It was a magical noisemaker, a shoebox of a high school gymnasium buried in a quiet working-class Maryland neighborhood. Bruce Springsteen cut double-albums off towns like Hyattsville. Old, sturdy brick homes hemmed the DeMatha Catholic gymnasium, wrapping blue-collar solidity and warmth around it like a protective mother bear. Residents in those homes, for decades, were awakened by a loud chant that ricocheted off hardwood, onto the gym’s dull yellow-painted walls, up into its ceiling tiles, and out into the cold winter night.
Woo … Woo … Woo.
It will never be heard again. Morgan Wootten, 88, died Tuesday night, surrounded in prayer by Kathy, his wife of 55 years, and his large family. Some believe Mr. Wootten to be the greatest basketball coach who ever lived.
Hundreds of articles today and tens of thousands of typed words will attempt to capture the essence of Mr. Wootten, who coached some of the greatest prep basketball teams in American history. ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post and countless online journals will rightfully herald his national titles, Naismith Hall of Fame induction and staggering overall record of 1,274-192 — but I imagine not a single story, not one, will capture what actually was his essence.
A great sadness for me, as an old journalist, is that reporters often tell stories while suffocating them —like filing a piece on the Ford’s Theatre play, but omitting Wilkes Booth.
Today’s Washington Post piece won’t mention that Morgan Wootten credited the Body and Blood of Christ, poured into his soul as a daily communicant, as being the force that fueled him as a husband, father, teacher, and basketball coach.
UCLA basketball legend John Wooden called Wootten the greatest basketball coach on any level. “I stand in awe of him,” Wooden said. Coach Wootten, though, would tell Wooden, or anyone else for that matter, that he’d be eternally on the losing side of the ledger were it not for the structuring his Catholic faith provided. He committed himself to prayer with Kathy — who he prayed alongside each night of his life from the same spot in his den. He had fidelity to the pursuit of virtue. He was forever pushing money to the disenfranchised, friends down on their luck, and to the vulnerable folks at SOME (So Others Might Eat). He kept holy priests as close friends.
“God, family, school, and then basketball,” was how he put it during his 46 years as coach at DeMatha. But if you cornered him, he’d elucidate on the “God” part of his famous quote; he’d speak of his love for the Eucharist, his devotion to the Blessed Mother and of his desire to be fed at daily Mass, where he and Kathy wore out the same left-side pew at St. Mark’s in Adelphi, Md.
Three years ago I invited Mr. Wootten and Kathy to a Day of Reflection that honored his old friend and my uncle, the deceased Msgr. Thomas Wells. The humid morning started with a long Eucharistic procession, and I noticed for the first time that Mr. Wootten was using a walker. I suggested driving him to the finishing point.
“Mr. Wells,” he said, smiling, in that way of his. “Thank you, but I’d rather take a walk with my wife on this beautiful morning.” Here was this titan, a man who’d won 33 Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championships and coached more than a dozen NBA players, who appeared enfeebled within the healthy-bodied gathering. But he left my side and moved to be with Kathy, where together they walked into the midst of the few hundred others who began the procession to adore the Eucharistic Face of Christ. I remember Mr. Wootten being red-faced, shaky and sweaty 15 minutes later. But he smiled that smile as he looked my way.
In the mid-’80s, I joined hundreds of others who braved icy back roads to pile into the overcrowded gym where — elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder — we became one in our letterman’s jackets, doing our part to help push the Stags to another win. It was a raucous room. Popcorn flew into the hair of college coaches Dean Smith, Bobby Knight and Mike Krzyzewski. But, man, when your arm was wrapped tightly around your Seton girlfriend in a tight game, you weren’t thinking about tomorrow’s Algebra test. And when Danny Ferry or Carlton Valentine or Benny Bolton blocked a shot that careened into the bleachers, it was as if high school basketball was designed for such moments and it would have been OK if time had stopped right then and there.
It wouldn’t have happened without Morgan Wootten.
He was the only coach ever to beat Lew Alcindor’s (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) Power Memorial basketball team, breaking its 71-game win streak. Although he was named the No. 1 Prep Coach of the 20th Century by the Naismith Foundation, Mr. Wootten maintained his humility.
“I remember I had just finished refereeing a really hard-fought semifinal playoff that ended up being a one-point loss for DeMatha,” said former high school referee Jim Kuzma. “And what does Morgan do on his walk back to address his team — he knocks on the ref’s locker room, steps in and tells us, ‘Men, I just want to thank you for doing a great job tonight’.”
He was my freshman World History teacher. He eschewed his desk up front and taught from the window-side of the classroom. By a quirk of seating arrangements, he stood right beside my desk while instructing his class. Throughout that year, before class began, we shared off-the-cuff conversations about life, sports, basketball, Ledo Pizza, and my uncle. In a strange way, it seemed I was establishing a friendship with a legend.
It was this small friendship, perhaps, that led to an unforgettable event that unfolded during my miserable freshman year. It was a grace extended, in a fashion I believe, that colossal Catholic wit and genius G.K. Chesterton would have understood and nodded in approval.
During freshman basketball tryouts, I grotesquely dislocated my knee. A few weeks prior to the injury, Mr. Wootten gave his time-honored, famous assignment to his class: each student was given a topic — the Revolutionary War, Andersonville prison, the Enlightenment, etc. He allowed more than a semester for our class to prepare our 45-minute oral presentation, to be given in front of the class. He warned against procrastination; the assignment would carry the burden of our second-semester grade.
Because my last name began with a “W”, I didn’t have to present until late May — so I procrastinated like St. Augustine with his sanctity. One-by-one, as the months unfolded, I watched in discomfort as procrastinators — Asero, Balthrop, Chesley — underwent carpet-bombings of Mr. Wootten’s post-presentation questioning. Procrastinators squirmed in their seats, especially when Mr. Wootten announced aloud the grade. “Chesley — 58.”
Even still, I persisted in my procrastination. Months after a failed knee surgery and another knee dislocation during baseball tryouts, I put my right hand through a window and badly severed blood vessels in my wrist. Major surgery reattached vessels, but I would be in a cast throughout the summer. This wasn’t good – not just because it extended my injurious year, but because I couldn’t write my 12-page history report or sketch out my AVs (an assortment of poster boards) for my History assignment: the Space Age. Poor mom helped me as I dictated my failure of a report. I had only one poster board with a couple of planets and stars pasted on. Eventual class Salutatorian Tim Young’s posters took up two chalkboards.
I finished my oral presentation in a sweat. It was disgraceful. Then I braced myself for Mr. Wootten’s interrogation. But a miracle unfolded in plain sight, a pinhole of light during the most painful year of my life. Mr. Wootten asked just two questions, something about the location of the nearest planet to Earth and of the first astronaut to walk on the moon. Woody from Cheers would have gotten both.
“Wells — 99.” It was the highest grade he gave.
As I returned to my desk, flabbergasted (along with my wide-eyed classmates), Mr. Wootten, at his usual station by my desk, looked me in the eye.
He then very quickly smiled; it was like a grimace that said: You, Mr. Wells, have endured a miserable first year of high school. And you were miserable today — but son, fate just smiled on you.
image: Coach Wooten via the documentary film by Bill Hayes, Morgan Wooten: The Godfather of Basketball.