KUTZTOWN, Pa. – On the occasion of his first game as a high school basketball coach, Speedy Morris was struck by the absence of one man.
When it came time for his last game as a high school basketball coach, Morris was moved by the presence of an army of family, friends, former players, ex-assistants, and assorted well-wishers who gathered Saturday afternoon to mark the end of his legendary career.
Fifty-two seasons after making his debut, Morris walked off the court as a coach for the final time following his St. Joseph’s Prep team’s 57-45 loss to Reading in the first round of the PIAA Class 6A tournament.
“It’s disappointing,” Morris said, standing in the hallway in Kutztown University’s Keystone Arena, reflecting on the last game of a coaching career that began in 1968. “I can’t think about not coaching again. It’s going to be tough after 52 years.”
St. Joseph’s Prep senior Trevor Wall, who scored 18 points in his final game, described an emotional scene in the locker room.
“He kept it short – I think he was fighting back tears,” Wall said.
Keith Morris, Speedy’s son and assistant coach, was overcome in attempting to describe his father’s impact on generations of Philadelphia basketball players at the high school and collegiate level.
“It’s always been about more than basketball,” Keith Morris said, fighting back tears. “He lost his dad when he was 13 years old. His life mission has been to make an impact on others.
“His dad played here [at St. Joseph’s Prep] and their motto is to be a man for others. A lot of guys would say they don’t know more of a man for others than him.”
St. Joseph’s Prep (13-12) held a 25-21 lead late in the first half, but Reading (19-8), the District 3 runners-up, scored the last five points of the second quarter and the first seven of the third quarter to take control.
"The kids gave it a good try,” Speedy Morris said, his voice barely above a whisper because of complications from his battle with Parkinson’s disease.
Reading coach Rick Perez, whose team advanced to face the Freedom-Downingtown East winner in the second round, was honored to share the sideline in Morris’ final game.
“It’s all about character and he exemplifies that,” Perez said.
Morris finished his career with 1,035 victories as the coach of five teams, including high school boys’ teams at Roman Catholic, Penn Charter, and St. Joseph’s Prep, as well as the La Salle University women and men.
He made his mark at every stop, setting the Roman Catholic record for best career winning percentage; leading Penn Charter to an Inter-Ac League title; guiding the La Salle women to the first NCAA tournament appearance in program history; registering the school standard for career victories with the La Salle men as well for St. Joseph’s Prep.
Morris’ teams were renowned for their disciplined play on offense and their diligence on defense. He was tireless in his preparation, and famous for his ability to make in-game strategic changes.
Most of all, Morris was a coach who brought the best out of his players. He was a master motivator with the ability to “look into the human soul,” according to another famous coach of his vintage, former St. Anthony of Jersey City coach Bob Hurley.
“He could reach them, inspire them, and make them want to play for him,” Hurley said.
The 77-year-old Morris announced in December that he would retire after this season. He sat in his office in Kelly Field House on the Prep campus in February and lamented the necessity to step away from the game.
“I don’t want to leave,” Morris said. “I just can’t do it anymore because of my health.”
Morris never hesitates when asked what he will miss most about coaching.
“The kids, by far,” Morris said. “I still love them. They’re great. I came down here every day for the last 19 years, looking forward to practice.”
Morris, who’s real first name is William, used to joke that he was nicknamed Speedy because he was the slowest kid in his neighborhood in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia. His father, Chalie, was a storied athlete, a three-sport star at St. Joseph’s Prep and St. Joseph’s University.
“People who knew my dad and knew me said, ‘You can’t be Chalie Morris’ son. You can’t play,’ " Morris said.
As a coach, Morris found a way to channel his love for sports, his competitive nature, and his gift for inspiring others in pursuit of a common cause. After high school, he spent seven years as the basketball coach of the St. John the Baptist eighth-grade CYO team in Manayunk.
His dream was to land a job as a “freshman assistant, maybe,” at his alma mater, Roman Catholic.
“We played in Roman’s tournament every year,” Morris said. “We won it four times and finished second three times. I figured they must know who I am.”
He said he was thrilled to be hired as Roman Catholic’s junior-varsity coach in 1967.
“I had $5 in my pocket and I went down to buy a [Roman Catholic] sweatshirt,” Morris said “They didn’t have any. All they had was book covers. I bought $5 worth of book covers.”
Keith Morris said his father has a unique ability to connect with young people.
“The stuff he did off the court – the cheesesteaks, the TastyKakes, the Palestra games,” Keith Morris said. “There’s kids who will tell stories of driving with him to camps in the summer and on the way home they stop at Philly Park or Delaware Park for lunch and he’s teaching them how to bet an exacta.”
Morris’ first game as a high school head coach was against Archbishop Wood. A win, the first in the road to more than 1,000.
But for Morris, the moment was bittersweet.
“I remember thinking how great it would have been if my dad was there,” Morris said. “He died when I was in eighth grade. That’s all I thought about that day, that my dad would have been proud of me.”
Fifty-two seasons later, Morris’ last game was marked by presence , not absence – his wife, Mimi, in the stands behind the bench, his family filling up rows of the bleachers, a granddaughter who made the trip from South Carolina, former players and former assistants and so many others in the stands.
“Guys who played for him in the late ‘60s come back,” Keith Morris said. “Mike Bantom [former star at Roman Catholic and St. Joseph’s University] called me last night to check on him.
“He’s always had an army.”
The army has been with Morris every step of his final season. But for a man of faith, and basketball, there likely was no doubt to Speedy Morris that his last game was attended by an Army, And One.
St. Joseph’s Prep 10 15 7 13 – 45
Reading 15 11 11 20 – 57
SJP: Trevor Wall 18, Jimmy King 7, Chris Arizin 10, Brian Geatens 10, Richard Thomas 0.