A rebounding Wootten Basketball: Morgan Wootten is back on the job after a liver transplant

at DeMatha, they say there was never a doubt.

November 14, 1996|By Doug Brown | Doug Brown,SUN STAFF

HYATTSVILLE -- All Tom Dickman had to do to persuade his son, Chad, to change his mind was mention the magic name: Morgan Wootten.

This was last summer, after Wootten, DeMatha High's celebrated basketball coach, had received a liver transplant. Dickman, a coach at Thomas Johnson High in Frederick, had taken Chad, 16, to get his driver's license.

Dickman noticed that where the application asked if he wanted to be an organ donor, his son had checked no.

"I don't want to tell you what to do," Dickman said, "but remember Coach Wootten just had a liver transplant. If it weren't for that, he might not still be around."

Chad promptly filled out another form and checked yes.

Dickman told that story this week during a news conference announcing that Thomas Johnson will play DeMatha in the inaugural DeMatha Invitational on Jan. 23, a one-day, eight-team event at USAir Arena. Proceeds will go to the Mid-Atlantic Coalition on Donation, which educates the public on organ and tissue donation.

Just as he vowed when he was discharged from Johns Hopkins Hospital on Aug. 9, Wootten has DeMatha's basketball reins firmly in hand again. In the minds of the people who know him best, there was never doubt that he'd return to the Hyattsville school for a 41st season to build on his 1,095-163 record.

"We all thought he'd be back," said DeMatha point guard Renard Phillips. "We know Coach Wootten, and we knew he wouldn't let us down."

Said shooting guard Mike Robertson: "We were worried for a while. But he's such a strong, positive person, with a healthy outlook on life, that we knew with his faith and our prayers, he'd make it."

Principal John Moylan, who came to DeMatha in 1956, the same year as Wootten, noted wryly that it was an opportune time for his old friend to have the transplant. It was the off-season, so Moylan wasn't bothered having to find a successor.

"People asked what I was going to do, and I said, 'Nothing,' " Moylan said. "Morgan will be here."

Wootten is 65, but he has no more intention of retiring now than he did before his illness. The job is still fun, and he remains fired up. His widely known motivating skills are even sharper.

"I feel more motivated than I ever have in my life. I hope it rubs off on the team," said Wootten, who had a diseased liver for years, apparently stemming from a genetic condition. "I feel younger. I'm thinking younger. My stamina isn't all the way back, but I've been going to rehab two hours a day, five days a week, and I feel better than I have in 10 years."

Wootten, who in 1993 became the fifth high school basketball coach in the country to win 1,000 games, is much more than a coach.

To Phillips, Wootten is a father figure who had "to kick me off the team my freshman year because of grades. He encouraged me to do better, and the next year I was playing varsity."

To senior Brad Martin, last season's leading scorer and rebounder, Wootten is the person who urged him to keep his cool when he was struggling in Spanish class. "He said I had to keep my mouth shut and stay out of trouble."

To Moylan, Wootten is a coach who teaches his players about life as well as basketball. If a young DeMatha coach has a problem, such as with a disgruntled player's parents, Moylan sends him to Wootten.

"Morgan goes beyond the realm of pure athletics and teaches lifelong values," Moylan said. "He teaches kids how to live, not just how to earn a living. If you don't study and behave, you don't play. That's where Morgan is so strong in carrying out the philosophy of the school."

That philosophy, Robertson said, is instilled in the players. Wootten stresses balance among religion, family and academics. That is: God first, family second, school and studies third.

On Wootten's list of priorities, basketball is no higher than fourth.

Pub Date: 11/14/96

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