Like just about every former Seton Hall basketball player, JR Morris was thrilled to see Shaheen Holloway become the program’s head coach earlier this year.
Holloway’s homecoming also stirred a sentiment that Morris, who left college as a junior in 2005, had carried for many years: a desire to re-enroll and earn his degree.
“It’s something I knew at some point in my life I wanted to get done,” Morris, now 39, said via phone recently. “Knowing Shaheen and seeing him go back and become the head coach, it inspired me to do it.”
Last month Morris received his acceptance notice from Seton Hall, and he’s in the process of scheduling nine credits (three courses) to take remotely this fall from his home in Milwaukee. He is picking up his degree path in liberal studies, has 70 credits under his belt and must compete 60 more to graduate.
Matt Geibel, Seton Hall’s director of Academic Support Services for Student-Athletes, is helping Morris register. Geibel, who has worked with athletes at the university since 1993, said Morris’ situation is not uncommon.
“We’ve had students from a wide variety of teams returning – baseball, swimming and diving, wrestling, men’s and women’s basketball,” he said. “While some may be after a brief hiatus…I’ve actually worked with former student-athletes to help them navigate the process after being away from the classroom for more than 20 years.”
Morris has been away for 17 years. In the meantime he played professional basketball, mostly in South America, and in 2019 launched a line of organic beard-care products called J. Ryan Collection (JR stands for Jonathan Ryan, his first and middle names).
“I think JR’s story sends the message that it can always be a priority,” Geibel said. “No other what stage of life a person is, they can achieve this goal.”
Fulfilling a promise to SHU fans
Morris was a talented sixth man on the Pirates’ 2003-04 NCAA Tournament team. As a 6-foot-6 sophomore wing he averaged 10.1 points and 3.7 rebounds while shooting 52 percent from the field, .762 from the free-throw line and .350 from 3-point range. In the Pirates’ 80-76 win over Arizona in the Big Dance’s first round, he tallied 11 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals and hit 3-of-6 shots from beyond the arc.
The following season Morris moved into a starting role and put up similar numbers, although his shooting percentages dipped. He was suspended down the stretch (then-coach Louis Orr said it was for academics) and declared for the NBA Draft shortly thereafter. It was not an ideal departure, but Morris said Holloway (who preceded him at the Hall by a couple of years) kept in touch and offered guidance.
“”When I left Seton Hall and put my name in the draft, Shaheen was one of the people who was there for me,” Morris said. “He’s always been a good guy.”
After being passed over on draft day, Morris wound up playing professionally in Brazil. He suffered a torn ACL in 2007 and, lacking health insurance, faced huge medical bills. A group of Seton Hall alums raised money for the surgery and rehabilitation. He eventually resumed playing.
“Since I left Seton Hall, the Seton Hall community has been there for me,” Morris said. “This was one of the things I pledged to the alumni who helped me after I got injured — helped me get back on my feet until I got healthy and started playing again. I promised them I would finish my degree.”
Makes teammates proud
Several key players from the 2003-04 Pirates went on to post-playing careers in the sport. Andre Barrett is the NBA’s Youth Basketball Development Program manager. Donald Copeland is head coach at Wagner College. Grant Billmeier is an assistant at Maryland. John Allen and Marcus Toney-El coach at the high school level.
Morris has kept in touch with most of them. It was Barrett who pointed him in Geibel’s direction.
“You’ve got to understand that we were all kids sometimes making decisions on our own,” Barrett said. “For him to make the decision of leaving school trying to pursue his dream, then things not working out the way he felt like they should have, and then for him to come back and try to finish school, that’s a major step. You ask that of every athlete — you want everybody to graduate.”
Back in 2005, Toney-El tried to talk Morris out of leaving school early. Now he’s thrilled for his former teammate.
“To see it come full circle where he realizes how important it is to finish his degree and be an example for others, it’s great,” Toney-El said. “It told him, finishing his degree is better than anything he could have done in basketball.”
Barrett echoed that sentiment.
“Having that piece of paper separates you from many athletes, many people in your neighborhood, even many people in your own household,” Barrett said. “I think he’ll knock it out of the park.”
Seton Hall staff announced
Holloway has finalized his coaching staff. As previously reported, his assistant coaches are Rasheen Davis, Ryan Whalen, Corey Lowery. Whalen, who hails from West Long Branch and attended Shore Regional High School, was Holloway’s tactical guru at Saint Peter’s. Davis is a well-regarded recruiter with deep ties to the metropolitan area. Lowery’s expertise is in player development.
Holloway’s support staff includes Kevin Coyle (coordinator of basketball operations), Kevin Lynch (coordinator of basketball operations), Steven Cruz (director of basketball operations), Morgan Williams (video coordinator), Sean Crawford (director of player personnel) and Marcus Matthews ( graduate assistant).
Lynch and Matthews are holdovers from Kevin Willard’s staff. Crawford comes from Florida prep power IMG Academy. Everyone else held one role or another on Holloway’s staff at Saint Peter’s.
Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball beat since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at email@example.com.