Sid Catlett, a former NCAA star and brief NBA player who always regarded a high school hoops game as his sporting peak, is dead. Catlett was 69 years old.
Officials at DeMatha Catholic High School, his alma mater, put out word on Saturday morning that Catlett had died. No cause of death had yet been determined. A report in the Hyattsville, Md., school’s newsletter last month said Catlett was recovering from brain surgery after suffering an apparent stroke in June, hours after coaching in a youth summer camp in the Atlanta area.
Catlett played for Notre Dame from 1968-1971, then spent one injury-riddled season with the Cincinnati Royals of the NBA. But before those stints, Catlett was a member of the storied DeMatha squad that beat Lew Alcindor’s powerhouse Power Memorial High in 1965. That game, played before a packed house at Cole Field House on the campus of the University of Maryland, has long been hailed as the greatest high school game ever played. Schoolboy hoops had never gotten such attention: All 12,500 tickets for the game sold out weeks in advance, and newspapers in the nation’s capital put previews of the contest on the front page.
Catlett, a sophomore forward and the youngest player on the floor, scored a team-high 13 points, including seven of his squad’s final nine points, in DeMatha’s 46-43 win, which ended the New York school’s 71-game winning streak. He also helped guard Alcindor (who by the end of the decade would change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and go on to be the top scorer in NBA history) holding him to just 16 points, and giving the acclaimed best prep player in the land the only loss of his high school career.
The game also brought national renown to DeMatha coach Morgan Wootten, now a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame. In workouts leading up to the game, DeMatha coaches had Catlett hold a tennis racket over his head to simulate what they’d face on offense playing against somebody with the wingspan of the 7-foot-1 Alcindor. “I can remember [DeMatha guard] Mickey Wiles hitting a high jump hook over Lew Alcindor, so the tennis racket kind of paid off,” Wootten told the Washington Post in a 2014 retrospective on the game.
Catlett, in a 2011 interview, told me it was the game of his life. “Nothing I was involved in was bigger,” he said.
For Catlett, its importance transcended hoops. That contest also was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Catlett and Abdul-Jabbar. They would go on to face each other again in college, as Jabbar’s defending national champion UCLA squad whupped the Fighting Irish, 88-75, in December 1968, the first game at Notre Dame’s Athletic and Convocation Center, which is still the team’s home arena.
Music enhanced the bond between Catlett and Abdul-Jabbar.
Catlett, you see, was the son of Big Sid Catlett, a Chicago-based jazz man and one of the most influential and revered drummers of the 1930s and 1940s. Big Sid kept the beat for such legends as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Benny Goodman, and Louis Armstrong, among others, and was known for occasionally peeving bandleaders by outshining them with his showmanship. In April 1945, the Washington Post went all hep cat in begging jazz fans not to miss a show promoted by future Atlantic Records founder and music industry dynamo Ahmet Ertegun that featured Big Sid—“winner of the recent Esquire poll as the greatest jazz drummer”—coming to town to play alongside young and hot New York pianist Errol Garner. (The gig was at Turner’s Arena, that downtown D.C. venue where Vince McMahon Sr. would soon launch the pro wrestling empire now known as WWE.) A snippet of that vintage preview in the Post: “Whip in a large number of the best swingmen now playing in Washington and the chances are this will be a jam session to go down in history—provided the history is recorded on asbestos paper!” Two decades later, that same paper would name Little Sid to its All-Met basketball squad for schoolboy stars.
On that trip, Big Sid met Florence Jackson, a D.C. native who would subsequently become his wife. But Big Sid died of a heart attack in 1951, when his son was just two years old. Florence Catlett and the boy, who grew up being called Little Sid, moved to Washington after the patriarch’s death. Little Sid told me that he had “almost no recollection” of his father, and that he tried to fashion some relationship with his dead dad by playing drums as a little kid, obsessively attempting to re-create the lick from Big Sid that he heard on the records his mom played in the house. But by adolescence, Little Sid felt he had to choose between jazz and another pastime that the locals were quite enamored with: Basketball. Music lost out.
“I’m 12 years old and I’m 6-foot-2,” he said, “and there was no way I’d survive in the community without playing basketball. I couldn’t serve two masters.”
He grew to 6-foot-8, and after mastering hoops on the same D.C. playgrounds—Turkey Thicket and Edgewood—that produced such local legends as Elgin Baylor and Dave Bing, plus former Notre Dame basketball star Monk Malloy, he caught the eye of DeMatha’s Wootten. As his star rose on the court, his nickname graduated to Big Sid, just like his dad. He is one of at least 18 DeMatha players to reach the NBA, an alumni group that also includes the top pick from this year’s draft, Markelle Fultz of the Philadelphia 76ers.
Abdul-Jabbar, meanwhile, was also the son of a jazz musician, Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Sr. His 2005 obituary in the New York Times says Alcindor was trained at Juilliard and had played with Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, and Tito Puente. Abdul-Jabbar would grow up to be possibly the greatest basketball player of all time, and among the greatest jazz collectors in the whole world. (He lost a reported 3,000 jazz LPs in a 1983 fire at his Los Angeles home.) And, as any vintage jazz buff would be, he was a huge fan of Big Sid Catlett.
Catlett told me that he and Abdul-Jabbar kept in touch sporadically through the decades after their on-court matchups, mostly to talk jazz. He recounted a phone call from Abdul-Jabbar that came “out of the blue” 2003, after the old rivals and fellow music buffs had gone a few years without talking. Abdul-Jabbar imparted with excitement that he’d been watching a DVD imported from France called The Small Black Groups that was a compilation of vintage movie clips. Abdul-Jabbar said it had scenes featuring Big Sid that had been taken from 1940s feature films, some of him performing and others with him delivering spoken lines. “Kareem told me my dad talked,” Catlett said. “I had never heard my father speak.”
This was before Youtube and years before transferring large video files digitally was an everyday thing. But Catlett found a Tower Records outside D.C. that had The Small Black Groups in stock, and immediately drove out and picked up a DVD. He told me he watched it alone in his living room in an otherwise empty house, and was overwhelmed.
“So here I was, a guy in his fifties, hearing his dad talk for the first time,” Catlett said. “It was an incredibly private, emotional moment.”
Catlett was convinced that he never would have gotten this gift were it not for the DeMatha-Power Memorial game, nearly four decades earlier.
“Playing in that allowed me to hear my father speak,” he said.