Recent DeMatha grad and all-world shooting guard Austin Freeman will enroll in Georgetown this fall and play for John Thompson III. This represents a rare melding of our area’s top high school and college programs.
Dig it: The last Stag to play for the Hoyas is now the grandfather of a college student.
“It’s been a while,” says Mark Edwards.
He knows it better than anybody. Edwards is, in fact, the last player who can claim DeMatha and Georgetown degrees. The 56-year-old Dupont Circle resident (whose granddaughter is enrolled in a North Carolina university) has been thinking about his distinction lately, as the schism between his high school and college nears its end.
With Spingarn having fallen far and fast, DeMatha’s standing as the best-ever prep program around these parts isn’t in question. The Hyattsville parochial school has sent a lot more players to the NCAA and NBA than anybody. And, hard as it is for any Maryland fan to admit, Georgetown crushes all other local colleges in any poll of college programs. (My Sports Illustrated with a high-school-age Tom McMillen on the cover is lying around here somewhere, and I still occasionally break into a bad Lefty “I Can Coach!” Driesell imitation, but there’s five Hoya Final Fours to the Terps’ two. Dammit.)
Beginning in the early ’60s, DeMatha had a 30-year run where every senior player got an NCAA scholarship, and for decades the school has been feeding talent to pretty much every major cager college in the country.
Well, again, every program but Georgetown’s. One of the oddest quirks of the local hoops scene for some time has been the schools’ longtime nonrelationship.
Outsiders have always been sure that the absence of DeMatha players at Georgetown was rooted in the relationship between Morgan Wootten and John Thompson, the two legendary but long-retired coaches whose names still remain synonymous with each school’s basketball program.
There’s plenty of fodder for conspiracy buffs who like the ring of that theory. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Wootten and Thompson, who coached at St. Anthony’s High School in Northeast D.C. before taking the Georgetown job in 1972, annually competed to have the best Catholic school team in the area.
Their rivalry was anything but friendly. The lede of a 1971 Washington Post story on a tournament that both schools were playing in said that Thompson and Wootten “have pretty much had the Washington area to themselves as feuds go.”
Every season, it seemed, whichever coach had the stronger program would spend at least one interview accusing the other of ducking his team. And when the two teams did meet, ugliness sometimes ensued. In a now legendary summer-league matchup, Thompson refused to let his starters play because of some undisclosed gripe or perceived show of disrespect, and DeMatha’s first-teamers gave the St. Anthony’s scrubs no quarter, racking up a massive margin of victory.
The coaches never faced each other again.
Any tiff might have been further aggravated by the fact that Thompson was picked for the Georgetown job out of an incredibly qualified group of finalist candidates that included Wootten (as well as future Washington State and USC coach George Raveling and Jack Ramsey, who in a matter of just a few years would go on to lead the Portland Trail Blazers to an NBA title).
Edwards was already at Georgetown for three seasons when Thompson got the job. So Edwards, who in high school had known his next coach as a rival, had some concerns that the new hire meant his last year of college was going to be a bust.
“In high school, when we played St. Anthony’s, you could see the tension building up between Morgan and John,” Edwards says. “I sensed the feud happening then. As players, we wanted to play the best, and I know Morgan wouldn’t ever duck anybody when I was there, and St. Anthony’s was the best. I was a laid-back kind of guy, and Morgan was a laid-back kind of coach, whereas John was this in-your-face, intense coach, so when he got the job I wondered whether his style and my style would work.”
But Edwards, who is black, had also known Thompson as a mentor from the coach’s work with area youth basketball programs.
And, no matter how much love and loyalty Edwards had for Wootten, or how concerned he was about how he would fit in with the new coach, he couldn’t ignore the landmark quality of Thompson’s hiring, which made him among the first black head coaches of a major college program.
“When I first heard about John coming to Georgetown, I wasn’t thinking that I was going to have to play for the enemy,” he says. “I had known Morgan since I was 11 years old. But I had also known John since I was 11. I would occasionally work out with his teams at St. Anthony’s, and I’d have to say that was because he was a black coach. When I arrived at Georgetown, I was the only black player on the roster. My generation, we were part of the first generation of black players to go to mainstream white schools. So, of course, that was a big deal having a black coach come in. Now, for kids, that’s commonplace. It wasn’t then.”
Edwards says that Thompson occasionally referenced the fact that he’d come from the camp of a former rival. And he says he was aware over the years of DeMatha players who wanted to come to Georgetown but weren’t welcomed by the coach.
But, overall, he says Thompson gave him a fair shake his senior year. No other DeMatha player ever played for Thompson. (Guard Donald Willis, also of DeMatha, was a junior reserve on the Hoyas during the 1972-1973 season, appearing in six games, but did not rejoin the squad for his senior year.)
Edwards won’t say that Thompson’s relationship with Wootten was behind the 35-year dearth of Stags at Georgetown.
“The first thing John said to me when he got to Georgetown was that he wouldn’t hold it against me that I went to DeMatha,” says Edwards. “I’m sure he meant it. But the fact that he had to mention it made me take pause. Once John got to Georgetown, he turned the program into this urban legend, where any kid from any urban area wanted to play there. But I do think John thought that any of Morgan’s players who said they wanted to play for him were lying. Still, overall, I really think John, like any coach, just wanted players that would fit his style, and he never felt a DeMatha player did. I don’t think you could say no Georgetown player played at DeMatha because of a feud between Morgan and John.”
Thompson, who now hosts an afternoon sports-talk show on WTEM-AM, did not respond to a message left at the station requesting comment. But Wootten concurs with Edwards’ assertion that the lack of DeMatha players at Georgetown for all these years wasn’t at all related to the coaches’ relationship.
“John Thompson and I were rivals, for sure,” says Wootten. “But we all had rivals, and I don’t think there was any animosity. People were always trying to make a story out of nothing. I always admired John: When he was a player in high school, and for the great job he did at St. Anthony’s, and obviously, at Georgetown, where he was a great father figure. I had a saying: I never told my players who to marry or where to go to school, so I never delivered anybody anywhere. But I’ll tell you this: I always thought anybody who got to play for John Thompson was lucky. A lot of people said there was a problem between us, but if one of my players said they were going to Georgetown, I would have led the cheers.”
It’s hard to argue Thompson would have done better if only he’d suited up DeMatha players. In his 27 seasons as Hoyas coach, he put up a 596–239 record. But Craig Esherick, Thompson’s protégé and successor, kept the prohibition in place, and, since he was fired after just five seasons, it now seems he could have used some of DeMatha’s talent.
In any case, Edwards says he’s glad to see the pipeline from his high school to his college flowing again.
“I had a very interesting situation,” he says. “I’m blessed to say I played for two Hall of Fame coaches. How many players can say that?”