Scores of Wilmington youth learned much more than the pick-and-roll from Larry Morris
Larry Morris was born and raised in Bridgeton, N. J., but it was Wilmington that transformed him.
When Morris arrived here 52 years ago, he was an indifferent student who entered Goldey-Beacom College on academic probation. And as a standout high school wrestler, he rarely picked up a basketball.
Today, his picture is in the Goldey-Beacom Distinguished Alumni Gallery, and for decades he used basketball as a vehicle for community outreach while mentoring scores of boys and girls throughout the city.
For that, Wilmington can thank Wilhelmeana Morris. “Billie” Morris was the iron-willed mother of four young boys who was suddenly widowed when her husband, Oscar, died in a car accident a year after the Morrises had moved to a new home just outside Bridgeton.
Her second oldest says his mother was more than ready to be head of the family. “My mom ruled everything. She was a disciplinarian,” Morris says. “When she said something, it wasn’t open for discussion. She didn’t care how we felt, and she didn’t care how other people raised their kids.”
His mother didn’t have a high school education, so that may be why she didn’t demand academic excellence from her sons, but she did demand that they pass every course. Larry met those minimal requirements (“I was not a good student,” he admits) while pursuing sports—baseball, football, and wrestling.
Midway through his senior year, his mother informed him that when he graduated he had two options: college or the army. It was 1968, and the latter meant Vietnam. “So I was desperate,” Morris says. His college options were understandably limited, but he did get a postcard from Goldey-Beacom. Laughing, he says now, “They must have sent those to everybody.”
He filled out the card, sent it in, and was accepted—on a probationary basis.
“It was a business school, and my wrestling coach taught bookkeeping, so I took a night course from him to learn what debits and credits were,” says Morris.
While attending Goldey he lived for two years at the Central YMCA in Wilmington, where he was an anomaly—a Black kid who didn’t know basketball. Some of his buddies were on the Goldey basketball team, and when he joined their pick-up games, he says, “I became a friendly joke: ‘We had Larry last time, so you have to take him this game.’”
But he learned—well enough to be a regular in what he calls the “rock ‘em, sock ‘em” lunchtime games at Central (See sidebar pg. 25). Meanwhile, when he and his friends went out at night, he began to notice the number of unsupervised youngsters walking the streets. Says Billie Morris’ son: “I wondered where their mothers were.”
He gradually realized that working with youth was where his interests lay, not the business world Goldey-Beacom was preparing him for. So, after receiving his associate degree, he went on to study Sociology at Lincoln University in Oxford, Pa.
A 50-Year Journey
In 1969, while a student at Goldey, he accepted his first job working with children—in the Summer Youth Program at the Y. That set him on a 50-year journey of community and public service, most of it dedicated to youth. In that half century, he has mentored scores of young men and women and served as an example of what one person can accomplish through long hours and dedication to a cause he believes in.
Along the way, he founded the Morris Youth Center in Wilmington’s Hilltop neighborhood and the HOMEGIRL Developmental Basketball League, and served two terms as president of the Wilmington NAACP. In the 1980s, while he was president, the Wilmington branch was recognized on several occasions by the Regional and National Offices for membership growth and active involvement.
His efforts have earned him dozens of honors, including the Spirit of Philadelphia Award presented by WPVI-TV, the Jefferson Award, Big Brother of the Year, Delaware Outstanding Young Man of the Year, Martin Luther King, Jr. Award for Public Service, the DuPont Company’s Unsung Hero Award, and the Omega Psi Phi Community Service Award.
Morris, who recently turned 70, retired from his last job—community liaison for Gov. John Carney—in 2019. He had served Carney previously as director of Constituent Affairs when Carney was a U.S. Congressman, and was also on his staff when Carney was lieutenant governor.
Carney says he recruited Morris, whom he had known for years, because he knew the young community leader would be a valuable addition to his staff. “Larry was a great barometer of what I needed to focus on for a part of the community that I represent and work for,” says the governor.
He was particularly struck by Morris’ impact on the youth of the city. “His affection for kids was real and heartfelt, and I was always amazed at the number of people who would come up to him and thank him for helping them 10 or 20 years ago. And almost none of what he did was lucrative for him financially, but it’s where his heart is.”
Surprisingly soft-spoken, Morris is rightly proud of his career, but it’s his early involvement with youth as a coach and mentor that he harked back to in a recent interview. And once again, the influence of his mother, who recently passed away, was evident.
“Children need and want discipline,” says the father of three grown girls and five grandchildren. “And it has to be consistent.” At the same time, he says, “you have to show them that you love them.”
Morris’ entrée into community service came through the game that had been so foreign to him—basketball. After developing passable skills as a player, he turned himself into a first-rate coach by watching games on TV and in person, and asking questions of those who had played the sport for years.
He was a structured but caring and fun coach, and he soon was leading championship teams of both boys and girls. Sometimes it was a mix of both. In the NAACP Youth League, he pushed through a rule that every team had to have a girl on it. “Some of the guys rebelled, of course,” he says. Undaunted, the next year Morris pushed through a rule requiring two girls on every team.
But his coaching wasn’t limited to how to work the pick-and-roll or the 2-3 zone defense. He didn’t just produce good basketball players; he produced solid citizens. Being on a Larry Morris team or in a Larry Morris league was as much about keeping up with school work and being a good person as it was about basketball. His teams met regularly to do homework, and he expected everyone to show up on time for the study session. Any late-comers got a quick explanation about their responsibility to themselves and to the team.
Legacies—on and off the Court
Those high standards, coupled with Morris’ success as a coach, attracted some of the top talent in the city of Wilmington.
