On Nov. 28, 1986, Speedy Morris coached his first game for La Salle’s men’s basketball team, against Penn State at the AMI Classic, a four-team tournament in Miami. The game was also the first he coached that featured the three-point shot; the NCAA had just implemented it throughout Division I. The change changed college basketball. The change changed Morris’ career. But the change didn’t immediately change his thinking about the change.
The outcome – a 59-58 Nittany Lions victory – frustrated Morris, of course, but the manner in which Penn State won outraged him. The Explorers had made more shots from the field, 23 to 22, and they had made more free throws, 8 to 7. Yet they still lost because Penn State made twice as many three-pointers as they did.
“When it came out, I hated it,” Morris said. “I said an idiot put that rule in.”
Let’s be precise here, per the Dec. 11, 1986, Inquirer:
It’s ludicrous. You have a guy in the paint making a hell of a shot with two people on him, and it’s only worth two points. Then you have a guy shooting from the outside, and he makes one with no one on him and it’s three points. Idiots put that rule in.
“I hated it,” he said, “but I learned to love it.”
An unlikely revolutionary
The Naismith Memorial National Basketball Hall of Fame will soon release its ballot of candidates for the 2021 class, and Morris, for a host of reasons, is likely to be one of the names on that ballot. In his 52 years of coaching, he won 1,035 games – 754 of them at Roman Catholic, Penn Charter, and St. Joseph’s Prep, the most victories of anyone in Philadelphia high school history – and 32 regular-season and postseason championships.
He is La Salle’s all-time leader in men’s coaching victories, with 238, and has the highest winning percentage among the university’s women’s coaches, at .717. And if the ability to ball up a sport coat and chuck it into the stands like a wad of paper were a consideration or qualification, he’d have had a spot in Springfield locked up long ago.
Morris is a quintessentially Philadelphian character, a gym rat from Manayunk who owned a bar, got his first coaching job volunteering in a CYO league, and ended up becoming an institution around here. “He is rowhouse and neighborhood,” The Inquirer’s Bill Lyon once wrote of him, “soft pretzels seasoned with bus exhaust, and cheesesteaks dripping agita.”
When it comes to his prospects for induction into the Hall, though, the fact that he was both parochial and peripatetic in his career probably hurts his candidacy. He is one of the faces of Philadelphia basketball, but he’s not the face of one Philadelphia basketball program. He’s not Morgan Wootten, who spent 46 years at DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Md., and he’s not Bob Hurley, who spent 39 years at St. Anthony in Jersey City, N.J.
But if you adjust the angle from which you look at Morris’ career, you can see him not just as an accomplished local coach and city fixture but as one of several innovative minds who ushered basketball into the modern era. His embrace of the three-point shot in the late 1980s, so ironic given his initial reaction to it, is that different prism. With his grandfatherly glasses and Santa Claus-style belly, Morris didn’t look the part of a rebel, but he was at the vanguard of a revolution.
“He was ahead of his time,” said Jay Wright, who himself should be on the Hall of Fame ballot this year and, having won two national championships and more than 600 games in his 27 years at Villanova and Hofstra, stands a good chance of getting in. Wright likened Morris’ accent on the three-pointer to that of a coach already in the Hall: Rick Pitino, who by building his offense around the shot led three programs – Providence, Kentucky, and Louisville – to the Final Four. “He and Pitino,” Wright said, “they were ahead of their time.”
For Morris, the three-pointer was the great leveler, equalizing everything between La Salle – a program that, whether in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the Midwestern Collegiate Conference, or the Atlantic 10, was always trailing in the recruiting and resources arms race – and its opponents. The university didn’t have an on-campus basketball facility that could accommodate home games until Tom Gola Arena, a bandbox hardly comparable to the palaces of college basketball’s elite, opened in 1998. La Salle’s recruiting budget, Morris said, never surpassed $24,000. Each season, he would help fund the program by scheduling three games that would come with a healthy payout from each opponent. When he became La Salle’s men’s coach in 1986, his starting salary was $37,000 – the equivalent, in 2020 dollars, of less than $88,000.
Tim Legler was already there, and Lionel Simmons was on the way, and the best players Morris recruited over the next few years were all shooters: Doug Overton, Randy Woods, Jack Hurd, Bobby Johnson. As much as Morris detested the three-pointer at first, he didn’t have many skilled big men beating down his door at 20th and Olney, and he wasn’t so rigid that he would ignore how much the three-pointer could help him. The number of threes per game that La Salle attempted increased each season from 1986-87 through 1991-92.
