Noie: Remembering lunch with legendary coach Morgan Wootten

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Sometimes you set aside everything you’ve learned about being in this business for three decades and just be.

Don’t be a reporter. Don’t be full of questions. Or curiosity. Or words. Just be there.

March 11, 2016 was one of those days.

The second week of March in a season that included a second straight NCAA tournament Elite Eight trip took the Notre Dame men’s basketball team to downtown Washington for the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament at Verizon Center. Thanks to an improbable 84-79 overtime victory over Duke in the tournament quarterfinals — the Irish erased a 16-point deficit with 11:05 remaining in regulation — Notre Dame would face North Carolina in a Friday night semifinal.

A free afternoon offered the opportunity to follow through on a lunch date years in the planning. For so many seasons prior, on Notre Dame’s trips into D.C., as a member of the Big East, there’d always be that offer. It came from Tom Ponton, the director of advancement at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md. That’s where Irish coach Mike Brey went to high school, and later taught history and coached as Wootten’s assistant. That’s where Irish associate coach Rod Balanis went to high school and played basketball for the Stags’ nationally-acclaimed program.

Come up and tour DeMatha, Ponton often suggested in an e-mail, and then we can go to lunch with Morgan Wootten, one of the greatest coaches the sport has seen.

So you hop the Metro’s Green Line at Gallery Place/Chinatown and head north. Past Columbia Heights and through Fort Totten, out to Hyattsville, where Ponton waits with a school van. A tour of DeMatha follows. There’s a plaque recognizing Brey (Class of 1977) outside the boys locker room and a framed No. 45 Stags jersey worn by Adrian Dantley. You peek inside the old gym, where Wootten worked his coaching magic for so many seasons. There were 46 in all. They produced 1,274 wins and five mythical national championships. His DeMatha teams won at least 30 games in 10 different seasons. He was the first high school coach enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. He’s among the game’s coaching royalty.

Lunch with Wootten meant only one place — Ledo Pizza, a DMV institution. It was his spot. It’s still Brey’s spot. A recruiting swing through DeMatha? Get to Ledo’s for a slice. Play a game at the University of Maryland? Ledo Pizza probably is the post-game meal.

It was where Wootten held court with former coaches and players and those fortunate to be included in his inner circle. On this day, you step into that circle, with Ponton and Pete Strickland, another former DeMatha player and college basketball coach who served that day as Wootten’s chauffeur.

There’s four to the table, but it’s really three just listening to one as Wootten talks and laughs and shares his stories.

It wasn’t a lecture, but it felt like Basketball 101. Wootten tells a story from 1978 when he was approached about overseeing the start of a post-season all-star game. McDonald’s would sponsor it. Wootten would help choose the rosters. There was no question about the first selection. Tall kid from Michigan. He did stuff with the basketball and on the fast break that nobody had ever done.

Kid was Earvin “Magic” Johnson. One of the greatest high school players that Wootten ever saw. And he saw a lot of them.

The stories kept rolling as the square-cut pizza and soft drinks are ordered, arrive and then disappear. Stories about Brey when he was a player, then a teacher, then a coach, with Wootten. Stories about some of the greats to ever play for the Stags. Like guards Sidney Lowe and Dereck Whittenburg. Stories about playing against Lew Alcindor as a high school player. Stories about Dantley, who long remained near the top of a long list of Wootten favorites.

Learning that the reporter was set to speak with A.D. later that night in D.C., Wootten recounted a summer camp story years in the past. It was about making a certain shot or doing a certain drill, and betting a soft drink — a Coke — that Dantley couldn’t do it. Decades later, Wootten still was owed that Coke. Make sure you mention that, Wootten said. Dantley would remember.

He did. The stoic Dantley listened intently to the story. Sat for a second, then smiled. Ah, Coach Wootten still remembers, he said. That’s the affect Wootten had on the lives he touched. He was a great coach, but an even better man. Respected. Beloved.

Lunch lasted nearly two hours. One hundred and 20 minutes passed in a snap. Wootten could have stayed for two more, and you’d have let him. Just let him talk, and let you listen. One more story. Then another. He gave you time; he had it for everybody. Even those not close to him. He made them feel that way. Even when his health became an ongoing issue.

Life was hard for Wootten in his later years. He needed an emergency liver transplant. He needed a kidney, donated by his son, Joe. He did his best to stay up to date with Notre Dame. He knew the Irish program well. Never stopped coaching Brey. Wootten and his wife, Kathy, attended the Ring of Honor ceremony last January for former DeMatha and Notre Dame standout Bob Whitmore.

Brey remembered that weekend following Wednesday’s loss to Syracuse. How he watched Wootten, his guy, his mentor, work a room in the Morris Inn with a glass of red wine in his hand. How he held court and told stories. And he had so many stories to tell. Brey heard them all. They never got old.

Brey and Balanis received the news last week via text message. Wootten was heading home from Johns Hopkins Hospital and into hospice. After so many years of fighting, he was finally finished. He couldn’t fight any more.

The 88-year-old Wootten died Tuesday night.

“Man, I was blessed that he was my teacher on many fronts,” Brey told the Tribune in a text message Wednesday morning.

A text message from Ponton also arrived Wednesday morning. It was four words that stirred a lot of memories.

“We’ll always have Ledo’s.”

Morgan Wooten won five national championships and more than 1,200 games in 46 years as the DeMatha (Md.) High School boys basketball coach, where he tutored the likes of Rod Balanis, Mike Brey and Adrian Dantley. Wootten died Tuesday at age 88.