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High School Sports

The Race For The Top High School Basketball Job In The Country Is Officially On

Photo: Glenn Fitzpatrick/Creative Commons

Anybody who wants to be the next head basketball coach at DeMatha Catholic High School had until midnight last night to get their application in. For only the third time in 66 years, that job is open.

This isn’t just another high school coaching gig. Plainly, DeMatha makes, the basketball world takes. 

It’s fair to say the modern era of high school basketball got started at DeMatha under legendary Hall of Fame coach Morgan Wootten, who coached at the Hyattsville, Md., school from 1956 until 2002 and retired as the winningest high school basketball coach in history. Wootten was as much a visionary as he was a winner. He deserves credit or blame for being the first high school coach to exploit the mass marketability of prep sports. But one example: To both increase his athletes’ exposure to college recruiters and swell the school’s coffers, Wootten arranged showcase games with Power Memorial High School, a New York juggernaut led by Lew Alcindor (later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). DeMatha’s upset victory in the 1965 contest, coming in front of a sellout crowd of more than 12,000 fans at Cole Field House, a nearby college arena, ended Power Memorial’s 71-game winning streak and was a national story. High school sports, for better or worse, haven’t been the same since. 

Mike Jones, a former DeMatha player, was named interim head coach upon Wootten’s sudden retirement just one week before practice for the 2002-2003 season opened. Jones got off to a shaky start. According to a DeMatha official at the time, one white parent took his son out of the school after Jones took over, saying he thought Jones, who is black, wouldn’t give the kid a fair shake because of the color of his skin. Then Jones lost more games that first year than Wootten did in any of his 56 seasons as coach. But DeMatha administrators believed they already had picked the right man and removed the interim tag and gave Jones the “permanent” job. In return, Jones rewarded those who supported him through the early troubles by winning league championships and cranking out hoops stars at rates that matched his legendary predecessor. 

The ridiculously long roster of noteworthy players who played under either Wootten or Jones for the D.C. Catholic league powerhouse includes, in no particular order: Adrian Dantley, Kenny Carr, Hawkeye Whitney, James Brown, Adrian Branch, Victor Oladipo, Mike Brey, Danny Ferry, Jerrod Mustaf, Quinn Cook, Markelle Fultz, Keith Bogans, Justin Moore, and Hunter Dickinson. And so many others. 

DeMatha alum Jerami Grant was in town Monday for the Detroit Pistons’ loss to the Washington Wizards. His Pistons teammate, Saddiq Bey, started out at DeMatha, but transferred to another D.C. private school, Sidwell Friends, after being unable to crack the Stags lineup as an underclassman. The Wizards once picked Jerami’s brother and fellow DeMatha alum Jerian Grant in the first round of the 2015 NBA Draft (his rights were subsequently traded to the Atlanta Hawks, and then the New York Knicks). It’s not just players: According to DeMatha, at least 15 Wootten proteges went on to become NCAA Division 1 head coaches, and two were also NBA head coaches.

You can almost tell how ridiculously strong the DeMatha basketball program is just by looking at who’s not playing hoops for them this season. Just since last year, the school lost Earl Timberlake (Memphis), Jordan Hawkins (UConn), and Elijah Hawkins (Howard University) to NCAA Division 1 teams. Four-star guard Jacoi Hutchinson transferred to IMG, the hyper-monied prep sports academy in Florida. And 6-foot-5, 260 lbs. junior power forward Jason Moore gave up a promising basketball career to concentrate on football, and he’s now among the highest-ranked gridiron prospects in the class of 2023. (DeMatha football is also stacked silly: DeMatha has at times had more alums playing in the NFL than any other high school.)

“If you’re talking about traditional, geographical high school leagues, everybody would consider [the D.C. Catholic basketball league] the best league in the country,” says Marc Stern, founder of Capitol Hoops, the go-to multi-media outlet for D.C. high school basketball obsessives, “and DeMatha is the top high school job.” 

