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Phil Anastasia: Coach Gary Williams recalls the late Woodrow Wilson High star

Gary Williams is one of college basketball's most accomplished coaches. He can tell a million recruiting stories. His first is bittersweet.

Gary Williams is one of college basketball's most accomplished coaches. He can tell a million recruiting stories.

His first is bittersweet.

It was 1969. Williams was 24. He was the new coach at Woodrow Wilson High School.

His team had two great guards, two great forwards, and no center.

Then Harold Sullinger moved to Camden.

"Harold grew up in Columbus, Ohio," said Williams, the coach at the University of Maryland. "His mom got a job as a schoolteacher in Camden. That was probably my first great recruiting job, convincing Harold to enroll in Woodrow Wilson instead of Camden High."

Sullinger, who led the undefeated 1969-70 Woodrow Wilson team to the Group 4 state title, died Dec. 3 of an apparent heart attack. He was 58.

Sullinger's arrival in Camden and the way he meshed with teammates Mike Racobaldo, Barry Smith, Rick Brown, and Tyrone Medley is one of the most significant events in South Jersey sports history.

That team, with the youthful Williams as coach and five Division I athletes in the lineup, went 27-0 against a high-powered schedule that included a state semifinal clash with a squad from Elizabeth that featured future Notre Dame star John Shumate.

In the state championship game, Woodrow Wilson beat previously undefeated East Orange on a tumultuous night in Atlantic City's Convention Hall that ended with a wild brawl between spectators that spilled out onto the Boardwalk.

Sullinger went for 15 points and 10 rebounds in that 82-71 victory.

"That was a difficult time in our society," Williams said. "The city was changing. There were riots. The way those guys played, the way they represented the city of Camden, that meant so much to the city in those days.

"They were really good people, all of those guys. They never wavered from doing the right thing."

Williams said the 6-foot-8 Sullinger was "ahead of his time" as a player. Sullinger could run for a big man and shoot from the outside, too.

He went to the University of Iowa, where he played two years under coach Dick Schultz, who would become the head of the NCAA as well as the United States Olympic Committee. Sullinger finished his career at Temple.

"He was a special player," Williams said.

Sullinger's nephew, Jared Sullinger, is a 6-9 freshman for No. 2 Ohio State. Jared Sullinger scored a freshman school-record 40 points in Thursday night's victory over IUPUI after missing the morning shoot-around to attend a family viewing.

"I got to see my uncle for the last time," Jared Sullinger said in a story by the Associated Press. "It was really tough. This game really does go to him."

Williams said he last saw Sullinger at an informal reunion in Baltimore in October.

"We got together with a few guys from that time and Harold drove down and met us for dinner," Williams said. "It's funny, you remember these guys as 17-year-olds, and then you realize they are in their 50s and something like this happens."

Williams, who has been highly successful as a head coach at American, Boston College, and Ohio State and won the 2002 national championship at Maryland, said that one season at Woodrow Wilson might have been the key to his coaching career.

And Harold Sullinger was the key to that one season.

"That was a great time," Williams said. "I'll never forget coaching those guys. They gave me the confidence that I could coach."

Phil Anastasia:

A viewing for former Woodrow Wilson basketball star Harold Sullinger will be held Saturday at 9 a.m., followed by a funeral service at 11 a.m., at St. John Baptist Church, 30th and Mitchell Streets, Camden.