Morgan Wootten has received more awards than he can count over the years, but the honor bestowed upon the legendary former DeMatha basketball coach during a Thursday luncheon at the New York Athletic Club stands out among the rest.
Wootten, along with three fellow Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famers, was given the Joe Lapchick Character Award, which recognizes those who display integrity similar to the late St. John’s and New York Knicks coach.
“This is the first award I’ve ever received based strictly on character,” Wootten, 81, said during a Friday phone interview. “Whereas the Hall of Fame and other awards are based on my record and basketball achievements, this had nothing to do with that and I was supremely honored to get such an award.”
Just as overwhelming for Wootten was the presence of about 50 of his former players at the luncheon, from CBS broadcaster James Brown, who introduced him, to Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey. After gathering Wednesday night at local restaurant for a DeMatha reunion of sorts, the group watched as Wootten shared his humble excitement on Thursday.
Wootten told the story of his first meeting with Lapchick, in 1957, which marked his second year as DeMatha’s coach. Over lunch, Lapchick told Wootten two things that have always stuck with him: a player will never forget his coach and there’s no greater feeling than having a former player come back and say “Hi, Coach.”
“It’s amazing how more than fifty years later, those words still have an impact on me,” said Wootten, who posted a 1,274-192 record during his 46 years at DeMatha. “Over the last few days, I was really touched to have players talk about how I cared more about their development as a human being than as a basketball player, or that they remembered how I got an academic report on them from their teachers every two weeks.”
Honored along with Wootten were late California coach Pete Newell, women’s coaching pioneer Cathy Rush and C.M. Newton, who coached at Alabama and Vanderbilt before serving as athletic director at Kentucky.