The first time I saw Speedy Morris in person was 33 years ago, on Feb. 10, 1987. I was just starting to cover basketball. He was closing in on 450 wins on his way to 1,036. And, if you add in all those CYO games, it might be closer to 1,150 in what has to be the most unique coaching resume in basketball history.
La Salle University was playing Holy Cross that February night at old Hayman Hall. I don’t remember much about the game other than La Salle won big and how obvious it was that freshman Lionel Simmons was really good.
What I definitely remember are so many “Speedy moments” as the great coach has directed his final game.
I nicknamed La Salle center Milko Lieverst ``Walton,’’ as in Bill Walton, mostly to irritate Speedy. Milko became a very dependable player over his four seasons playing for Speedy, but he definitely was not Walton. And it took him some time to become dependable.
One night at the old Civic Center, Milko did something stupid, which was not an uncommon occurrence. Speedy walked down to the end of his bench, near my baseline seat, cupped his mouth with his hands and said: ``Walton, my ass.’’
It was so much fun covering college basketball in this city in the late 1980s and 1990s. It was not the impersonal/press conference-driven exercise it has become in the 21st century. You could really get to know coaches and players, which, of course, made it easier to tell their stories.
Speedy instinctively knew that. Access was easy, trust built, the difference between what could be reported and what could not clearly understood.
The scene in the Buffalo hotel in 1987 after La Salle beat Niagara at the Aud in the NIT on St. Patrick’s Day. Not told then. Today, it can be told that there might have been some alcohol consumed in the lobby, the halls, the rooms, perhaps by players, definitely by coaches and the Manayunk entourage that followed Speedy wherever his teams played.
Or the night in 1988 at the Sheraton next to the Meadowlands, when La Salle clinched its first MAAC title. When I emerged from my room in the middle of the night after filing my story, I encountered a hallway littered with empty bottles of what was once various forms of liquor. Apparently, I had missed a party.
There was the night Hank Gathers died, on March 4, 1990, when Speedy gathered his team in his Albany, N.Y., hotel suite and tried to explain the unexplainable. Somehow, he had all the right words for his players and the next night his team, playing a game it did not really want to play, won its third consecutive conference championship, running its record to 52-1 against MAAC opponents during that time.
I was there for almost all of the games — home, road, wherever. Speedy insisted I get to know him, his assistants, his players.
Which is why he always had a senior night at old Garden State Park, where I was the guest selector, as the players were introduced to the horrors of gambling on their way to the real world.
And it is how I ended up in a van one summer day a few years ago for a 4-hour ride to Saratoga with Speedy, his son Keith, his brother Dave (a decorated Vietnam war veteran who sadly just passed away), Michael ``Gus’’ Carr, John Miller and Mike Stock. It was my task to ensure that all those people with La Salle connections left with more money at the end of the day than they had at the beginning.
Race after race went by with losing ticket after losing ticket. Speedy was not being kind. In fact, he was telling anybody within earshot that I knew nothing about horse racing and would no doubt bankrupt everybody before we headed home.
As the last race beckoned, I explained the intricacies of how to bet the superfecta. Everybody in our group got the same tickets. The horses hit the wire, the right numbers came in, and everybody, including Speedy, lined up at the windows to fill out IRS forms.
I went from bum to hero in less than two minutes. Even Speedy grudgingly admitted that I might know something about horse racing and gambling as he folded the hundred dollar bills into his pocket.
It was a privilege to be at Archbishop Ryan High School for win No. 999 two years ago. It was wonderful to be at St. Joseph’s Prep a few Sundays ago to celebrate Speedy’s career on the occasion of his final weekend home game.
Not sure if I will make his final game, but I will certainly be there in spirit. As great as Speedy has been as a coach, his humanity has always been his greatest attribute. In a world gone make believe, Speedy has always been real.
From CYO to Roman Catholic, Penn Charter, La Salle women, La Salle men and, finally to St. Joseph’s Prep, the truest measure of Speedy’s impact is the loyalty of those who coached with him, played for him, managed his teams. It is unwavering.
Speedy Morris will retire from coaching as a member of 11 Halls of Fame. Someday, hopefully soon, it should be 12. The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame welcomes coaches. players and contributors from every level of the sport. There has to be a spot for William ``Speedy’’ Morris.