When Bill “Speedy” Morris wins his next basketball game, most likely this Friday, it will be the iconic Philly coach’s 1,000th career victory — a Herculean achievement to be sure. Principally known as a high school coach, first at Roman Catholic, then Penn Charter, and now at St. Joe’s Prep, with college stops at the La Salle University women’s and men’s teams, Morris’ basketball footprint will likely be this: He wins.
He is the winningest coach in Philadelphia high school boys’ history; the winningest coach in the 98-year history of Philadelphia’s storied Catholic League; the winningest coach in the history of St. Joe’s Prep and the La Salle University men’s team. Then, too, he has won induction into 11 halls of fame.
Yet all this winning is transcended by the way Morris has lived his exemplary life.
I have known Speedy Morris since our days together at Roman. He lives only blocks away from me today. Despite his celebrity and cachet in basketball circles around the country, Morris has never forgotten or abandoned his roots: he remains a pillar and pulse to his Roxborough boyhood community; succinctly, the community is a powerful tie to who he is.
He still lives in the same rowhouse he has lived in for over 50 years. He still goes to Mass every day at the same parish church where he was baptized; he still counts as best friends those he grew up with. He still fund-raises for youth activities in Roxborough. He’s still married to the neighborhood girl he courted 60 years ago.
And he’s still fervently loyal to his alma mater. When he first got the coaching job at Roman, 50 years ago, he was so happy he rushed to the school’s bookstore to buy some shirts with “Roman Catholic” on them, but when the store didn’t have any, Morris bought $25 worth of book covers, and as he told me, “I didn’t have any books to cover.”
Then, too, his caring and sharing nature makes Morris more than just a basketball coach.
Each Christmas, he gives every player a bag full of gifts; he has purchased school rings out of his own pocket for seniors who couldn’t afford them; paid graduation fees for poor kids so they could walk in the ceremonies; brought home kids who never got a hot meal and fed them. Once, when the kids wanted spaghetti, and Morris and his wife, Mimi, Irish to the core, weren’t sure how to cook spaghetti, Speedy said, “We’ll toss it against the wall. If it sticks, it’s done, and we eat.”
Most of all, he has emphasized the importance of education to every one of his players, that basketball is a game, life isn’t.
Morris’ persona is reflected in so many of his players. One, Jimmy Parrella, has experienced Morris first as player and now as his assistant coach.
You’ve most likely never heard of Parrella — he has no prolific profile. Because Parrella believes that many young b-ball players place an inordinate and unreasonable emphasis on basketball at the expense of their academics and character, I brought him on as my assistant when I was coaching high school basketball — on Morris’ recommendation. I was confident Parrella would work hard to echo my mantra: basketball is for a short time; education is for a lifetime.
I believe with all my heart that coaches like Morris and Parrella can provide the pragmatic, moral, and ethical foundation for a kid to build an authentic, productive future. Some coaches use a hammer, some use a hug — the most efficacious use both.
Student-athletes lucky enough to discover coaches more concerned with their accountability as adults than with winning games should listen to and lock on to coaches like Speedy Morris and Jimmy Parrella.
They can make the difference in a kid’s life.
B.G. Kelley, a Philadelphia writer, coached the International Christian High School boys’ varsity team.