland Williams, and another reliable offensive option in Richie Ford. Carr and Williams earned All-Met recognition in the Washington Star for the 1966-67 season; Carr and Savoy were picked for the Washington Post squad. Ford was chosen for All-Met honors the next season.
It had been a long time coming for Mackin. The Trojans had won the first regular-season game between the two powerful teams a little more than a month before. Carr scored 21 points in that first triumph, including a key three-point play with 2:10 left, to lead Mackin to a 55-49 victory over 2,500 fans at Fort Myer across the river in Virginia.
That victory was Mackin’s first over DeMatha in 10 years. The league title was the school’s first – and only – as a member of the Catholic League/Metro Conference. And, it was the only time DeMatha failed to win the crown in that ultra-competitive league between 1961 and 1976.
After Mackin’s second victory over the Stags in ‘67, Furlong made so secret about what his focus had been that season – and in fact his entire coaching career at Mackin up to that point.
“Trying to reach the level Morgan (Wootten) hs established at DeMatha has helped us,” he said. “DeMatha has pride – they’ve had it for a long time – and now we have it.”