All basketballs should be put on the rack for this entire day. There should be silence in all basketball gymnasiums and outdoor playground hoops courts. The inventor of basketball, James Naismith, must be smiling and yet a little sad. The game he created lost its leading man who left us so much.
This marks the day after Morgan Wootten died at the age of 88 on Jan. 21. He coached basketball at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, for 46 years and became what some consider the single greatest coach in the history of coaching in any sport. But that’s far from the whole story. His story transcends basketball and winning so many games.
This is a story about a unique human being by any measure of any era.
I want you to think about one person you have met in your life who inspired you the most, who said things to you that made you believe in yourself, the one person you think about now when you need to be picked up and motivated to keep going because they told you were worth something, that you were somebody, that you mattered, that you had talent.
Now I want you to imagine that one person being Morgan Wootten. No one made more people feel good about themselves, made more people achieve what they didn’t believe they could, than Wootten.
As a 17-year-old, I worked for his summer basketball camp. The night before, my St. John’s team had played his DeMatha squad in a summer league game. The next morning, I happened to be the only one in the coach’s office with Wootten. He said to me:
“Charlie, you played great last night. After the game I asked my team if there was anyone who could stop Charlie Hartley.”
There I was, a kid who lacked some belief in himself, being complimented by the greatest and most respected high-school basketball coach of all time – the high school national coach of the 20th century, in fact.
His words were vintage Morgan. He lifted me up. He knew what to say and to whom to say it to make them feel good, to give them hope about their future. Remember, I was an opposing player. But he didn’t see it that way. He was my friend and mentor. He coached me. Didn’t matter what team I played on. What mattered to him was giving a young high school kid the confidence that he was worth something, that he had talent, that he was impressed with how I played.
Working at his basketball camps for three years remains the single most important three years of my life in terms of learning how to live my life. Before and after each day of camp, his employees, mostly DeMatha and St. John’s basketball players, would meet with Morgan. There the magic happened. He would always be teaching us life lessons during those meetings. This was not just about logistics; it was time for him to reach inside our hearts and touch us deeply and emotionally.
“Learn every kid’s name on your team and call him by his name,” he would say. “There is nothing that sounds better to a kid than the sound of his own name.”
So, we would learn our players’ names. And they would respond well. Morgan was right, of course, about calling kids by their names. And he was right about so many other things. He understood people, how to touch them. It was innate, instinctual, a rare gift. Being around Morgan Wootten was different than being around anyone else. He inspired you without even having to say anything. His presence was captivating, alluring, and mesmerizing.
I remember when he would walk into the gym there was this feeling that you were in the presence of a saint sent down from Heaven. He was to be revered. He was extraordinary. What he told you, you did. What he said you believed. How he acted taught us how to act. Every day, all summer long, we were learning from basketball’s royal king, the best, the coolest, the most intriguing, the one guy we all listened to so closely every time he spoke, because when he spoke pearls of wisdom always draped over our souls.
Our minds and hearts were touched. We were changed for the better. We were getting prepared to live our lives the right way. And he was always focused on showing us how.
I have had more than 100 teachers in high school, college, and graduate school courses, and training courses at work. There have been countless good teachers.
But none of them approached Morgan Wootten when it came down to reaching into our hearts, minds, and souls to find out what we wanted to be, how we wanted to live our lives, what contribution we would make to the world, what kind of human beings we would become, and how well we treated other people.
Morgan taught us all that better than anyone.
Some of the sayings I think of to this day that he shared during those summer camp days. “Yesterday is gone forever. Tomorrow is in the future. That’s why they call today the present.” His message was to appreciate every day.
“Inch by inch, life’s a cinch. Yard by yard, it’s really hard.” His message was to work hard at the little things and get very good at them and don’t try to take on too much at once. Wise advice.
And then there was this poem that he would read to us at camp that has shaped my life and I am sure has influenced hundreds of other basketball players with whom he interacted during his unique and extraordinary meaningful life:
“The Man in the Glass” By Peter Dale Winbrow Sr.
When you get what you want in your struggle for self
And the world makes you king for a day.
Just go to the mirror and look at yourself
And see what that man has to say.
For it isn’t your father, or mother, or wife
Whose judgment upon you must pass.
The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the one staring back from the glass.
He’s the fellow please – never mind all the rest.
For he’s with you, clear to the end
And you’ve passed your most difficult test
If the man in the glass is your friend.
You may fool the whole world down the pathway of years
And get pats on the back as you pass.
But your final reward will be heartache and tears
If you’ve cheated the man in the glass.
(Charlie Hartley, who reported on Catholic high school sports for the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington, now lives in North Carolina with his family and is president of Carolina Content & Media Relations Corporation, which focuses on media relations, writing and content marketing for high-tech and sports businesses.)
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