News & Politics

The Son Also Rises: The Story of the Woottens and Basketball

Morgan Wootten turned a sleepy Catholic school in Maryland into a national basketball powerhouse and left the game a legend. Now Joe Wootten, is working the same magic in Virginia.

With head bowed and hands flaring the pockets of his black pinstripe pants, Joe Wootten paces a long yellow hallway in the basement of DeMatha High School. It’s December, when the powers in high-school basketball take their first measure of one another, and Wootten’s Bishop O’Connell Knights are minutes away from tipoff with archrival DeMatha.

In the locker room, the players stretch and dance to the beat of a techno song blasting from a boom box. On the bus ride from O’Connell’s Arlington campus to Hyattsville, they bantered about who among them had the looks, smarts, and personality to win a “Mr. O’Connell” contest. Now an R&B song about an African queen comes on and they sing, a dozen voices in a chorus that’s laughably off-key.

Wootten walks the DeMatha hallway alone, collecting his thoughts, reciting his pregame talk in his head. His steps tap on the tile, the sound nearly swallowed up by the noise from the gym above, where the junior-varsity teams are playing. Wootten knows this gym and its famously loud crowd all too well. It’s named after his father, Morgan Wootten, who coached at DeMatha for 46 years and became the winningest coach in the history of prep sports.

It was here that Joe, 35, first felt the heat of contest, playing for his father and winning a city title in a glorious undefeated season. And it was here that Joe once dreamed of coaching. Now he’s entering his ninth season at O’Connell and is building a program that has the markings of a national power.

With minutes to go in the junior-varsity game, Stu Wilson, a wild-eyed assistant in a dark suit, cracks open the locker-room door and nods. The players, whose smiles have turned to hard stares, clap as the door swings open and Wootten charges in.

“Okay, men, simple as this: We say every time we come into the huddle, ‘Prove it.’ We say we want to be a championship team. Well, this is the game, a ‘prove it’ game, a ‘statement’ game about what we want to be as a team. And we can prove it by working hard on defense, by crashing the boards, by doing what we do.”

As he speaks, a vein in Wootten’s neck bulges, and his face turns red from the strain. His lips whiten with spit. Hunched over, he clenches his fist and swings, his scratchy voice rising: “Let’s go to work.”

The Wootten coaching dynasty began more than half a century ago when Morgan Wootten arrived at DeMatha. He was 25, a novice hired from Saint Joseph’s Home for Boys, an orphanage in the District where he’d gone 0–16 his debut season.

But over 46 years, Morgan turned DeMatha, a boys’ school buried off a back road, into a sports landmark. He won 1,274 games—more than any other coach in the history of high-school basketball—and five national championships. His team topped the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, one of the nation’s best, 33 times.

Along the way, Morgan sent dozens of players into the college ranks and 13 into the NBA, including six-time All-Star Adrian Dantley and sharpshooter Danny Ferry. The web of high-school and college coaches who once played or worked for him stretches across the East Coast. In 2000, he was named Naismith coach of the century. Two years later, in his final season, Morgan at age 70 led his Stags to 32 wins.

From an early age, a Stag bucked deep down in Joe Wootten. Morgan remembers spotting seven-year-old Joe in the crowd at a double-overtime game at St. John’s High School in 1979, cheering at the top of his lungs as DeMatha’s Sidney Lowe—now coach of North Carolina State—hit two free throws to win the game.

Being the youngest of five children made Joe scrappy, competitive. Once, upset about a call in a family softball game in the front yard, he stormed off with the porch-chair cushions used for bases, leaving his father and the other kids convulsing with laughter in the grass. Years later, when it came time to try out for Morgan’s team, Joe got up each morning before school to run sprints.

At five-foot-ten, Joe had a stout frame more suitable for wrestling than basketball. And his shot came and went. But what he lacked in natural ability and flair he made up for in hustle and tenacity. In a game against Dunbar at Cole Field House in College Park, Joe made three steals in the second half to help bring the Stags back from 17 points down. His 1991 team won the city title and went 30–0, becoming one of only two undefeated teams in Morgan’s tenure.

While DeMatha starters often got college scholarships, Wootten walked on at Maryland. He sat the bench as a freshman, then blew out his shoulder. His college career over, he started making the short drive down Route 1 from College Park to coach DeMatha’s freshman team. After graduating from Maryland in three years—not to be outdone by his brother, Brendan, who made it through the University of Pennsylvania in 3½—Wootten spent a year as an assistant at Furman University in South Carolina before returning to DeMatha in 1995. A year later, he was Morgan’s top assistant.

