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?

AND IT ALLOWS Speedy to roll with the punches. He now coaches basketball at St. Joe’s Prep, the private Catholic school located in North Philadelphia a couple of blocks off Broad at Girard. Imagine those legends Speedy once matched wits with—Knight and Dean Smith and even John Chaney—continuing on with mere schoolboys. You can’t. But Speedy, he’s currently in his 11th season.

In fact, it’s hardly surprising that Speedy would end up at the jewel of Catholic scholastic education in the city. On the day we met at Bob’s Diner, Speedy was telling me how much he liked The Mighty Macs—the movie about Immaculata College’s journey to the 1979 women’s national championship—when an ambulance, siren blaring, suddenly could be heard screaming down Ridge. Speedy paused, bowed his head, blessed himself, and continued talking, doing it all so quickly and seamlessly I wondered for a second if I had hallucinated what I saw.

A dozen years ago, when the Prep asked Phil Martelli, the basketball coach at St. Joe’s University, to help with its search for a new coach, he told them not to waste his time. Speedy Morris, recently fired, was available. No need to look further.

“If there was a Mount Rushmore for Catholic coaches,” says Martelli, “Speedy would be the face they’d carve out first.”

“We’re going to have a good team this year,” Speedy tells me, looking over the Prep’s schedule one day in his office a few weeks before the season starts. “We’re not real big, but in high school that’s not always the critical factor.”

He still misses a few things about the college game, but when you spend time with Speedy and listen to the way he talks about kids, you can’t help but think he’s come full circle for a reason.

He has been coaching kids this age—poor kids and rich kids, white kids and black kids, kids from good homes and kids from busted-up homes—for nearly three decades. He’s learned a few things.

He doesn’t yell at practice, doesn’t even use a whistle, and these days he’s as quick to wrap an arm around one of his players as he is to bark a reprimand. He’d be loath to admit it, but he’s changed. He sees a bigger picture now.

“Kids today carry a lot of stress,” he says. “A lot goes on in their minds. You need to be aware.”

Things are a whole lot better for Speedy now. His kids are long grown up and on their own. But even today, at the Prep, Speedy oversees the school’s bus system. It’s part of the deal, and he doesn’t mind. You do what you have to do.