I’m a basketball bigamist, and see no shame in the admission. I find the NCAA and NBA both enthralling, despite their many differences, large and small. One phenomenon that is particularly captivating, and occasionally frustrating, is the way each basketball universe can view the same player in entirely different ways. With the virtue of our linear time-space continuum, the NBA’s viewpoint usually becomes the primary one, sometimes obliterating an era of success or dominance almost completely.
The cruelest quirk is that making it to the next level and finding failure perverts a player’s reputation far more than never making it to the NBA in the first place. Luke Jackson and Joe Alexander have been placed in the epic bust category. Gerry McNamara is still just the swashbuckling hero who helped lead Syracuse to a Big East tournament championship in 2006.
Only a few players, like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, have been able to escape the vortex and exist simultaneously and equally in the pantheons of both universes. This leaves the vast majority to suffer the fate of a singular legacy. Unfortunately, one of my favorite college players of the last decade, Adam Morrison, falls into that vast majority.
Morrison has become a joke. He is held up frequently as the seminal example of college performance inflating pro prospects. Type his name in Google and the first auto-complete suggestion is “bust.” More basketball fans can likely visualize him in a suit sitting next to Kobe Bryant, than can visualize him in an actual NBA uniform. The truest representation of how far he has fallen in the public eye is the shock and surprise his recent 30-point outing in Serbia was met with here in the states.
His basketball legacy is currently defined by a 37.3 career FG% in the NBA, a Sam Elliott mustache and just 952 minutes played since his rookie season. But Morrison was and is much, much more than that.
In 2005-2006 Morrison and J.J. Redick took the nation on a rollercoaster ride, leading the college basketball world on an incredible game of one-upsmanship. Morrison’s numbers that season were exquisite. There were the 28.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game. There were the 9.4 free throw attempts per game and the 60.5 TS%. There were the 13 games in which he scored over 30 points and the five games in which he scored over 40. There was the game-winning three pointer with 2.5 seconds left against Oklahoma State and the 37 points he dropped in the second half against Loyola Marymount.
Even the advanced statistics loved Morrison. Luke Winn of Sports Illustrated used the Value Add formula and found Morrison’s 2006 campaign was the second-most offensively productive season by a college wing in the past decade. The only season that outranked Morrison’s was Redick’s. Both players added more offensive value that year than Stephen Curry, Brandon Roy or Kevin Durant did in their best college seasons.
But even numbers don’t do justice to what a destructive force Redick and Morrison were that season. Redick’s scoring prowess was predicated on the search for, and exploitation of space. Morrison scored by fearlessly chewing up space. He played with an aggressiveness that spilled all over the court. He was tagged as a one-dimensional shooter in the NBA, but, unlike Redick, he scored from all over the court at Gonzaga. The post, dribble-drives, midrange pull-ups, transition layups, long-range shooting; his whole arsenal was elite at the college level.
Besides his individual scoring skills, Morrison was the fiery core of a 29-4 team. You could see the weight of the entire Gonzaga basketball program nested on the top of those hunched shoulders. His season, and college career, ended with him lying on his stomach, crying at center court; a moment that has been used frequently to ridicule and redefine him as emotionally weak. I’m in the minority who feels that being emotionally invested enough in any enterprise to cry at its premature conclusion is a sign of strength, not weakness. I’m also in the even smaller minority that remembers that those tears followed a two-point loss to a 32-7 UCLA team (that ultimately lost in the NCAA Final to Florida) and which featured 5 future NBA players (6 if you count Cedric Bozeman.)
At Gonzaga, Morrison was overflowing with confidence. Somehow the bulk of that confidence wasn’t transferred to the NBA. One thing became another. The hair, the mustache, the scowl, the knee-high striped socks, the sometimes exaggerated displays of emotion; all of the things that used to define him as a blue-collar hero, now define Morrison as a clownish outcast. The once dynamic scorer has become a caricature of a spot-up shooter, one who’s future in the NBA is anything but certain.
The wonderful, and often forgotten fact is that each basketball fan has the right and responsibility to see each player as they see fit. Writers, bloggers, analysts and reporters express their opinions but you can hold your own image. As you read this, Adam Morrison is busy writing a new chapter of his basketball career with Red Star in Belgrade. Perhaps this will become the dominant public narrative of this private person. But I exercise my right to choose my own defining image of Adam Morrison. The one I choose is from Gonzaga’s loss to UConn in the 2005 Maui Invitational Final. It’s of him bodying up Rudy Gay at the left elbow, slowly spinning to his right and knocking down a not-quite-fall-away jumper with two defenders draped all over him. That’s the Adam Morrison I choose to remember.