By the 1998–99 season, Morgan was talking about retirement. He collapsed at one of his summer camps. The next day, he was helicoptered to Johns Hopkins for an emergency liver transplant that saved his life. He wanted Joe to take over. But according to Joe, not everyone at the school liked the considerable power Morgan wielded there. Nor were they eager to see that power pass on to his son. When the principal announced plans to form a search committee, a group of alumni objected and lobbied for Morgan to choose his successor.

Though the principal eventually consented, Joe says, the bickering embittered the young coach, who was eager to start his own program his own way. That spring, he took the job at O’Connell. Joe was 26, a year older than his father had been when he took over at DeMatha.

O’Connell opened this season in early November, a month before the face-off with DeMatha. The night before the first practice, Wootten and his four assistant coaches gathered in his office, a spacious room dominated by a broad desk, crowded trophy shelves, and a couch-length flat-screen TV.

Wootten’s coaches’ meetings typically last hours, and everybody leaves with fistfuls of handouts. During the season, his house in Fairfax is a second home for these men, who stay up after games into the wee hours drinking beer and eating pizza while they talk strategy and joke around like frat boys.

On this night, the assistants argue about how to run tomorrow’s workout. Wootten listens, head cocked, his left eye slightly wandering behind his gold-banded glasses. He checks the BlackBerry stowed in a holster on his hip. He types a quick text message, then interrupts his coaches’ debate: “Guys, we’re getting caught up in the X’s and O’s. Let’s get out on the court.”

As the lights blink on, Wootten leads the group into O’Connell’s gym. Out of the shadows, on the far wall, a wooden crucifix and an American flag appear. Farther along, there’s a painting of the O’Connell knight riding his horse in victory over other WCAC mascots, his sword bloody.

Wootten’s dress shoes pop as he crosses the hardwood, past a sign declaring no street shoes allowed. His assistants follow, laughing and nudging one another like kids sneaking out for recess. In the rising light, they run through offensive sets, passing and cutting through the lane, throwing up an occasional wild three-pointer. Ties are loosened, shirttails untucked. Hair darkens with sweat.

In his first years coaching, Morgan was something of a drill sergeant. During one game, he pulled a player who dribbled erratically and made him dribble by himself in the corner until the final whistle. Later, Morgan delivered wisdom from the sideline like a grandfather.

For most of his time at DeMatha, Morgan taught history, and he remained a teacher on the court. It was in the sweaters he wore, the undulating comb-over, the life lessons laced into locker-room lectures.

In his first three years at O’Connell, Joe Wootten taught English and government. Now his day job is to coordinate events from prom to pep rallies and travel to Arlington Catholic middle schools to pitch O’Connell to students. In the car, he’s often on the phone to Morgan or other coaching friends, talking hoops or working out kinks in O’Connell’s offense or the details of pregame music and meals.

On the court, his voice, a gravelly bark, won’t let him be a screamer. He conveys his intensity through the language of his limbs, which lash out when he’s up on the sideline. In a tight game at a team camp, he thrust his arms into the air with so much force that he lost his balance and fell.

Joe’s motivating weapon is his passion. His players never have to doubt how badly their coach wants to win. It’s written in the sweat on his forehead, the hours he puts in, and the talks with his team.

“Men, do you ever watch ESPN after a big game? When they show a player in a big mansion? There’s a pool out back and a plasma TV in the garage. That’s a championship house. That’s WCAC basketball. That’s a city title. That’s a state championship. It’s time to ask yourself what kind of house do you want to build.”

With those words, spoken spitfire to his players huddled around him, Wootten opens the first practice of O’Connell’s 2007–08 season. “We start building that house today,” Wootten says. “Everybody on the baseline.”

Dressed in blue O’Connell sweats and a white polo shirt, Wootten inserts himself into drills, bending low to show how to defend in the open court. It’s Wootten’s style, etched out of his experience as a player, to coach by example.

Like his father, he teaches—but rarely standing still and almost always with a basketball in hand. And like his father, Wootten enjoys working with high-school kids, while their talent is still raw. Colleges frequently tried to lure Morgan away from DeMatha; in 1980, he turned down a big-salary job as coach at North Carolina State. Joe, too, says he has no plans to go into the college ranks.

Stu Wilson, one of Wootten’s assistants, hollers as he pounds players with a blue pad on a lay-up drill. Wootten takes over as point guard during one offensive set and on a fast break throws a perfect behind-the-back pass.

