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The year was 1970, and a young Washington reporter was dispatched on his first out-of-town assignment. It wasn’t that far out of town—a Christmas high school basketball tournament in Cumberland, Maryland—but for me, it could have been Paris or Rome, and my first time on an expense account.
Two local schools were playing in that weekend tournament—fierce rivals DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville and St. John’s College High School of the District. DeMatha was coached by Morgan Wootten, St. John’s by one if his early mentors, Joe Gallagher.
I happened to bump into both of them as they sat in the hotel lobby, having a friendly and oh-so-lively conversation. I introduced myself, was invited to join them, then listened to story after colorful story. It didn’t end there. I also had a standing invitation to join either one of them for post-game pizza at Ledo’s in College Park, their favorite go-to spot to unwind.
Over the next few years, Wootten called me more than occasionally to offer a story that might interest me, or simply to shoot the breeze. When I left the high school beat in 1972, the calls became less frequent, but we stayed in touch almost until I retired from the paper 40 years after I first met him.
And now, Wootten is gone. He passed away on Jan. 21 at age 88, but he’ll not soon be forgotten by anyone who ever had the pleasure of being in his company. He was delightful guy, somewhat soft-spoken, a brilliant coach and strategist. He never had to yell at his players or his students when he taught freshman history at DeMatha almost as long as he coached basketball there—46 productive years.
He always said his players were his students as well, and many of them learned the game well enough to have brilliant college and professional careers. Adrian Dantley was probably his best ever, an All-American at Notre Dame and a long-time NBA star in the Basketball Hall of Fame, where Wootten also is enshrined.
Wootten tipped me off one year about Dantley, calling me to tell me about a promising freshman who had made the varsity team. I watched Dantley up close and personal a few games into his high-school career playing in the O’Connell Christmas tournament in Arlington. The 6-foot-4 kid, a little chubby (his older teammates called him “Baby Fats”), came off the bench that night, then merely dominated, with double figures in points and rebounds.
A star was definitely born.
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Wootten won 1,274 games over his career, none more significant than his team’s 1965 victory over New York’s Power Memorial Academy featuring a skinny 7-foot-2 center named Lew Alcindor (before he changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.) DeMatha’s victory ended a 71-game winning streak, and also put the tiny Hyattsville Catholic school on the basketball map.
Wootten’s death came just over a month after the Washington area lost another of its iconic coaches.
That would be Herman Boone, immortalized in the film “Remember The Titans” when he was played by Denzel Washington. The movie told the story of the 1971 T.C. Williams football team, which went 13-0 and won the Virginia state championship.
That year, Alexandria’s three public high schools were merged into T.C. Williams and Boone, a veteran coach and teacher, was hired by the school board to be its head coach. It was a delicate situation, what with players from predominately African American schools joining players from predominately white schools to form a formidable team.
It was not easy, but Boone and his assistant, Bill Yoast, made it work. (Yoast died at age 94 last May.) In the film, a brick was thrown through a window at Boone’s home. Boone later said it didn’t happen that way. It wasn’t a brick; it was a toilet.
I covered several of the Titans games that year and Boone was not the easiest fellow to get along with, a little gruff and not particularly media friendly. Clearly though, the man could coach, and continued to do so until 1979, when he retired.
A few years ago, I ran into Boone at the Langston Golf Course in Northeast Washington, a public facility built in the 1930s when African Americans were not allowed in D.C.’s other segregated public curses. He was a regular there and he invited me to play nine holes with him. The loser would buy lunch inside the clubhouse.
Over those nine holes, it was clearly evident he had never lost his competitive instincts. Plainly put, he beat me like a drum, closing out the match after five holes and laughing all the way to his cheeseburger and fries.
Wootten and Boone, 84, at his death this past Dec. 18, will always be remembered as two of the all-time greatest high school coaches in Washington area history—and the impact they had on the thousands who had the privilege of playing for them.
Leonard Shapiro retired in 2011 after 41 years as a sports reporter, editor, and columnist at the Washington Post.
Photo by Maryland GovPics on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY 2.0 license.