Speedy Morris announced to his team on Monday that this season, his 52nd, would be his last. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
As soon as Trevor Wall heard there was a special meeting for the St. Joe’s Prep boys’ basketball program –– freshman, junior varsity, and varsity teams, all together –– he had a feeling he knew what was happening. Then Wall found it wasn’t just the basketball team, when he was tasked with bringing a tall, middle-aged gentleman with him to the meeting.
“Someone came up to me and was like, ‘can you escort this guy to the room?” Wall said. “And I introduced myself, and he was like ‘Lionel,’ and I was like ‘oh, Lionel Simmons.”
At that point, Wall said, “I kind of figured it out.”
Simmons, the former La Salle University great and first-round NBA pick was one of several notable names in Philadelphia basketball history who made their way to the Prep on Monday afternoon, to be there to support a man who’d meant so much to them over the years. Former Penn and Temple coach Fran Dunphy was there, as was current Owls assistant Chris Clark, and a few other former Prep players. William “Speedy” Morris, the venerable Hawks’ coach who’s in his 52nd year of coaching high school and college basketball in and around Philadelphia, was announcing to his team that the 2019-20 season will be his last.
First, Morris recounted his great teams of his past, at Roman, at Penn Charter, at La Salle University, at the Prep. The different future professionals he’d coached, the Catholic League and collegiate stars who flourished under his watch. And then he said this would be it, and the tears came.
“It was tough, because I love them,” Morris said. “Great group of kids.”
“We were all a little upset, it was a little emotional in there,” senior guard Trevor Wall said.
That Morris, 77, was going to finally step off the sidelines at the conclusion of the 2019-20 season seems hard to fathom in one sense. After all, he’s been a constant presence in area arenas since the 1960s, starting with high school and his stellar run at Roman Catholic (1967-81) and a couple years at Penn Charter (1981-83). Then came a move to college, at La Salle, where he coached both men’s and women’s (1983-2001) before going back to high school at the Prep, where he’s been since 2001.
But over the past few seasons, it was getting tougher and tougher for Morris to move around, and he admitted after Wednesday’s game against Germantown Academy that it was Parkinson’s disease that had necessitated his use of a cane and had slowed his gait to a shuffle. The sharp gaze is still there during the games, the mind still processing the game, but his body was making it more and more difficult to stand during the course of a 90-minute (or more) game.
“I mean, I’m not going to die or anything, but I can’t move my legs,” Morris said. “Without that, I can’t coach them, I can’t do drills and stuff. It’s tough, so that’s the reason why.”
It was impossible to be around Morris without noticing it was becoming more and more difficult for him to coach, but the idea of him stepping away seemed difficult to fathom. And when it finally happened, his players reacted both ways.
“He’s been hanging in there for the last four years, but it was a shock to everybody [when he retired,” senior forward Chris Arizin said, but followed that up immediately by saying, “but I think everybody saw it coming.”
“Speedy always told me when I was a sophomore, he said he wanted to stay until I left,” Wall said. “He’s a trooper, I don’t know how he’s doing it.”
Wall has a particular special connection with Morris, who coached older brothers Ryan and Evan before him, meaning a Wall has been on the varsity team for nine straight seasons.
“I’ve been around Coach a long time,” he said. “He’s a special person, he wins a lot of games, and he produces good teams.”
Along the way of his storied career, Morris’ teams have won now 1,025 games –– his current Prep team now 3-0 after knocking off Germantown Academy on Wednesday night –– including eight Catholic League championships, making him one of the most successful coaches in the region at any level.
“His decision...was very difficult, very difficult for everybody because he means so much to so many people,” said Randy Monroe, the former UMBC head coach who’s been Morris’ top assistant for the last four seasons. “And when we talked about it, it was very tough for him, because when you do something that you enjoy, that’s your passion, for so long, it’s very tough to break away from. And he will definitely be sorely missed from the game of basketball.
“But now, I’m going to try to convince him to write a book.”
Monroe is perhaps the most obvious candidate to fill Morris’ shoes next year, saying only “we’ll see what happens” though he did say he’d be interested in taking the reins.
The team that Morris has to rely on in his final year is a typical one for him: four seniors and a junior in the starting lineup, with a dribble-drive point guard (Wall) and shooters around him, with the 6-4 Arizin serving as the team’s requisite big man.
Arizin and Wall were both starters two years ago, when Morris won his 1000th career game. Now, they’ll help him finish off his curtain call, hopefully with a run at a Catholic League championship, or at least an appearance in the Palestra for the league semifinals.
“[It’s] a lot of pressure,” Arizin said. “We have a really good team this year, we play really well together. Hopefully we can end his career really well, and our careers, too.”
Wall disagreed on the pressure: “I don’t think we have anything to lose, us five,” he said.
And he’s right, in a sense: while the Hawks want to send Speedy out right, they’re not one of the obvious favorites in the Catholic League, and a run towards the top of the league would be seen as an overachievement for a group that only has one Division I recruit in a league where the top teams have starting lineups full of future high-major talent. But there’s no doubt that Speedy’s impending departure will bring extra attention onto this group, and they certainly want to send their venerable leader out with one final success story.
“I think we’re just going to go out and play,” Wall said, “and surprise some people.”