The opening came when Jones left for Blacksburg, Va., last May to join the Virginia Tech staff. Pete Strickland was named DeMatha’s interim coach last summer, when school administrators felt they needed more time to conduct a proper search to permanently fill the position, given its loftiness. Putting Strickland, who is white, in charge even on an interim basis came with controversy that echoed what Jones faced when he had the interim tag 20 years ago: The Washington Post ran a story in June 2021 about how DeMatha’s hiring process had become a referendum on race. Lots of folks in the DeMatha community didn’t want to believe that Jones’s job was handed to a middle-aged white guy who hadn’t coached at the school in decades; his only relationship to the basketball program during Jones’s last season was as color commentator for online streams of DeMatha’s games. Meanwhile, Jones’s many varsity assistants, all of whom were younger than Strickland and black, went uninterviewed.

“It’s nobody on this earth that can tell me that if there were five white [assistant] coaches there that they would go find a 70-year-old black coach to coach them without even talking to the white boys that were there,” one anonymous parent of a DeMatha player told the Post. “That’s not happening in America.”

Strickland told the newspaper he understood the rancor and that all he could do is try to prove he was the right man for the job. He now says he knew what he was getting into, and is still glad he got the gig and he’d like to keep it. “I do want it,” he says. As for why: “Reasons abound: repayment, loyalty,” he tells me. “It is a very good coaching job. Continues my connection to a place I have come to appreciate more and more–so, see ‘loyalty’ and ‘repayment.’ And it’s an opportunity to help accomplish some great things with good kids.”

At any other high school, hiring a guy with Strickland’s basketball background would be a proverbial slam dunk. There are his ties to the program that go back half a century. As a kid in the 1970s, he starred for DeMatha under Wootten. He was DeMatha’s leading scorer in the 1975 D.C. City Title game, a fabled upset of public school powerhouse Dunbar contested before a sellout crowd of 14,500, and like the Power Memorial classic played at Cole Field House. He went on to play college ball at Pitt. He was an assistant for the DeMatha basketball team under Morgan Wootten in the mid-1980s, and taught English at the high school at the same time. His wife, Mary Catherine Strickland, is on the DeMatha faculty. He had a long NCAA coaching career that included assistant jobs at N.C. State and George Washington, and seven years as head coach of Coastal Carolina.

Then there’s the odd, fantastical chapter of the 64-year-old Strickland’s basketball bio that came before he ever coached high school or college ball in the U.S. Strickland, as all hardcore DeMatha Catholics know, is something of a basketball legend himself—in Ireland. His sporting fairy tale, and the best reason Strickland’s life story should be turned into a feature film, started in 1980 after graduating from Pitt. He moved to County Cork for a brief but momentous stint playing and coaching for Neptune, a club in the fledgling Irish pro league. He turned Neptune into a winning program, and himself into a Johnny Appleseed of hoops by holding clinics at any school or church that would have him. He used training and coaching methods gleaned from Morgan Wootten to promote the great American game wherever he went on the Emerald Isle. 

“Pete became a missionary, a basketball missionary,” Kieran Shannon, a sports columnist with the Irish Examiner and Ireland basketball’s chief historian, told me in 2017. 

A highlight of his Irish stay came in March 1981 when club management decided to exploit their young Yank star’s enthusiasm for the game and ties to American basketball by hosting the Neptune International Basketball Tournament at the Parochial Hall in Cork. To please the bosses, he got an American squad for the event that was actually just a bunch of buddies from the D.C. area that he’d played with or against during his time at DeMatha. The gaggle Strickland assembled, which included former high school teammate and future Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, was dubbed the “Maryland All-Stars” and described in the tournament program as a “running band of Reaganites.” Though Strickland’s D.C. pals had never even played even one game together as a team before showing up in Ireland, they were dishonestly credited by the promoters with having “won their respective league two out of the last three seasons,” and also tabbed in that program as the betting “favourites” because American lads all start dribbling basketballs “at the same early age that Northsiders in the city of Cork begin picking up their hurling sticks.” 

