Speedy Morris (left) and Mike McKee shake hands before Morris coached the last regular-season game of his career. (Photo: Kevin Callahan/CoBL)
Kevin Callahan (@CP_KCallahan)
WYNDMOOR – Before the last regular season game for Speedy Morris, his former assistant coach Rich Prendergast smiled. Although the ending of the legendary career of Morris is truly sad, the memories will always bring a smile.
And, the memories …
“We met on this court,” Prendergast said, shaking his head to the circle of life he was experiencing Sunday afternoon at La Salle College High School. “It was 1965 and Speedy was coaching St. John the Baptist (Manayunk) and I was coaching Saint Timothy (Mayfair) and we played in the second round of the CYO tournament here.
“I knew he was a good coach and demonstrative, but what I remember most is when we were shaking hands after the game, he said to me, ‘my scouts didn’t tell me how good your press was,” Prendergast said laughing. “I was thinking, ‘you have scouts, I was just hoping to find my station wagon to drive the team home,’ and we stayed close all these years.”
The story by Prendergast really punctuates the success of Morris as a coach and a person. As a coach, Morris did what other coaches wouldn’t at every level to prepare his team, to give his team an edge. As a person, once you were a friend of Morris, you were a friend for life.
“It’s really been overwhelming, everybody saying so many nice and warm things,” Morris said before the Hawks defeated La Salle 59-56 as the Prep improved to 12-10 overall. “I wish we were winning a few more games but …”
“It’s really humbling,” Speedy added quickly. “I’m seeing so many people and I’ve met so many people in basketball, it’s been a blessing.”
Morris, 77, announced in December his retirement at the end of his 19th year at the Prep and 52nd season coaching on the high school and college levels due to health issues.
Thankfully, the end isn’t here yet as the ninth-seeded Hawks move into the first round of the Philadelphia Catholic League playoffs on Wednesday at 5 p.m. at Archbishop Carroll.
“It definitely is in the back of our minds,” said senior forward Chris Arizin after scoring eight points, admitting not wanting the career of Morris to end this week. “He is such a legendary coach and this could be his last game, our last game, and we don’t want either of those so we are going to play our hearts out every game.”
Only the hearts of the many who played for Morris at Roman Catholic, Penn Charter, La Salle University men’s and women’s teams, and St. Joseph’s Prep can tell how his 1,000-plus wins doesn’t do justice of the impact the kid from Manayunk has had on the Philadelphia basketball community.
“The last four yeas I have worked my way through the ranks and it has been the best experience,” said Arizin, whose father Chris played at Drexel and his grandfather Paul starred at Villanova and is one of the NBA’s all-time greatest. “He pushes us and the little things are the most important, even the way we pivot, he coaches that, and it carries over to so many other aspects of life.
“He is a really caring guy and is very personable and everything he teaches really carries over.”
Mike Keenan, a senior guard, drained five 3-pointers and scored 18 points for the Prep in front of a packed gym that gave Morris a standing ovation before the game while players on both teams wore t-shirts with “52 Seasons - Philly Legend, One of a Kind” on the backs.
“We love him, he is a Philly original,” La Salle coach Mike McKee, who played at Roman Catholic, said. “There is Rocky, there are soft pretzels, there are cheesesteaks and there is the Liberty Bell and there is Speedy Morris.
“He is just an unbelievable person and I’ve always admired him and it means a lot to just be a part of this.
“He is the best, he is a great role model,” McKee added before La Salle dropped to 10-12 overall. “We are trying to get our guys to understand, this is about 52 years. It is a beautiful day.”
Keith Morris played for his dad at La Salle and has been by his side on the Prep bench.
“I think the greatest thing about him is the older he has gotten, some of the stuff he would have been harder on the kids about, he has a softer approach,” Keith said.
“I think one of the things that strikes me most about him and he has said it multiple times, is the greatest gifts he has ever been given is invitations to former players weddings, invitations to their children‘s christenings. Some of his former players are his best friends. He takes more pride in seeing them go out and be a hard working family man than anything, it is beyond basketball.
“The Jimmy O’Briens, the Mike Bantoms, the Lionel Simmons’ and the Steve Vasturias are all great friends, but it is everybody, there are guys who come around who were last men on the bench, there are managers that just love him.”
Matthew Morris is the son of Keith and the grandson of Speedy. He is a 6th grader who plays for his Plymouth-Whitemarsh town team and St. Genevieve school team.
“Until 5th grade, I was like that is just my Pop-Pop,” Matthew said. “And, then all of a sudden, one of my buddies said, ‘hey, I looked up Speedy Morris and he is all over Google,’ and I was like, “oh my gosh, everybody knows him.’
“And, I will be stopped at my basketball games and people will say, ‘you’re Speedy Morris’ grandson’ and it is a shock to me, everyone knows him as a basketball legend and that is my Pop-Pop.
“So it is really cool to be able to go to his Hall of Fames and to be able to say my Pop-Pop is a Hall of Famer,” Matthew gushed, “and for people to recognize me as his grandson.
Mike Brophy also enjoys a unique and close perspective of Speedy Morris since not only did his son, Sean, play for him at the Prep, he played against Morris’ Roman Catholic teams in the mid-1970’s when he starred in Archbishop Carroll’s backcourt with Butch Lynam and Greg Webster, who both went on to play for La Salle.
