Legendary DeMatha hoops coach Morgan Wootten dies at 88

Morgan Wootten, head basketball coach at DeMatha High School, right, speaks at a news conference to announce his stepping down as coach, Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2002, in Hyattsville, Md. Wootten’s career record is 1,274-192. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

The D.C. area has lost a legend and a leader: DeMatha Catholic High School basketball coach Morgan Wootten died Tuesday night. He was 88.

DeMatha — where Wootten coached basketball for 46 years — announced his death on Twitter, saying he passed away peacefully at home Tuesday night surrounded by family. Earlier this week, the school said Wootten was in hospice care.

Over a career spanning nearly half a century, Wootten notched 1,274 career victories, 33 Washington Catholic Athletic Conference titles and five mythical national championships. In 2000, he became the first coach inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame who only ever coached at the high school level.

Widely cited as the greatest high school basketball coach ever, fellow coaches, sports historians and journalists remember Wootten as a teacher and mentor who turned the basketball court into a classroom, as a fierce competitor and as a consummate gentleman — and family man — who treated everyone with decency and respect.

‘He was a teacher’

“He wasn’t just an X-and-O basketball guy,” longtime University of Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams told WTOP. “He really helped a lot of people get on with their lives after the basketball part of it was over. And I think he always maintained a disciplined program, which enabled people to grow up while they were playing basketball.”

Wootten, who also taught world history to generations of DeMatha freshmen, relished his role off the court, too.

“You’d ask him what he did and he would certainly discuss basketball, but he would also stress how much he was a teacher,” said David Elfin, co-author of the book “The Capital of Basketball: A History of DC Area High School Hoops.”

Under Wootten’s guidance, more than a dozen of his players went on to the NBA, including Hall of Famer Adrian Dantley, and into the world of sports broadcasting, such as CBS Sports’ James Brown.

But Wootten was always quick to point out and was equally proud of former players and students who went on to accomplishments beyond sports.

In an interview last year with WTOP, Wootten shared a simple philosophy.

“Don’t let basketball use you. You use basketball to become the best all-around human being you can become.”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said in a statement Wednesday, “I consider two people to be personal heroes of mine: my father, and legendary DeMatha Catholic High School basketball coach, Morgan Wootten. I am absolutely heartbroken to learn that Coach Wootten passed away yesterday.”

The governor said that between his election and inauguration as governor, he asked Wootten to “share his perspective on leadership, the importance of communication, and working together toward a shared goal” with his transition team.

“Coach Wootten had an immeasurable impact not only on my life, but on the lives of his players, students, and the community,” Hogan said. “He will be dearly missed, and the First Lady and I are praying for all who knew and loved him.”

‘The most famous high school basketball game ever’

One of the high points in a career full of them — came in 1965, when DeMatha beat New York City’s Power Memorial High School and its star 7-foot player, Lew Alcindor (soon to be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

Elfin calls it “arguably the most famous high school basketball game ever.” Two days after coaching the team to that stunning victory, Wootten was back in the classroom teaching history. “That’s just who he was,” Elfin said.

David Aldridge, a longtime D.C. sports journalist who attended DeMatha High School, added: “He was just a remarkably decent human being and treated everyone — whether you played for him or you were just a student like me, who didn’t have any real athletic ability at all — with such decency and humanity. You felt like he was your coach even though you didn’t play for him.”

He passed that same sense of humility onto his players.

“It was the way that DeMatha won,” Aldridge said. “I just felt we always won — and lost — with style and with class.”

‘He never changed’

Over the years, Wootten had plenty of offers to leave the Hyattsville, Maryland, high school for a high-profile college coaching gig.

But Wootten stayed put. He valued the time he could spend with his family, said Williams, the former U.Md. coach.

Plus, he was loyal.

“DeMatha was his school …. He knew he could do so much as a high school coach,” Williams said.

Wootten retired from coaching two years after he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“Morgan got a lot of attention, especially with basketball becoming more popular on TV and the high schools, getting some attention with that,” Williams said. “But at the same time, Morgan was true to his values … And I just always admire the fact that as he did receive a great number of accolades — and deservedly so — that he never changed. He was still Morgan Wootten. You called him Morgan.”

WTOP’s Jack Moore contributed to this report.

Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson is Senior Sports Director and morning sports anchor. He first arrived at WTOP in 1989, left in 1992 and returned in 1995. He is a three-time winner of the A.I.R. award as best radio sportscaster in D.C. In 2008 he won the Edward R. Murrow award for best writing for sports commentaries.

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