“I shouldn’t have done that,” he says as the guys fall over one another laughing.

Wootten’s wife, Terri, stands on the sidelines flagging him down with the day’s itinerary. Her father coached basketball at Glen Burnie High for 31 years. She and Joe met and fell in love at the Woottens’ summer basketball camp, where she was the trainer. They married in 1999, and O’Connell hired her as the school’s trainer two years later.

They have two girls, Alexa, four, and Reese, who just turned one, but during the season Terri is a surrogate mother for the team. At this practice, she’s annoyed that 30 minutes in, the guys still haven’t stretched. After the workout, as the players sit winded and drenched with sweat, she lays down the house rules: Every player will shower after practice. And everybody will suit back up into his school uniform. It’s about staying healthy, she says, and having some pride.

Wootten sends the team off with a reminder: “We have to build a piece of our mansion every day. When you’ve got limited time to build, you’ve got to make every moment count.”

O’Connell is an unassuming Catholic school in Arlington. Its long corridors give it the feel of an old hotel. The 1,400 students commute from across the Washington area, but many walk to school on shaded sidewalks that wind through middle-class neighborhoods. Opened in 1957, O’Connell was better known for its swimmers and its annual danceathon than its basketball.

When Wootten was hired, the principal at the time gave him free rein to do whatever was necessary to turn the program around. He scheduled tougher teams, bought better gear, and introduced harder workouts. He surrounded himself with hungry coaches, and he brought on Ron Ginyard, an Alexandria native who played at Paul VI Catholic High in Fairfax, to help with recruiting.

Ginyard, who had coached with the Woottens for years at their summer camps, burned up the roads within 100 miles of O’Connell to raise the school’s profile at summer leagues and middle schools. He called parents, wrote letters to recruits once a week, and invited them and their families to attend classes with the players. Wootten started sending coaches to recruit at AAU tournaments as far away as California.

Wootten’s first season, 1999–2000, the Knights won 16 games, 10 more than the year before. His third season, they won 30 games, including the Virginia private-school state championship. Morgan hadn’t yet left DeMatha, and that season Joe beat his dad for the first time, by one point in overtime. He ended his fourth year with the team ranked 21st in the nation. By the fifth, O’Connell had won the WCAC. It had taken Morgan five years to win his first conference title as well.

O’Connell finished the next season ranked second in the nation but lost the conference championship to DeMatha, now coached by Mike Jones, a teammate of Joe’s on DeMatha’s undefeated 1990–91 team. The rivalry, already fervid, was becoming one of basketball’s fiercest.

The Knights entered this season with great expectations. Over the summer, players had committed to a strenuous off-season regimen. Paul Easton, an assistant from Scotland who takes graduate business classes at Marymount University and works as a security guard there, met players nearly every day to work on skills. Senior Jason Clark, who had nearly quit O’Connell three years ago because of Wootten’s tough workouts, was a regular. Frank Ben-Eze, a six-foot-ten center from Nigeria, put up some 39,000 shots in the off months.

Clark and Ben-Eze are two of the team’s stars. As a junior, Clark committed to playing at Georgetown. Weeks before this season’s first practice, Ben-Eze committed to Harvard over Marquette and Virginia Tech. CBS sportscaster James Brown, a DeMatha and Harvard alum, counseled Ben-Eze on the decision—much to the happiness of Harvard head Tommy Amaker, a Falls Church native.

A soccer player until three years ago, Ben-Eze is an example of how Wootten gets players to O’Connell. The affable giant attended a camp in Nigeria run by former Georgetown star Godwin Owinje, a native of that country. Owinje helps kids from his camp get to the United States to play basketball. He contacted Wootten, who arranged for Ben-Eze to come to the camp he runs with his father. Joe was impressed, got Ben-Eze enrolled at O’Connell, and helped him find a home with former O’Connell player David Neal, who now plays at Maryland. Ben-Eze started attending McLean Bible Church with Neal’s family and spent as much time studying as he did posting up.

Around 3,500 players come through the Wootten camps, some of them auditioning for high-school programs. Among this year’s finds for O’Connell was Angel Gonzalez, a sophomore from Puerto Rico. Before the first grading period, coaches stayed up late into the night studying with Gonzalez and Marcus Carmen, a transfer from Progressive Christian Academy in Prince George’s County.

Much of the preseason hype about O’Connell focused on guard Kendall Marshall. One day in September, after the 3-o’clock bell sounded, the sophomore held a press conference to announce where he would be going to college.

