Speedy Morris’s Fall From Basketball Glory

Back in the '90s, a basketball coach from Roxborough hit the big time, leading La Salle to a national ranking. Then his career took a nosedive—or did it?

HANG OUT WITH SPEEDY, who will turn 70 in April, even for a short while and you immediately get it, where he comes from.

“I’m a daily communicant,” he tells me more than once, invoking a phrase I suspect I may never hear another say again.

He attends Mass every morning at 6:30 at St. John the Baptist in Manayunk, where he grew up, down the hill a piece from where he lives now in Roxborough. St. John’s is a special place to Speedy. It’s where he went to school, where he began coaching, where he met and then married Mimi, after a bumpy 14-year courtship. He’s attended countless weddings and first communions and confirmations at St. John’s. It’s where he buried his parents and baptized his children, and where the pews will be filled to capacity with mourners on the day he meets his Maker.

Not to worry, though: Speedy is very much alive. One day he gives me a guided tour of Manayunk and Roxborough. Up and down the hills we go, the perfect metaphor for Speedy’s career, stopping at sites that Speedy deems important to his life. At Main Street, he points to the spot where he grew up before the small mill house was demolished “and this all became New Hope”; at St. John’s, he points to the classrooms that housed the boys’ and girls’ schools before a charter school took over the space. We stop at the North Light Boy’s Club—“This place was a lifesaver for poor kids like me”—and at the Kendrick Rec Center, where they’re doing a lot of renovations, but Speedy trophies and pictures are sitting in here somewhere.

With each stop, the picture comes into clearer focus.

Life for Speedy has never been easy. He grew up with nothing, back when these streets were Kensington-tough. Behind the scenes, off the hardwoods, he’s had to fight for everything he’s gotten. Ends don’t meet when you coach high-school basketball, no matter how many winning seasons you rack up, not when you have four kids to raise and you can’t bump up your salary by teaching because you don’t have a college degree.

Speedy did what he had to do to make a buck: He worked an administrative job at Midvale Steel for years, followed by a stint directing programs for kids with multiple sclerosis. After that, he sold beer to local taverns and taprooms. He opened his own Roxborough bar on the Ridge—the “Speedy Morris Drop In A Bucket”—on a wing and a prayer and no money down. He even made a run for City Council as a Rizzo Republican in 1981, losing by just over a thousand votes.

Along the way, his faith was more than put to the test—the biggest coming in the summer of 1981, when the Reverend Edward Cahill, the principal at Roman, fired him without warning. No one, least of all Speedy, saw it coming. Cahill refused to give a reason, citing “personal differences in application of policy.” Speedy thinks he knows the reason: Cahill couldn’t bear anyone getting more attention than he did. Politicians, alumni and fellow coaches rallied and mobilized behind Speedy, but Cahill didn’t budge. Speedy, if you can imagine this, was so outraged by Cahill’s actions that he tried to sue the Archdiocese to get his job back. He later withdrew the suit.

His dismissal at La Salle 20 years later proved a second test. More than a decade after the fact, he still doesn’t understand why it had to be a firing, why it couldn’t just be a resignation. “Everybody knows it’s the same thing,” he says, still aggravated at the memory. “But a resignation would have spared my family the pain of all those headlines again.”

As the final stop on the tour, we drop in at Speedy’s modest Roxborough home. While Speedy goes to look for something to show me, Mimi, who has lived all the ups and downs of the coaching life alongside him, catches me up on the grandchildren. She also tells me of her concern that St. John’s might someday close—so many parishes have—and mentions that she and Speedy recently began a new novena and are preparing for 40 Hours.

Having been raised Catholic, I can keep up with the context and terminology, though I haven’t heard either ritual referenced since the days when nuns in habits lined up to receive the Holy Eucharist and the priesthood was considered the height of moral rectitude. But I get it, believe me. Faith for Speedy equals stability. It’s his grounding.