Fordham Assistant John Morton Part of a Renowned Team Seton Hall Will Honor

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Fordham Assistant John Morton Part of a Renowned Team Seton Hall Will Honor
Gary Stewart/Associated Press

John Morton remembers it like it was yesterday.

So does anyone else fortunate enough to have witnessed one of the greatest runs in college basketball history.

The 1988-89 Seton Hall Pirates will forever be remembered for their Final Four appearance and near-upset win over Michigan in the NCAA championship.

But for that team, and for everyone across the country who watched the Pirates make history, it was much more than just a couple of days in Seattle. It was a season like no other.

Seton Hall was founded in 1856, but it would be 132 years before Morton and the Pirates put the university on the map.

To get a full sense of what they accomplished, it's worth noting that the 1980s was a great decade for college basketball.

Michael Jordan, who would go on to lead the Chicago Bulls to six titles, won the national championship with North Carolina in 1982. Dereck Whittenburg's shot (you can call it a pass if you'd like) ended up in the hands of Lorenzo Charles, who dunked it home to give North Carolina State an upset win over Houston in 1983. The Villanova Wildcats, led by Rollie Massimino, did the unthinkable and shocked the Georgetown Hoyas in 1985. Keith Smart hit a baseline jumper that won it for Indiana in 1987.

Then came the 1988-89 season at Seton Hall, when a group of young men and an up-and-coming coach cast a national light on South Orange, New Jersey.

On Wednesday night, that Seton Hall team will be inducted into the school's Athletics Hall of Fame. Two- and-a-half decades after that memorable season, the greatest team in school history will be recognized for making Seton Hall basketball, and thus the university itself, part of history.

The event will take place at the annual Seton Hall Athletics Hall of Fame Dinner inside Walsh Gymnasium. All players, coaches and managers will be honored.

"I definitely think it's good on Seton Hall's part to induct this whole team that's meant so much to the school, to the history, to New Jersey and to basketball as a whole," Morton, who led the team in scoring that year and who is now an assistant coach at Fordham, said on Tuesday. "It's definitely a great thing.

"Twenty-five years have gone by; it's like it just happened yesterday. The time flew fast, but the history and everything is still there."

It's called March Madness for a reason. But for that Pirate team, it was more than just those three weeks in March: It was about the whole season.

Morton, along with teammates like Andrew Gaze, Gerald Greene, Ramon Ramos and Daryll Walker, and led by head coach P.J. Carlesimo, won 31 games that year.

It was a close-knit group that made history. While Morton, who was a senior, averaged 17.3 points per game, it was a team effort from start to finish that ultimately led to the Pirates having their best season ever.

"I never played on another team like that in my whole career," Morton, who was inducted into the Seton Hall Athletics Hall of Fame in 1997, said. "I played on some great teams, but this team was exceptional. There was total unity—always team-first, no me-first players worrying about their stats.

"We enjoyed playing basketball and enjoyed hanging out and being around each other. The unity that we had as friends, teammates and then going into battle was tremendous."

Seton Hall had some National Invitation Tournament experiences, but its first NCAA tournament appearance didn't come until the 1987-88 season.

Morton had a goal from the first day he stepped on campus.

"As freshmen, we came in to help rebuild the program," Morton said. "We accomplished that and a whole lot more.

"Just becoming America's team during that run was a great thing to experience. It brought a lot of awareness to Seton Hall University, to us, to New Jersey basketball and to New York metropolitan basketball.

"I'm glad to have been a part of that history and knowing that we had a lot to do with building that program to the point where guys followed in our footsteps and continued the tradition.

"It was a great accomplishment."

Seton Hall won its first 13 games in 1988-89, but it was the run in the NCAA tournament that people remember.

The Pirates beat Southwest Missouri State, Evansville, Indiana and UNLV to advance to the Final Four in Seattle.

Then they beat Duke 95-78 in the semifinal game, advancing to the championship two days later, where they would take on Michigan.

In that game, which will go down as one of the greatest ever played, the Pirates found themselves down by 12 points in the second half. But Morton, who scored 25 points in the second half and finished with a game-high 35, knocked down a three-pointer to tie the game at 71-71 with 25 seconds left.

Morton was so good that night. He scored 17 of Seton Hall's final 20 points in regulation. But in overtime, Rumeal Robinson knocked down two free throws with three seconds left to give the Wolverines an 80-79 lead and ultimately the championship. 

It's a performance, scene and season that Morton will always remember.

"You can't forget it because the game is always around every Final Four, which is a great thing," he said. "I had reached that zone probably three times my senior year where I came out and shot well in the second half and played that way. It was a great feeling knowing that you were putting up shots and your teammates were getting you the ball, that things were rolling and we were catching up and getting into the game."

Carlesimo, who graduated from Fordham in 1971 and became an assistant coach there that same year, would guide the Pirates for 12 seasons, winning 212 games. Morton, now a coach, appreciates what Carlesimo did for him and for the team.

"Now that I'm in coaching you look back and see the hard work he and his staff put in, the sleepless nights in the office," Morton said. "I can see the hard work it took to get to that point, to get us to understand what we needed to do as a team. He and his staff did a great job preparing us and picking the right guys with the right character to mesh together.

"Everybody sees him as this guy screaming on the sidelines," Morton added, "but he was definitely a great role model to us because he kept us in line, showed us the right way to do things and mentored us on being professionals on the college level—from the way we dressed, to the way we carried ourselves off the court, to the way we prepared and stayed mentally prepared for games. He did a great job in that sense."

Morton spent three seasons in the NBA playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat. He then moved on to the CBA before playing in Spain, Italy and the Philippines.

When Morton's daughter, Schyler, was six, she suggested to her dad that he become a coach. That's exactly what he did. He started in 2005-06 as an administrative assistant at Seton Hall, then spent five seasons as an assistant at Saint Peter's College before joining the Fordham staff in 2010.

"The thing we're dealing with now in this era of basketball, as San Antonio just proved to a lot of people, is that it has to be team-first," Morton said, referring to the Spurs, who just won the NBA championship. "That's the one thing we're trying to stress to these guys—doing team-oriented stuff to get these guys used to being around each other and trusting each other.

"The team's got to be first. If you are a solo act, that won't get it done on this level. Everything has to be team-first. You have to have guys with good character that want to play basketball the right way."

Morton talks about giving back and about how coaches have to be in it for the right reasons. He says it's about teaching, about helping his players become men.

It's something he learned at Seton Hall. Tonight, he'll be able to share those experiences with his former teammates and coaches.

"No matter how far you move or how long you don't see one guy, we're still a family," Morton said. "It's a joy to get a chance to spend a moment here and there with those guys, because they're family that you always have the memories with."

Memories that will last forever.

 

Quotations in this article were obtained firsthand.

Charles Costello covers the Fordham Rams for Bleacher Report. Twitter: @CFCostello.

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