Kendall’s family and teammates streamed into a room littered with drawing pads and colored pencils left behind from an art class. Dennis Marshall, Kendall’s father, had traded the XXXL T-shirts he typically wore around school for a tie and button-down shirt. Part father, part trainer, part agent, Marshall—a computer-network administrator in DC by day—had coached Kendall for years. He’s a fixture at O’Connell practices, sitting on the sidelines, fielding phone calls, and talking WCAC basketball to anyone who will listen.

Sometimes his passion for his son boils over. When a scuffle at practice one day left Kendall with a bloody lip, Dennis bounded off the sidelines toward the player whose elbow had swiped Kendall. Wootten’s assistants jumped in and held Dennis back. In a rage as he left, Dennis called police, who questioned Wootten and the other player involved.

Kendall started going to the Wootten camps when he was six years old. He could hold his own with kids twice his age. When he was in fifth grade, the Web site named him the best 11-year-old in the country.

Still wearing his school-uniform navy polo and khaki pants, Kendall pulled a piece of notebook paper out of his pocket. Reporters aimed their cameras and microphones at him. His speech teacher, who had offered him extra credit, watched intently.

“Without further ado,” Marshall said, “I’d like to announce that after my three years of high school, I’ll be going to the University of North Carolina to play basketball.”

The sophomore then pulled a Carolina hat from under the table and put it on, becoming the youngest player ever to commit to the basketball powerhouse.

Kendall’s choice wasn’t a big surprise. He had dreamed of going to Carolina since he could shoot, and Tar Heel scouts had watched him play AAU all summer. He and his family were good friends with the Ginyards, whose son Marcus graduated from O’Connell in 2005 and now starts for the University of North Carolina. The two talk on the phone every week. Marcus sends Kendall his old Carolina shoes.

That didn’t stop scores of coaches from flocking to O’Connell’s gym to scout Kendall. “All of the schools are high-quality programs with classy coaches,” Wootten said, as if doing damage control. “Kendall and Dennis just thought it was good to go ahead and announce so that they didn’t lead those other schools on.”

In the weeks that followed, more college coaches showed up at the O’Connell gym to scout Wootten’s talent. That kind of attention pays off; once a high-school coach gets a few players into powerhouse college programs, recruiting talent gets a lot easier.

After the press conference, Wootten made his way to his players in the corner. He slapped a few on the back, saying, “Does that motivate you guys? Does that motivate you?”

There are larger gyms around Washington, but few are louder than DeMatha’s Morgan Wootten Gymnasium on a Friday night. The energy bounces off the rafters and bangs the stands like a drum. Your knees are pushed against the back of the person in front of you, and the bleachers, six rows at their deepest, vibrate with the stomps of the Stag Squad, DeMatha’s often-obnoxious student section. The temperature climbs steadily.

The Knights arrive at this point in their season a bit bruised. They opened with three wins against nonconference opponents, including a nationally ranked team from Dallas. But then the Knights were silenced at home by Gonzaga in a sloppy performance that left them rattled. They hadn’t run Wootten’s offense or made the adjustments he’d asked of them.

The issue, he told them at the next practice, was trust: “There’s no way we can win our league if we don’t trust our offense, if we don’t trust each other, and if we don’t trust coaches.”

Wootten worked the team hard that day, extending practice by an hour. He made them run every time someone didn’t rebound. “We have to make a decision now,” he told the players. “Do we want to be a great team or just a collection of talent? Let your answer be the way you play.”

In the DeMatha gym tonight, Morgan Wootten stands on a platform behind one basket with his wife, Kathy. He’s smiling, greeting well-wishers, two years after a big scare: An avid golfer since retiring, he suddenly found it hard to finish a round. He was winded, worn out. Doctors told him that the medication he’d taken for a decade after his liver transplant had strained his kidneys. He desperately needed a new kidney.

Each of his children was tested, but Joe’s kidney proved the most compatible. At the time, Terri was pregnant with Reese. Husband and wife debated and prayed, but there was never really any choice. In October 2006 at Johns Hopkins, Joe gave up a kidney to the man who had given him life. Joe recovered in time to coach the season opener. Morgan was back on the golf course by November.

The game Morgan watches today at DeMatha is very different from what he coached. In the old days, DeMatha had a near monopoly on local talent—and on winning, as it captured all but six of the Catholic-league titles from 1961 to 1991. But the pool of players has grown as more local kids are playing—and at an earlier age. Every team in the WCAC has players who go on to big-time colleges. And most WCAC teams do well outside the conference only to beat up on one another and inflict losses that hurt them in the national rankings.

