High School

DeMatha basketball coach Morgan Wootten left an impact that spanned generations

DeMatha basketball coach Morgan Wootten left an impact that spanned generations

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.    

MORE HIGH SCHOOL NEWS:

DeMatha looks to honor late coaching legend Morgan Wootten with WCAC tournament run

DeMatha looks to honor late coaching legend Morgan Wootten with WCAC tournament run

The DeMatha boys basketball team is in the midst of a remarkable season. Entering the WCAC tournament they boast an overall record of 27-3 earning them the conference’s top seed. The Stags are an experienced squad; their senior class has displayed poise throughout their careers, playing in and winning big games. 

They’ve shown the perseverance necessary to rebound from defeat and be better the next night on the court. And on January 21, Coach Mike Jones’ squad continued to prove they were capable of maintaining focus on their goals even in the face of great adversity.

“I was in bed late at night when I got word via text message that Coach [Morgan] Wootten had passed. It was not surprising, but still not a message I looked forward to getting,” Jones said. “As a team we had started to pray for coach way back in December when we first learned he’d taken a turn for the worst, so we said many prayers for his health and his soul and spirit.”  

The former DeMatha coach was a national treasure. His death was a blow to the school’s alum across the country. As the nation mourned, the present-day Stags were left to find a way to keep pushing forward in the face of constant reminders of what Wootten meant to the community.

“We play in a gym that’s named after him. We practice in another gym that’s named after him,” Jones said. “His presence is around our program everywhere we turn so, it was a rough few days, but we’re proud to do the best we can to continue his legacy.”

A day after Wootten’s death, DeMatha defeated Archbishop Carroll by 42. Less than a week later they secured a significant victory over PVI. The Stags would go on to win their next eight games, extending their overall win streak to 22 games. They were successfully maintaining their high level of play on the court, while keeping the memory of Wooten ever present off of it.

“We were rolling along [with our schedule] and we wanted to continue to use our story times to tell Coach’s stories and we would use Coach’s ‘thought of the day’ — which became a little more special because we were using the thoughts and teachings of someone who was no longer with us,” Jones said.

Entering the weekend, the Stags are three games away from winning the WCAC championship. Though Jones is clear he did not ask his student-athletes to dedicate their championship run to Wootten’s memory, he does acknowledge what every victory from this point on means to him and the entire DeMatha family.

“I will never be able to look up and see Coach Wootten sitting at the top of the bleachers or leaning over the rail giving me the thumbs up, that’ll never happen again. I’ll never get another text message from him telling me how proud he is of our team, that’ll never happen again,” Jones said. “So anything we accomplish, people should know one of our first thoughts will be Coach Wootten and I don’t know that that will ever end.

“I know he’s watching over us and he’s watching over the game of basketball as a whole because his fingerprints are all over it.”
 

MORE HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL NEWS:

WCAC Tournament Preview, Schedule: DeMatha is the top seed but not necessarily the favorite

WCAC Tournament Preview, Schedule: DeMatha is the top seed but not necessarily the favorite

The WCAC is home to some of the most prestigious basketball programs in the country. When the conference tournament tips off Thursday night, the league's highly-recruited, nationally-ranked and uber-talented young men will put their collective games on display for the nation to see. Needless to say, the WCAC tournament is going to be a movie.

Here’s the breakdown:

TEAMS TO WATCH:

#1 seed DeMatha (27-3): At one point, the Stags were winners of 22 consecutive games en route to finishing league play 19-1.

Led by Miami commit Earl Timberlake and 7-foot-2 Michigan commit Hunter Dickinson, DeMatha is a force to be reckoned with. In addition to its stallions, coach Mike Jones’ team boasts stellar guard play and showcases the skill of dynamic wing Jordan Hawkins.

DeMatha may have already booked their ticket to Monday’s final.

#3 seed Gonzaga (21-9): Coach Steve Turner’s Gonzaga squad has a propensity for showing up big in big moments. The defending champs are battle tested and won’t be intimidated by what could be a daunting path to this year’s championship game.

Vandy commit Myles Stute and Michigan commit Terrance Williams have displayed an ability to dominate from both the interior and the wing; their versatility will cause match-up nightmares for the Eagles’ opponents.

#7 seed Archbishop Carroll (17-13): Archbishop Carroll can defend and if a team can prevent the other from scoring easy baskets, they can keep themselves in ball games. Carroll allowed the third-fewest points in conference play -- only St. John’s and DeMatha gave up fewer. Expect Archbishop to put the squeeze on The Heights Thursday night.

Additionally, the Lions notched key victories over Good Counsel and St. John’s during the regular season. Overall, they are winners in seven of their last 10 -- they’re playing their best ball at the right time.

SLEEPER:

#5 Seed Good Counsel (19-11): The Falcons clawed their way to a cinderella season thus far and they may not be finished dancing. A perennial bottom-dweller, Good Counsel resurrected its program this year to the tune of a 5-seed and first-round bye.

On Saturday, Good Counsel plays 4-seed St. John’s. Head-to-head, the Falcons lost both of their games to the Cadets, but if they can control pace and keep their quarterfinal contest a low-scoring affair, the Falcons will upset St. John’s and waltz into the semis.

FAVORITE:

Paul VI (22-7): Top-to-bottom, PVI may be the most talented team in the WCAC. The Panthers have seven losses, but they played one of the toughest schedules in the nation.

Under the leadership of coach Glenn Farello, PVI plays the game the right way. Farello's squad is hard-nosed and unafraid to sacrifice personal numbers for the benefit of the team.

Tournaments such as this one are often dominated by guard play and the Panthers are loaded with playmakers in the back court. Look for big performances from Doug McDaniel and Will Paige, while Duke commit Jeremy Roach paints his final masterpiece.

DeMatha suffered only one defeat in conference play -- it came on February 16th, at the hands of PVI.

Full Schedule: 

Saturday, February 22, 2020
Boys Quarterfinal Games at Gallaudet University   ADMISSION is $10.00

1:00pm (5) Good Counsel at (4) St. John's
2:45pm Bishop O'Connell at (1) DeMatha
4:30pm Archbishop Carroll at (2) Paul VI
6:15pm Bishop McNamara at (3) Gonzaga

Sunday, February 23, 2020
Girls Semi-Finals at American University   ADMISSION is $10.00
1:00pm
2:45pm

Boys Semi-Finals at American University  ADMISSION is $10.00
4:30pm
6:15pm 

Monday, February 24, 2020
Girls and Boys Finals at American University  ADMISSION is $15.00

6:00pm   Girls Finals
8:00pm   Boys Finals