‘From orphans to champions’: DeMatha hoops Morgan Wootten’s impact remembered at funeral

Morgan Wootten, head basketball coach at DeMatha High School, is seen in this AP file photo. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Hundreds of mourners — including friends, family, former colleagues and students — packed DeMatha High School’s gymnasium Monday morning to pay their final respects to legendary D.C.- area basketball coach Morgan Wootten in a funeral mass that stressed the coach’s humble character, unshakable Catholic faith and the life lessons he imparted to players.

The mass, which, fittingly, took place in the red-and-blue-striped gym named for the longtime coach, featured a eulogy from CBS Sports broadcaster James Brown, who attended DeMatha and played for Wootten.

Wootten, who got his start coaching basketball at a boy’s orphanage in Northeast D.C., went on to a nearly half-century career as DeMatha’s head basketball coach.

Frequently cited as the greatest high school basketball coach in the history of the sport, Wootten notched 1,274 career victories and five national championships. In 2000, he was the first high school coach inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame based solely on his high school coaching career.

“He was blessed to be able to touch and impact people across society — from orphans to champions,” Brown said in his eulogy.

Wootten died Jan. 21 at age 88.

The funeral service Monday featured familiar hymns “Be Not Afraid” and “How Great Thou Art,” and a rendition of “Ave Maria.” On the altar surrounding the wooden urn with Wooten’s cremains were family photos, a world history textbook — the subject Wootten taught at DeMatha for decades — and two basketballs.

In the homily, Father Damian Anuszewski, the rector of DeMatha High School, recited Wootten’s four well-known priorities: God, family, school and — last on the list — basketball.

Anuszewski also stressed Wootten’s generosity and humility.

“Whenever Morgan was honored in any venue, in his remarks he would always thank God, his family, coaches and players who made possible the many recognitions he received,” Anuszewski said. “He would always share the honors.”

In his eulogy, Brown explained how Wootten used the basketball court as an extension of the classroom to impart lifelong lessons to his players.

“I can never remember one time when Coach … obsessed about winning a basketball game,” Brown said. “He stressed maximizing the gifts and talents with which the Lord blessed us to become the best player, to become the best teammate, to become the best person that we could.”

Coach Wootten always stressed the basics, Brown said.

“So many players — being influenced by what they see on TV — want to master doing the extraordinary things on the court to elicit the ‘oohs and aahs’ from fans or other players,” Brown said. “But Morgan taught that fundamentals are timeless. They’re tried, they’re true and they are proven.”

Wootten always taught: “If you want to enjoy sustained success, what’s important is to do the ordinary things extraordinarily well,” Brown added.

At the conclusion of the service, following the procession of Wootten’s family — including Kathy Wootten, his wife of more than 55 years — Wootten’s cremains were led out of the gym alongside an “honor guard” of former coaches and players. A private burial followed.

The funeral service followed a wake Saturday evening in which fellow coaches and former players joined Wootten’s family in remembrance.

“Coach Wooten’s physical body is dead, but his spirit and his legacy will live forever,” said Butch McAdams, retired head basketball coach at Northwest D.C.’s Maret School. “If you had to do a Mount Rushmore of high school coaches, you start with Morgan … Coach Wooten put high school basketball … nationally, on the map.”

WTOP’s Dave Johnson and Dick Uliano contributed to this report.

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