On Thursday, he was one of four Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famers to be recognized with the Lapchick Character Award and he let the crowd of 250 people at the New York Athletic Club know this was one of the most special honors because of who it is named after and what it stands for.
“Lou Carnesecca invited me up to New York in 1957, my second year at DeMatha, for a little basketball and I was very lucky we went out to lunch with Joe Lapchick,” Wootten said referring to Carnesecca, another Hall of Famer who was Lapchick’s assistant for nine years before succeeding him. “He told me two things that day that I’ve never forgotten. He said ‘Morgan, first thing remember this. A player will never forget his coach. They may forget some kids they went to school with, some teachers they had, some people they met along the way, but they will never forget their coach, the man who is supposed help them become a total human being and a success in whatever they decide to do in life.’”
Wootten won five national championships at the high school in Hyattsville, Md., compiling a 1,274-192 record in 46 years at the school where he also coached football, served as athletic director and taught World History.
He continued with the story from 55 years ago, no notes, just memories that meant a lot.
“And then he said, ‘Secondly, you know the best thing about coaching? Ten, 15, 20 years later one of those players will come back with a big smile and say ‘Hi, Coach.’ And that’s what this business is all about: ‘Hi, Coach.’”
“There were so many of you today who gave me the thrill of saying ‘Hi, Coach,’” Wootten said.
Also honored Thursday were the late Pete Newell, who won a national championship at California in 1959 and compiled a 119-44 record in a 14-year career, Cathy Rush, the pioneer of women’s coaches who led tiny Immaculata College to the first three national championships conducted by the AIAW, and C.M. Newton, the former coach at Alabama and Vanderbilt, who cleaned up a post-scandal program at Kentucky and was one of the United States’ biggest voices in international basketball.
Dereck Whittenburg, who played for Wootten at DeMatha and then became part of college basketball lore by throwing the long pass that Lorenzo Charles dunked to give North Carolina State the national championship in 1983. That set off the scene of Jim Valvano running around the court looking for someone to hug.
“I never heard the man curse, not once,” Whittenburg said Wootten. “He could be sarcastic. ‘One rebound? I could get one rebound.’ And he could get on you if you deserved it. But he was always making you better. That’s why all these guys are here for him today. He’s our coach.”
High school basketball recruiting legend Howard Garfinkel said Wootten is one of the two best high school coaches ever along with Bob Hurley Sr. of St. Anthony in Jersey City, N.J., a Lapchick Award winner in 2010.
“I was very cognizant of who Dad was,” Greg Newell said. “Growing up there were always people around him. But we learned about out father was that he didn’t have an ego. He had an aura, though.”
Newton was unable to attend the event because of sinus issues but he spoke with the crowd over a speakerphone.
“I mean this with all my heart,” he said, “being inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame was the best thing that ever happened to me and this is next. To be associated with a man like Joe Lapchick means so much to me.”
Rush’s story with Immaculata was told in the movie “Mighty Macs.” She said her players in those early years were “women of character,” winning despite having the financial help of bigger schools.
The award, in its fifth year, recognizes those who have shown the character traits of Lapchick, who coached at St. John’s and with the New York Knicks and was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a player and coach.
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