Morris was a legendary coach for 14 seasons at Philadelphia's Roman Catholic High, but in 1981, for various reasons, he was let go by the school's principal. Rev. Edward B. Cahill. Disconsolate, he drifted around Philadelphia, from Monsignor Bonner High, where he spent a season as a volunteer assistant, to Penn Charter, a private school that hired him as coach. But in 1984, just as his son Keith was entering Penn Charter. Speedy decided to sell Speedy Morris' Drop in the Bucket, which was losing money. And to assure that his four kids would get a chance for the college education he never had, Morris became the women's coach at La Salle, which allowed his children to attend the school tuition-free.
Keith was crushed. He had dreamed of playing for Speedy at Penn Charter, and now, on the eve of his matriculation there. Dad was bailing out on him and going off to coach...girls!
Keith cried the night his father told him of his decision. Speedy wasn't exactly thrilled about it himself, yet he made the most of the move, loosing his salty tongue on the women's team and turning them in one season from a group that had gone 11-18 and lost to Temple by 50 in 1983-84 to a 22-8 team that beat the Lady Owls 77-68. After a second 20-win season, in '85-86, and the resignation of La Salle men's coach Dave (Lefty) Ervin—Ervin is righthanded, and Morris isn't speedy; you've probably noticed a pattern here—Morris was put in charge of the men's team, and Keith, now a college sophomore, got to play for his dad after all, or at least ride the bench for him.
Within a month after Morris took the job, Simmons, a star at South Philly High, chose La Salle after getting virtually no interest from any schools in the Big East, who simply underestimated him. During his freshman season, Simmons beat Villanova with a buzzer shot in an NIT first-round game. As a sophomore, in a loss to North Carolina in the Dean Dome, he went for 37, the most any collegian has ever scored there. By last season Simmons had settled into a groove so comfortable that, he says, "on my worst night I knew I had 25 in my pocket before the game started."
Even as the L-Train was gathering steam, he still stopped for passengers. The first was point guard Doug Overton, a former teammate of Kimble's and Gathers's at Dobbins—"I'm used to passing the ball," Overton says with a smile—and the 1987 Public League Player of the Year. Then the 1988 Player of the Year, Randy Woods, came aboard. Along the way, Morris hustled up a center from Holland, Milko Lieverst; three-point shooter Jack Hurd; and Bobby Johnson, a spindly-legged sixth man who had been a high school teammate of Simmons's.
Simmons, who's only a shade over 6'6", is a frighteningly efficient player who forces nothing, even though very few plays in La Salle's motion offense are run expressly for him. Last week at Temple he confronted two 7-footers and a matchup zone and took only 10 shots. But he made seven, including all four of his three-pointers, and five of six free throws for 23 points—this despite having had fluid drained from his mouth that afternoon because of an abcessed tooth. "A galliant effort," said Morris, mal-appropriately.
Let loose against Loyola Marymount, Simmons had 34 points and 19 rebounds, but he was so weakened by the pain in his swollen mouth that he air-balled four free throws late in the second half.
Last spring Simmons was told by one NBA team that he could expect at least a $2 million, four-year guaranteed contract if he were to leave school early. But he returned to La Salle to make good on a promise to his mother, Ruth, to get his degree; Simmons majors in criminal justice. (Mama didn't raise a fool, either; a cousin dipped into his savings and lent Simmons $10,000 to buy a $1 million insurance policy with Lloyd's of London, to cover him in case of a career-ending injury.) He'll likely score more than 3,000 points before the end of his collegiate career, becoming only the fifth collegian to do so, yet he hasn't once scored more than 40, which delights Morris. "He could score 40, but if he did, I don't know if we'd be 8-1," Morris says.
Says Simmons, "People already know I can play. I don't have to prove anything."
If Simmons were all the Explorers had, they wouldn't have beaten three Big Five rivals and such distant powers as DePaul, Ohio State and Florida so far this season. Last week against Temple, Woods wandered out for the start of the second half and, long before the official showed up to hand the ball to Temple to inbound, found Macon, the Owls' star. He went chest-to-chest with him, staring up into his eyes, as Macon looked away, irritated. "I just wanted to let him know what it was going to be about," says Woods. Nearly 20 minutes of basketball later, after Macon had gone 2 for 8 in the second half against Woods in the La Salle box-and-one, Macon missed the free throw that would have tied the game.