The Maryland All-Stars were knocked out of the tournament by C.C. Blue Demons, another club from County Cork. The townspeople regarded the result as an upset of “Miracle On Ice” proportions, and that win gets credit for helping spark a boom in Irish basketball that lasted through the decade.

Strickland went back to the U.S. just a year after the momentous tournament, but the Irish never forgot him. Kieran Shannon’s 2009 book on Irish basketball’s 1980s’ heyday, Hanging From the Rafters, has a whole chapter devoted to Strickland. To let him know he was remembered, Basketball Ireland, the main sanctioning body of Irish basketball, invited Strickland back in 2016 to be head coach of the Irish national basketball team for two years. “He remains a legendary figure in Irish basketball,” Bernard O’Byrne, secretary general of Basketball Ireland, told me upon Strickland’s hiring.. “His appointment is viewed as a coming home.” (Disclosure: I got to know and really admire Strickland years ago through writing too much about his Irish basketball exploits.) 

Other than Strickland, nobody has publicly admitted even applying for the DeMatha job. But, again, there’s no job like it, so Strickland’s resume and standing among the school’s old guard won’t ward off any applicants. According to dedicated D.C. basketball observers I spoke with, likely candidates include: Joe Wootten, son of Morgan Wootten and now head coach of O’Connell High School, a D.C. Catholic league rival; University of Delaware assistant Corey McCrae; Keith Bogans, longtime NBA player who has coached in the New York Knicks organization; Rob Balanis, now an assistant at Howard University; and several current DeMatha assistants who got short shrift during the hiring process for interim coach, the best known of the bunch being former Georgetown star Austin Freeman. All named parties here are former DeMatha players.

Joe Wootten is the most most intriguing of the potential replacements. Again, he’s Morgan Wootten’s son and in some circles that alone makes him the rightful heir to the throne. Also: He played for his father as a member of the 1990-1991 team that went undefeated. After college at the University of Maryland, where he was briefly on the basketball roster, he became an assistant coach at DeMatha, also under his dad. And since his father’s retirement, Joe has run Coach Wootten’s Basketball Camp, an operation founded by his dad that over time became perhaps the longest-running and most beloved summer hoops camp in the country. He engendered massive amounts of goodwill in the DeMatha community in October 2006, after acute kidney failure had Morgan Wootten near death. Joe Wootten quickly donated one of his own kidneys to save his dad’s life. A token of Joe’s stature in the prep basketball universe: He is now co-chairman of the selection committee for both the boys and girls McDonald’s All America Games, the pre-eminent postseason prep showcase for hoops talent. 

But Wootten through the years has rubbed lots of people wrong, in the DeMatha sphere and throughout D.C. basketball. He left his assistant’s job at DeMatha in 1999, when it became clear Joe Wootten would not be simply handed the head coaching job when Morgan Wootten retired just because of his bloodlines. Joe Wootten not only took a head coaching job at a rival Catholic league school, Bishop O’Connell High School, but also took several DeMatha players with him to his new team. The Washington Post reported in 2003 that the upheaval surrounding Joe Wootten’s exit caused years of damage to DeMatha’s recruiting efforts.

Then there’s the Junior Etou saga. Before the 2012-2013 season, Wootten recruited Etou, who years earlier had played for the national team in his native Congo using his full name, Luc Tselan Tsiene Etou. FIBA, the main sanctioning body of international basketball, had published records from his participation in various African continental tournaments showing he was born in early June 1992. FIBA at the time said it had a birth certificate for Etou in its files showing the 1992 birthday. That meant he would turn 21 years old by the end of the 2012-2013 school year. League rules prohibited any student who turns 19 years old before their senior year from playing scholastic sports. 