Morgan sees some of himself in his son. Joe has won the Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament—a national tournament held every March in Cumberland, Maryland—three years in a row. The only other coach to do that is Morgan.

“I think he’s got it rolling pretty good,” Morgan says. “He’s so enthusiastic. And you’re not going to outwork him.”

Tonight Morgan is torn. He would never cheer against DeMatha, especially when Mike Jones, his former player, is the coach. But as a father, he can’t pull against Joe. “So,” he says, “I root for both of them.”

Seconds before tipoff, University of North Carolina coach Roy Williams strolls the baseline and takes a seat in a folding chair beside the bleachers. Across the gym, Dennis Marshall points out his son’s future coach to those around him.

The game is sold out. A police officer guards the door. Outside, latecomers argue their case to the ticket masters.

The first half is a horserace, with both teams flying up and down the court. O’Connell settles down into an offense, but DeMatha continues to freelance, with players slashing toward the goal. The offense consists mostly of dribble handoffs and drives to the basket.

Joe is Morgan’s heir in terms of style of play. On most trips down the court, O’Connell spreads wide, with players setting screens. Joe is more likely to applaud a cut to set up another player for a shot than the shot itself.

Wootten stamps the sideline, talking about each play to the guys on the bench, using the game as a case study. In the final minutes of the first half, O’Connell goes on an 8–0 run, led by sophomore Maurice Williams’s defensive stops, and takes a five-point lead into halftime.

In the locker room, Wootten delivers a passionate plea. Whenever he talks, the guys sit up straight and listen. His voice cracking and his shirt darkening with sweat, he hammers home the message that’s his gospel—go hard and trust in your teammates.

In the second half, O’Connell quickly loses its lead. Wootten shouts from the sideline, waving his hands. Unable to get his players’ attention in the deafening roar, he stomps his foot on the court.

“See that move, that foot stomp? That’s just like his father,” says Maurice Williams’s dad, Marshall, who played for DeMatha in the 1970s. “We were terrified by that stomp when Morgan did it. You knew he was trying to get you out of the game.”

Williams sits behind the O’Connell bench beside his wife. Usually dressed in sharply pressed suits and suspenders when he picks his son up from practice, tonight he wears jeans and a hoodie, his flattop reminiscent of his days as a Green Beret.

Williams grew up in River Terrace, a neighborhood in Northeast DC not far from RFK Stadium. In junior high, he went to school in Greenbelt, where his basketball coach arranged for Morgan Wootten to come see him play. Williams was a shooting guard much like Maurice, a dive-on-the-ball player known for his defense.

At DeMatha, Williams became a better player, but Morgan used basketball to teach him about life. Yes, it was important to be punctual to practice because it showed your commitment to the team. But it was also important because in life, the world would pass you by if you didn’t show up on time.

Before long, Williams says, you had such respect for the coach that you weren’t playing just for DeMatha. You were playing for Morgan. Williams wanted his son to play for a Wootten. When Morgan retired, he sent Maurice to O’Connell.

In the fourth quarter, Wootten calls a time-out and crouches before his players. He tells them to calm down and run their offense—again to trust one another. Sophomore Devin Cole comes off the bench and in the next three minutes sets up an 11-point run by penetrating and kicking the ball to teammates in the post and on the perimeter.

As O’Connell’s lead grows, Williams takes the lead of the Knights’ cheering section, shouting “Scoreboard!” into his megaphone. The Stag Squad counters with a cheer: “You’re old as shit!” Williams laughs and, turning to his wife, points to the banner on the opposite wall bearing the years of DeMatha’s championship seasons. “They’d be happy to know I’m that one,” he says, referring to his 1979 DeMatha team.

O’Connell’s fourth-quarter surge overwhelms DeMatha. When the clock winds down, the scoreboard has O’Connell on top, 70–60.

In the locker room afterward, Jason Clark claps in disbelief when Wootten announces he’s giving the team the day off tomorrow. “Guys, today was Chinese water torture,” Wootten says, his voice worn to little more than a scratch. “We were methodical. See how we just wore them down?”

As the lights in the gym dim, Marshall Williams sits on the bleachers waiting for Maurice. “Morgan changed my life,” Williams says. “It feels like it’s come full circle. Joe’s doing the same thing with my son.”