Like just about every former Seton Hall basketball player, JR Morris was thrilled to see Shaheen Holloway take over as the program’s head coach earlier this year.
Holloway’s return also sparked a feeling that Morris, who left college as a junior in 2005, had carried for many years: a desire to re-enroll and graduate.
“It was something that I knew at one point in my life that I wanted to do,” Morris, now 39, recently said by phone. “Knowing Shaheen and seeing him go back and become the head coach, that inspired me to do that.”
Last month, Morris received his notice of acceptance from Seton Hall, and he is in the process of scheduling nine credits (three courses) to take remotely this fall from his home in Milwaukee. He continues his course in liberal studies, has 70 credits to his credit and must compete for 60 more to obtain his diploma.
Matt Geibel, director of academic support services for student-athletes at Seton Hall, helps Morris enroll. Geibel, who has worked with college athletes since 1993, said Morris’ situation is not uncommon.
“We’ve had students from a wide variety of returning teams – baseball, swimming and diving, wrestling, men’s and women’s basketball,” he said. “Although 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 over 20 years.”
Morris was out 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 the J. Ryan Collection (JR stands for Jonathan Ryan, his first and middle names).
“I think JR’s story sends the message that this can always be a priority,” Geibel said. “No other stage in a person’s life can achieve this goal.”
Keeping 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 the range. 3 points. In the Pirates’ 80-76 victory over Arizona in the first round of the Big Dance, he had 11 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals and shot 3 of 6 from beyond the arc .
The following season, Morris moved into a starting role and achieved similar numbers, although his shooting percentages dropped. He was suspended in the aftermath (then-coach Louis Orr said it was for colleges) and declared for the NBA Draft soon after. It wasn’t an ideal start, but Morris said Holloway (who preceded him to the Hall by a few years) stayed in touch and offered advice.
“When I left Seton Hall and got my name in the draft, Shaheen was one of the people who was there for me,” Morris said. “He was always a good guy.
After being passed over on draft day, Morris ended 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 alumni raised money for surgery and rehabilitation. He eventually resumed playing.
“Since I left Seton Hall, the Seton Hall community has been there for me,” Morris said. “It’s one of the things I promised the elders that helped me after my injury – helped me get back on my feet until I was healthy and started playing again I promised them that I would finish my degree.
Proud former teammates
Several key Pirates players from 2003-04 went on to pursue post-play careers in the sport. Andre Barrett is the manager of the NBA‘s youth basketball development program. Donald Copeland is head coach at Wagner College. Grant Billmeier is an assistant in Maryland. John Allen and Marcus Toney-El are high school coaches.
Morris stayed in contact with most of them. It was Barrett who pointed it in Geibel’s direction.
“You have to understand that we were all kids sometimes making decisions for ourselves,” Barrett said. “For him to make the decision to leave school trying to pursue his dream and then things don’t go the way he felt like they should have, and then for him to come back and try to finish school, this is a major step. You ask that of every athlete – you want everyone to graduate.
In 2005, Toney-El tried to talk Morris out of leaving school early. Now he is delighted for his former teammate.
“To see him come full circle where he realizes how important it is to finish his education and be an example to others is great,” Toney-El said. “It told him that 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 a lot of athletes, a lot of people in your neighborhood, even a lot of people in your own household,” Barrett said. “I think he’s going to knock it out of the park.”
Seton Hall Staff Announcement
Holloway has finalized his coaching staff. As stated earlier, 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 reputable recruiter with deep ties to the metro area. Lowery’s expertise is in player development.
Holloway’s support staff includes Kevin Coyle (Basketball Operations Coordinator), Kevin Lynch (Basketball Operations Coordinator), Steven Cruz (Basketball Operations Manager), Morgan Williams (Video Coordinator), Sean Crawford (Director of Player Personnel) and Marcus Matthews (Graduate Assistant).
Lynch and Matthews are remnants of Kevin Willard’s staff. Crawford comes from the Florida prep power IMG Academy. All the others held one role or another on Holloway’s staff at Saint Peter’s.