In the high school gymnasium that bears Morgan Wootten’s name, Mike Jones stood on the baseline and blinked away tears while DeMatha’s school chaplain prayed that Wootten, the Hall of Fame coach, would be led by angels to heaven.
And during Wednesday night’s invocation and national anthem before the Stags’ game against Archbishop Carroll in Hyattsville, Md., Jones, who replaced Wootten when he retired as high school basketball’s winningest coach in 2002, stood chin-to-chest and cried.
“I didn’t think my emotions would be so unpredictable today,” Jones said after the game. “I could barely hold it together.”
Plenty of Wootten’s other former players have also been so moved. They describe the coach as a friend, mentor and father figure. And they say they miss him, terribly.
“It’s been rough for the past three days,” Hall of Famer and DeMatha graduate Adrian Dantley said in a phone interview. “I’ve been crying the past three days. I never thought I’d tear up as much as I have now.”
Wootten died Tuesday night at age 88, leaving a legacy unmatched at any level of basketball, high school, college or pro. He won five mythical national titles, sent a dozen players to the NBA and dozens more to play and coach at other levels of pro and college ball. His career includes 1,274 victories. His DeMatha teams never lost more than two games in a row during his 46 years on the sideline.
But Wootten was also known for his impact beyond the bench at DeMatha. For three decades he taught every freshman at the school world history.
“I took his history class. I thought I had it made, my coach would take care of [my grades]," said Dantley. “That did not happen.”
Former players and coaching contemporaries described him as a legendary teacher, someone who saw the human being first and athlete second.
“He was a teacher and molder of youth,” Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey, who played for Wootten and later coached alongside him, said in a phone interview. “He used to say when we worked his basketball camp, and I didn’t quite understand it at that age, ‘Be the kind of coach you want your son or daughter to play for.’ And when you’re 19 and you don’t have kids, you don’t really grasp it. But I have kids now and I’m a coach, and I try to live my life by that.
“We all would hand our kids over to Morgan Wootten. Please, take our sons at age 16 and make a man out of them and send him back to us. We would all send our kids to Morgan Wootten.”
“All the lessons that he taught all of his players prepared us for the game of life,” James Brown, the CBS Sports broadcaster who played for Wootten, said in an interview with WUSA (Channel 9). “And all these years later, I can look back and say, ‘Coach, thank you.’”
“He’s probably helped shape my life as much as anybody,” Detroit Pistons assistant coach Sidney Lowe, a former star at DeMatha and North Carolina State, said on SiriusXM NBA radio. “He took a kid from the inner city and exposed me [to] a totally different world, which helped shape me to be the person that I am.”
“You were almost in awe when you were in his presence,” Johnny Holiday, the Maryland Terrapins broadcaster, said on ESPN 630-AM’s Carol Maloney Show.
But Wootten was quick to disarm admirers, especially young ballplayers at his basketball camps.
Until his health no longer allowed it, Wootten lived in the dorms with campers and ate meals with them. He lectured to the whole camp each day about the fundamentals of the game and presented awards at the end of each session.
“There was nobody that impacted the game more than him — there’s just nobody — because of the camp and the numbers that he had at camp every year in a major metropolitan area,” Pete Strickland, who played for Wootten and later coached alongside him before moving to the college ranks, said Wednesday on Maloney’s radio show. “John Wooden certainly had an impact, but he wasn’t with kids every summer.”
As Wootten’s health declined, Jones said he tried to keep the news away from the team, most of whose players weren’t born when Wootten retired from coaching. The team said extra prayers before pregame meals for the coach, and after he died, Jones led a team discussion about the footprint Wootten left on the school and on high school basketball around the country.
“We talked realistically,” Jones said. “None of us would be here without Coach Wootten.”
He added later: “You can’t go to DeMatha and not know about Coach Wootten. You can’t play for our basketball team and not learn about him."
Wootten remains omnipresent at DeMatha, where players still practice drills he created and Jones still calls plays using his predecessor’s terminology. All Jones asked of his players during the pregame conversation was to play with a vigor that would make Wootten proud.
The Stags blew out Carroll, 76-34, in a win Wootten would have admired.