Morris had a model, too, 3,000 miles to the west, in one of his predecessors at La Salle: Paul Westhead. Westhead’s teams at Loyola Marymount, which featured a pair of Philadelphia-born stars in Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers, captured the country’s fascination through their breakneck style of play – what Westhead called “The System” – and because the Lions, after Gathers’ death in March 1990, advanced to within one victory of the Final Four later that month.
That 1989-90 Loyola Marymount team averaged 9.3 threes and 23 three-point attempts per game. In 1991-92, La Salle went 20-11 and won the MAAC Tournament, qualifying for the NCAA Tournament for the fourth and final time in Morris’ 15 years as men’s coach. The Explorers led the NCAA that season in three-pointers made per game, 9.5, and attempted per game, 26.9. Both averages were higher than those of any Loyola-Marymount team under Westhead.
So Morris wasn’t alone in what he was doing, but his strategy was still unorthodox for the era. As an assistant coach at Villanova under Rollie Massimino, Wright often had to scout Morris’ teams at La Salle. “They ran more offensive sets than any team I’ve ever scouted, including since then,” he said. “But their role definition was better than anybody’s, and the way they shot threes was just scary.”
One night, in December 1989, the Wildcats and Explorers were locked in a close contest at Convention Hall. “Rollie, on the last possession of a game, always went man-to-man,” Wright said. “He was a man-to-man coach. He would play zone throughout the game, but game on the line, he’s playing man-to-man.” Fearful that Morris would have La Salle’s guards feed the ball to Simmons in the post, Wright recommended to Massimino that Villanova switch to a zone defense in the final few minutes of regulation. With the game tied at 66, Woods noticed that the Wildcats were sitting back in a 2-3 shell, and he launched a 25-foot jump shot.
Woods had missed seven of his first eight three-point attempts in the game, but he buried that one. On the Villanova bench, Massimino turned to Wright with a look of disgust. You and your f-----g zone, he said. La Salle won, 71-70.
“Who would let their guys shoot that?” Wright said. “You know that’s not the play he called. But Speedy did a great job of giving confidence to his great shooters. You knew they had carte blanche, and it was scary to guard them because of that.”
Every season from ’91-92 through ’97-98, seven straight years, La Salle ranked among the nation’s top 11 teams in three-point attempts per game. The Explorers never shot fewer than 23.5, and they never made fewer than 7.7. Morris would coax one of the city’s top high school perimeter players to come to La Salle – Kareem Townes, Donnie Carr, Rasual Butler – and put that player, and maybe one or two more like him, at the locus of the offense. He recruited Victor Thomas, a skinny 6-foot-7 kid who had often played center at St. John Neumann High School, then turned him into a stretch four. Thomas scored 1,765 points at La Salle, making 171 three-pointers and shooting 37.1% from beyond the arc.
“It was awesome,” said Carr, now an assistant coach at La Salle under Ashley Howard. “Speedy wanted to get as many threes up as possible and get his players shots and live with the results. He had a lot of sets that looked the same and could do so many things out of them. He had a futuristic coaching style. He was dynamic.”
What he didn’t do was win, not often enough, anyway. He finished his career at La Salle with eight consecutive losing seasons before he was fired. In the last of those eight, 2000-01, the Explorers went 12-17. They were still hoisting shots from deep, making 7.1 threes a game and taking 21.3, but those averages ranked 68th and 45th, respectively, among Division I teams. The rest of college basketball had caught up to him.
The way things changed
In July, I met Speedy Morris and his son Keith for lunch in Manayunk. Speedy Morris would be the mayor of Manayunk, if Manayunk had a mayor. As if on cue, our server recognized him immediately. We sat outside, masked, distanced at the table. He’s 78, and he has Parkinson’s disease. His voice is a soft rasp, and his hands quiver with tremors.
Like many people in and around Philadelphia basketball, I’ve known Speedy Morris a long time, more than 25 years. I was a student at La Salle, a writer and editor for the university’s newspaper, from 1993 to 1997, just after things were really good for him there, just when things started to go bad. Back then, a lot of students and alumni wondered why his teams didn’t win more. In the 19 years since Morris coached his last game at La Salle, the program has had five winning seasons. Maybe we should have wondered how he won as much as he did. Maybe, in retrospect, with the three-point shot’s accepted and indispensable presence in the sport now, with the way basketball has changed, with the way he helped change it, it’s easier to understand.
I don’t know if that’s enough to get him into the Hall of Fame. I do know that it, and the rest of his life in the game, should be.