Stu Vetter, a former prep hoops coach and a ruthless recruiter in the D.C. area best known for coaching Kevin Durant in high school, told me that everybody plugged into youth basketball in the city, as Wootten was, knew the bulky 6-foot-8 power forward was too old to play high school hoops. “We were told [Etou] would no longer be eligible for [high school] basketball, so we didn’t look at him any more,” Vetter said in 2013.

But when presented with the information from FIBA, Joe Wootten denied any shenanigans and said O’Connell’s paperwork indicated Etou was actually born two years after FIBA’s records said he was. Other Catholic league coaches grew more enraged as Wootten kept playing his star player despite knowing that Etou had either faked his age back home in the Congo, which wouldn’t have given him any competitive advantage, or in the U.S., which allowed him to keep playing high school basketball here. Joe Wootten’s peers only got madder when Etou scored the clinching points in both the Catholic league semifinal and championship games. The league title was Joe Wootten’s second at O’Connell. (Morgan Wootten won 33 leage titles at DeMatha; Jones won eight.) As a protest, all of Joe Wootten’s Catholic league coaching rivals, including DeMatha’s Jones, refused to give Etou a single vote for the postseason all-star team despite his dominant play. The saga climaxed later in 2013 when FIBA officials launched a formal investigation into Etou’s age discrepancy, and ruled that the preponderance of evidence showed “that the player was born on 4 June 1992.” That announcement inspired calls from other coaches in the league for Wootten to be fired or sanctioned.

“I think this means somebody stole a championship,” Steve Turner, longtime head coach of Gonzaga College High School, told me after FIBA’s ruling.

 The episode caused lots of folks to look closer at the program Joe Wootten had built at O’Connell. And soon enough he was getting heat for cozying up to Curtis Malone, the troubled coach of D.C. Assault, one of the top AAU programs in the country. Malone was arrested by federal drug agents in August 2013 and accused with supervising a national heroin-dealing network. Wootten had let DC Assault use the O’Connell gym for practices, and coincidentally or not the school landed several top players from Malone’s program for his high school team. (Malone, who is the stepfather of Duke assistant coach Nolan Smith, was also identified as Etou’s guardian during his days at O’Connell.)

One O’Connell alum was so irate about the Etou and Malone episodes that in 2014 he actually officially appealed to the Vatican to intervene and cleanse his old school of the sins he felt Wootten had introduced on campus in a Freudian but futile attempt to duplicate the successes his dad had at DeMatha. 

“Joe needs to win for the brand,” the alum said at the time of the Vatican appeal.

The Pope’s underlings turned down the request for intervention, and Wootten kept his job. Etou is now playing professionally for Hapoel Be’er Sheva of the Israeli Premier League; the roster lists a 1994 birthday. Malone pleaded guilty in March 2014 to “conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute cocaine and heroin,” and was paroled in May 2021. None of Wootten’s O’Connell teams have won a Catholic league championship since the scandals.

Who’ll win it all this year is anybody’s guess. The Catholic league is currently as deep in talent and as competitive this season as it’s been in recent memory. Four teams have been in the national Top 25 at some point. Last week, DeMatha faced O’Connell in a conference game. Strickland’s team held off a furious last-minute comeback by Wootten’s team and won by a point. Their next head-to-head matchup might not come on a basketball court, but could be just as close, and as closely watched, as that thriller.

Without naming names, Mike Jones says he’s gotten lots of calls from coaches, including many of his ex-players, who are interested in the DeMatha job. Several have asked him to make calls or write letters endorsing their candidacy, Jones says.

“But I haven’t supported anybody,” Jones tells me while on his way to IMG to scout, among others, his former DeMatha player, Jacoi Hutchinson. “There’s so many candidates, so many good candidates, which, well, I’m not surprised. No offense to these academies, but I think DeMatha is probably the best high school coaching job you can have. I really can’t wait to see how this turns out.”