Morgan Wootten spoke to his players, the room hushed and hanging on his every word.
For 46 years Wootten coached the DeMatha Catholic boys basketball team. None of them knew it, but this would be one of his final speeches to them as a coach. The scene: A locker room at Capital One Arena on March 10, 2002. The Stags had just won the City Title 59-52 against Spingarn.
DeMatha’s players, coaches and staff gathered in the victorious locker room, jubilant. But the door stayed open for some reason and a few reporters gathered just outside to listen in on a emotional moment between a coach and his players.
Wootten settled the room and spoke in hushed tones. He told them how proud he was of them. The Stags had gone 29-3 against what Wootten later called the toughest schedule any DeMatha team had played. They defended their Washington Catholic Athletic Conference and City championships. They were champions.
Wootten also spoke of the future, of the lessons learned on the basketball court the players could apply in their lives beyond the sport. A few would go on to play college basketball, but there were no NBA players on this roster, no future multi-millionaires. They were just teenagers who had accomplished something special together.
Wootten believed that they could do more in their lives as adults, husbands, fathers. But that was years away. He made sure to tell them to enjoy their accomplishment. He smiled and cracked a joke and the room exploded in cheers. But Wootten’s message, the one he’d imparted to teenagers for almost half a century, lingered. It was as moving a speech as you will ever hear in a locker room. It allowed outsiders to see the guts of the thing
Wootten died on Tuesday night surrounded by his family at age 88. He survived a liver transplant in 1996 and joked he was thankful he even had the chance to retire in 2002 just before the next basketball season started. He considered it a gift.
Legend is not too strong a word for Wootten. He won 1,274 games and coached dozens of NBA players – Adrian Dantley, Danny Ferry, Kenny Carr, Sidney Lowe, Mike Brey, Joe Forte, Keith Bogans, Adrian Branch. Hundreds more who would play in college. UCLA coach John Wooden and Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach were admirers. They were basketball royalty. In 2000, Wootten would join them in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
You can go on and on. Wootten’s 1965 DeMatha team stunned Power Memorial from New York at old Cole Field House and their future Hall of Fame center Lew Alcindor, who became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Stags snapped Power’s 71-game winning streak that night.
But those are the specific details of a career. Wootten’s legacy is so much more than wins and losses and it remains alive in his former players, like Brown, the CBS sportscaster, and so many others who have gone on to lead meaningful, productive lives outside of basketball.
That was the message Wootten delivered to those DeMatha players after their final championship. The brief speech, delivered to a rapt audience, represented the heart of his philosophy, what he’d hoped to impart for decades.
It didn’t always take. There was plenty of joy over the years, but plenty of heartache, too. No coach reaches every kid. But Morgan Wootten, a teacher to the very end, never stopped trying.
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