The Greatest Game Ever Played

Lew Alcindor throws down a slam dunk in the 1965 game between Power Memorial Academy and DeMatha Catholic at Cole Field House. Dematha won the game and ended Power Memorial's 71 game winning streak. (Photo source: The Washington Star)
Lew Alcindor throws down a slam dunk in the 1965 game between Power Memorial Academy and DeMatha Catholic at Cole Field House. Dematha won the game and ended Power Memorial's 71 game winning streak. (Photo source: The Washington Star)

Some have called it the greatest high school basketball game ever played.

On January 30, 1965, before a packed house at the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House,  Dematha Catholic clashed with the aptly-named Power Memorial Academy out of New York City. Led by 7’1” center Lew Alcindor (who later became the all-time leading scorer in the history of the NBA as Kareem Abdul Jabbar), Power Memorial was riding a 71-game winning streak and had been tabbed as the mythical #1 high school team in the nation. (Official national rankings for high school basketball weren’t kept back then.)

Dematha, which had made a name for itself in the Washington area prep circuit under then 33-year-old coach Morgan Wooten, was no slouch either. The Stags were riding a 23-game winning streak of their own. Still, it was clear Wooten’s squad would have its hands full with the New Yorkers and, in particular, Alcindor, “a 17-year-old who is not only big but quick, smooth and agile” who was drawing comparisons to Wilt Chamberlain.[1] Dematha had witnessed Alcindor’s skills up close the previous season, when he had scored 35 points – over half his team’s total – against them in a 65-62 Power Memorial win.

To prepare for the rematch – and simulate the long arms of Alicindor – Wooten got creative with help from assistant coach (and future Dematha principal) John Moylan. “John was a tennis player and he suggested we use rackets during practice to simulate Abdul-Jabbar’s reach. So we ran our offense with everyone taking turns shooting with a higher trajectory. Abdul-Jabbar blocked a lot of shots and forced us to change our shots in the first game [in 1964]. This time, we weren’t intimidated by him.”[2]

Well, maybe they were still a little intimidated. As the Stags’ center Bob Whitmore – who was one of those tasked with guarding Alcindor – recalled: “[The two teams] had a pregame meal at DeMatha, and the priest asked everyone to stand for the prayer. He just kept going up and up and up. And my heart kept going down, down, down.”[3]

Fans rushed to buy tickets for the 1965 rematch and a capacity crowd of 12,500 filled Cole Field House on a snowy Saturday night.

The game lived up to expectations. After one quarter, Power Memorial held an 11-8 lead. At halftime DeMatha led 23-22. The second half was neck-and-neck. With 1:40 left in the game DeMatha led by two points when Sid Catlett hit a long jump shot and a free throw to extend the lead to five. The Stags held off Power Memorial for a 46-43 win.

The longest winning streak in the history of high school basketball was over, thanks largely to DeMatha’s collapsing defense on Lew Alcindor. With help from his teammates, Bob Whitmore had held the 7-footer to 16 points, far below his 30 points per game average. Years later, Jabbar reflected on the experience in his autobiography, “It had been a hard night…. I was unwilling to take my uniform off and admit the game was over. I was a little dazed.”[2]

The game firmly established DeMatha as one of the top prep basketball programs in the country, and garnered the Washington, D.C. region more attention from college coaches who had previously concentrated their recruiting efforts on Philadelphia and New York City. Wooten put it like this: “Our win over Abdul-Jabbar and Power then gave us a reputation as a basketball area. The influx of college coaches coming here really began after that.”[2] The increased interest opened up more opportunities for area players to earn basketball scholarships to play in college. In addition, the game ushered in a new era for high school basketball nationally, where teams from different regions began to play one another more often and there were national rankings.

The impacts also extended beyond the hardwood. As Catlett pointed out in a recent interview with The Washington Post, the game had greater significance in light of what was going on in the country at the time: “What was taking place politically — Selma, voting rights — when you place that event and the gathering and the diverse family of people who were in attendance at that game, that was certainly an indication of social advancement, I believe, to its highest.”[4] Diversity was not restricted to the fans. Both teams were also integrated, which was not always the case at the time.

For more on the game and its legacy, check out the Post's retrospective article and video with Morgan Wooten. Also, enjoy this collection of vintage highlights from the game (and its awesome soundtrack).

 

Footnotes

  1. ^ Lamborne, Doug, “12,500 See DeMatha, Power Clash Tonight,” The Washington Post, 30 Jan 1965: D1.
  2. a, b, c Huff, Donald, “Dematha 46, Power 43: Alcindor, Team Came Down to Earth as Stags, Wooten Began Their Rise,” The Washington Post, 30 Jan 1985.
  3. ^ Levy, Bob, “Bob Levy's Potomac Journal: Beating the ‘Tower of Power’,” The Washington Post, 26 Jan 1978: MD1.
  4. ^ Giannato, Mark, “The day DeMatha basketball toppled Power Memorial: 50 years ago, the Stags beat Lew Alcindor in a high school game for the ages,” The Washington Post, 30 Jan 2015.