Brophy recalled trailing the Cahillites at halftime by 10 points and he could hear Morris through the walls at Carroll.
“It didn’t matter they were up, Speedy was a perfectionist and he wanted everything done right no matter what the score,” said Brophy, who scored 1,000 points and captained Ursinus’ Final Four team in 1981 along with Springfield coach Kevin McCormick.
Brophy also was a Division I official and reffed one of Morris’ La Salle games at the Carrier Dome, so he might have heard Speedy on the sideline, too.
But Brophy recalled Morris softer side off the court, which has endeared the veteran coach to so many over the years as well, telling the story when his son had his wisdom teeth removed and Speedy showed up at their house with a milk shake for Sean.
“And, Sean was only a sophomore,” Brophy said.
Brophy admired how Morris was able to install offensive sets and systems to maximize the talent of his teams and top players.
“He had good players everywhere he went, but he made those players pretty spectacular and highlighted them,” Brophy said. “Obviously, he has been a winner anywhere he has gone.”
Steve Vasturia, the all-time leading scorer at St. Joseph’s Prep School, crossed the Delaware River to play for Morris from South Jersey where Speedy’s legacy reached.
“I was so lucky to have played for Speedy at the Prep where I was able to grow immensely as a player and as a person," Vasturia said when contacted over the weekend in Germany where he is playing professionally with Rasta Vechta. “I learned so much from him and he really helped to shape me into the person I am today.”
The leading scorer in the Prep’s prestigious history with 1,764 points, Vasturia was the Prep’s first player to be named team Most Valuable Player and All-Catholic League for three consecutive years.
“He has made such a major impact on the Philadelphia basketball community and countless players and families," Vasturia said.
Vasturia, who had his No. 32 retired at The Prep, was a four-year starter at the University of Notre Dame.
“Today, I’m lucky to call him a friend and am extremely proud to have been a part of his program," said Vasturia, who was the Gatorade Pennsylvania Player of the Year as a senior for Morris,
Donnie Carr is one of only six players in La Salle history to top 2,000 points (2,067) in his four-year career playing for Morris.
“He was a guy that was before his time,” Carr said. “The way he played in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s is the way everyone is playing now,” Carr said.
The four-time First Team All-Big 5 honoree, who ranks second in school history with 308 three-pointers and sixth with 404 assists, is in his third season as an assistant coach for the Explorers.
“He is the one who put the idea of one day coaching in my head,” said Carr.
Carr was star guard at Roman Catholic where Morris’ legacy started in the PCL.
“Everyone knows about his unbelievable career, his Hall of Fame career as a coach, but he is also a Hall of Fame person,,” Carr said. “He is an unbelievable guy, and I was just blessed to play for him and learn from him for four years of my life.”
Randy Monroe also played at Roman Catholic for Morris and is a former assistant coach under him at La Salle. He is currently an assistant coach with the Hawks and a dean at the Prep.
“He’s a man who has put his whole heart and soul into coaching the game of basketball and nurturing young men and when it is time to say good-bye so to speak,” Monroe said.
“I do recall my days playing for him at Roman Catholic and if I could turn back the hands of time, I would go right back to Roman and play for him again.”
Former La Salle University coach John Giannini noted how Morris was a mentor to several generations of coaches.
“Fran Dunphy is the winningest Big 5 coach and he learned to coach under Speedy Morris, Joe Mihalich is having an incredible career (at Hofstra) and beat UCLA at Pauley Pavilion this year and he learned under coach Morris and you can go on and on,” Giannini said. “Then you have coaches who are a little bit younger like myself and for me he was a friend and a role model.
“He was a friend because he always encouraged me and he wanted me to succeed and he was a role model because he was a good coach and a family man.
“I got really close with his family over the years and everyone talks about balance in life, how can you be great at your profession, but also have a good family life and he does both of those as well as any coach I’ve been around.”
Current Explorers head coach Ashley Howard and sophomore forward Ed Croswell, who played for Morris, sat behind the Prep bench after playing a tough Atlantic 10 Conference game on Saturday night against rival Saint Joseph’s.
“It was an honor to play for Coach Speedy,” Croswell said. “He just taught me so much about the game, how to slow down, he was very technical about how he wanted us to run his plays and he has been a great mentor to me.
“He is just a great person to be around and people don’t know that he is hilarious off the court and I just love to be around him.”
And, some like Prendergast have been blessed to be around Speedy Morris for over 50 years, but no matter how long anyone has shared the court with him, they have been touched by the man.
“The Prep’s motto is ‘men for others’ and I don’t know of any man for others more than my dad,” Keith Morris said, “and, that is quite a blessing.”
St. Joseph’s Prep: 12 | 24 | 15 | 8 | 59
La Salle: 15 | 17 | 16 | 8 | 56
St. Joseph’s Prep: Mike Keenan 18, Trevor Wall 11, Jimmy King 11, Brian Geatens 11, Chris Arizin 8.
La Salle: Jake Timby 20, Mike DiPietro 12, Sam Brown 9, Liam O’Donnell 6, Nix Varano 5, Shane Holland 4.