AJ English may be the most famous name in the Morris list of legacies. English and his Howard High team won the state championship in 1985, and he was Delaware Player of the Year in ‘86. He went on to Virginia Union University, where he won NCAA Division II National Player of the Year honors in 1990, and followed that with a two-year stint in the NBA and several years in overseas leagues.
Those accomplishments had their genesis in the age 9-13 NAACP Youth League headed by Morris in the 1970s and early ‘80s. English was only eight when he lied about his age to get into the league “because,” he says, “that was where all the best players were, and I wanted to measure where I was compared to them.”
English, who today lives in Middletown, has been mentoring kids throughout Delaware since his retirement and now runs English Lessons Youth Mentoring Program. He remembers his first mentor, Morris, as “both a big brother and a father figure, especially to those of us who didn’t have a dad in our lives.”
“His presence would deter bad behavior,” English says. “We needed someone like that in our lives. He would discipline you, but he would also love on you.”
Dr. Taquan Stewart, who is with CalStateTEACH Teacher Education Program in California, played in the NAACP Youth League from 1977-80, and remembers Morris for his constant insistence on hard work as the path to success.
“He was a great believer in that old saying, ‘luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity,’” says Stewart. “That applied no matter what you were involved in, whether it’s basketball or life. His philosophy was ‘practice, watch and listen, then practice some more.’”
“Without Larry doing what he did,” adds Stewart, “many children would have been lost.”
Community service was part of playing for Morris, according to Tracy Howell, former standout at A. I. duPont High and the University of Delaware who joined HOMEGIRLS when she was 11.
Howell, who became like a fourth daughter to him, played for Morris until she entered A. I. She says he would get the girls into “whatever league was available” in and around Wilmington. “We played all over,” she says.
Now a case management supervisor with Highmark Delaware Health Options, Howell says playing for Coach Morris came with certain obligations. “Every Sunday morning, he would get us up to go feed the homeless at a downtown church. And whatever activity was going on in Wilmington, he would make sure we were a part of it. He was a tremendous positive influence on me.”
Not all of Morris’ legacies played basketball for him. State Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker was on a track team that he organized. “My sister and I weren’t allowed to go many places by ourselves, but we could go to the Morris Youth Center because my parents knew being with Larry was like being with them,” says Dorsey Walker. “He was like an extension of the family.”
Walker says his rules included no profanity and no fighting. “It was OK to disagree,” she says, “but you had to do it respectfully. Don’t raise your voice. Use your mind and articulate your thoughts. Don’t allow emotions to get the best of you.”
To this day, she says, “I live by those principles. It takes a lot to make me angry.”
As Morris looks back on his career from the perspective of retirement, he is humbled by some of its watershed moments. He remembers in particular how, as a 29-year-old, he had the honor of introducing the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr., when the father of the late civil rights leader came to the city to speak in 1979. Morris always tried to include his three daughters in his community activities as well as his basketball teams, and he brought three-year-old Tamarra, his only child at the time, to the speech at West Presbyterian Church. He made sure that Tamarra gave Dr. King a hug after his speech, creating a memory that neither father nor daughter will forget. (Today, Tamarra Morris is director of Economic Development for New Castle County.)
Three of Morris’ grandchildren live across the street from his West Third Street home, and the doting grandfather fills some of his time these days by babysitting. He also hopes to continue speaking out on civil rights and political issues, and he talks of starting to work on a book soon.
The subtext of his career of public service has been helping others to flourish in a society that often discriminates —consciously or unconsciously—against people of color. His views on the subject were articulated in an essay in the July issue of Out & About. “The silence of good White people in America is what has perpetuated the status quo and has prevented America from becoming all that it could be—or all that it says it is,” he wrote. . . . “Where do we go from here? We must have real dialog that leads to action that, in fact, makes America the place where all men and women are free and where liberty and justice are indeed for all.”
In the interview for this story, Morris expanded on those comments. Surprisingly, he believes that Donald Trump has been good for America in this sense: “Trump’s extreme racism, combined with the recent shootings of Black people, has got White people for the first time recognizing and understanding the race problem in America. Black people have been talking about these problems for years, and now Whites are talking about them. Now we have to work across racial lines to solve them.”
The Power of Sports
During my interview with Larry Morris for this profile, the pervasive and bonding nature of sports was brought home to me once again. It turns out that Larry and I—a couple of senior citizens, one Black, one White, who had never formally met before—had two sports connections.
The first was basketball. I remembered Larry from lunchtime pickup games played decades ago at the Central YMCA in Wilmington. As we started the interview, we reminisced a bit about those intense, no-autopsy-no-foul noontime wars. They were stocked with DuPonters, bankers, businessmen, cops, and Y employees like Larry. We talked about some of the players—many of them no longer with us—remembering their quirks and abilities, or, in some cases, their lack thereof.
And then the interview revealed another connection: Larry’s high school wrestling coach was from my hometown—Lock Haven, Pa. Indeed, the coach, Paul Kuntz, was a bit of a legend in the small, wrestling-mad town on the banks of the Susquehanna River. You see, Kuntz had only one arm—the result of a boyhood accident. But despite his handicap, he wrestled at Indiana State University in Pennsylvania and then went into teaching and a stellar career as a high school coach. Larry remembers him as a role model and mentor, and recalled how he and some teammates had helped the coach clear the land around his home, and how Kuntz had tutored him in bookkeeping before Larry went off to study business at Goldey Beacom College.
As I drove home from the interview, I reflected on how two disparate athletic endeavors—basketball and wrestling—had created an immediate connection between two people with equally disparate backgrounds. It demonstrated to me—for about the 1,000th time in my life—the pervasive and bonding nature of sports.