Adam Morrison, Enigmatic Ex-College Star, Fights For His NBA Life

Morrison’s attempt to make the Portland Trail Blazers is one of the most riveting human stories in sports right now. posted on

Greg Wahl-Stephens / AP

Adam Morrison has two NBA championship rings. Adam Morrison, the college All-American who has become one of the most spectacular busts in NBA Draft History; Adam Morrison, the confusingly mustached cipher who spent more of his NBA career wearing suits, relegated to the inactive list of players sitting behind the bench, than jerseys; Adam Morrison, the muscled small forward with Andrew W.K. hair who YouTube resurrected from obscurity via a captivating highlight video of a game with Red Star Belgrade. Adam Morrison having two rings is a fact cited for its ridiculousness: it’s one of the greatest indictments of the idea that a championship is the alpha and the omega of pro sports. Despite having two rings, Morrison’s career has been, by his account, difficult and often miserable. As a basketball player and person, he evaporated in the heat of the NBA.

Morrison’s attempting a comeback this year. He’s in camp with the Trail Blazers, but still hasn’t made the full roster. He’s shaved his face and tamed his hair to a sort of Johnny Depp tail; he looks like a two-dimensional version of his former self, a less extravagant simplification. He looks immensely human. And in this interview with The Oregonian, he sounds reduced in a good way, as though all of the Adam Morrison-ness that had been such an issue for him earlier in his career — the crying on the court during March Madness, the frustration, the indirect style he had with the ball — has been scrubbed away.

In a Northwest-inflected flat of a voice, Morrison talks about wanting to provide for his family and says a remarkably strange thing to hear from a professional athlete: “the money’s good.” In the NBA, NFL, or MLB, guys will often express gratitude or amazement over their particular contracts, but rarely do you hear one just generally reflect on the fact that, damn, professional athletes in the United States make a whole bunch of money. Even the ones making the league minimum. Listening to Morrison talk, the prevailing emotion isn’t humility, or that kind of saccharine gratitude that coats stories like this; it’s more like bemusement. Here’s a guy who knows what NBA money is, and knows what non-NBA basketball money is, and if he can get that NBA money again, it’ll mean something tangible to his loved ones.

It’s rare that a last chance plays out on as large and visible a stage as the one Morrison’s career has put him on. If Morrison doesn’t make the Blazer roster, that’s the show; he says as much. It’ll be off to do something different, whether that’s playing basketball in Europe or opening Adam Morrison’s Bulldog Bar and Grill on the outskirts of Spokane. (That last bit about the grill is just me guessing. He’s a Gonzaga grad.) Morrison has diabetes; he has a family; it isn’t as though he’s a kid playing sports anymore. He’s 28. The mandates of a basketball life can only be tolerated for so long.

Morrison had a stretch of 20-point games in the NBA summer league this year; muse over his inefficacy as an NBA player all you want, but the dude’s still 6’8”, and he averaged 28 points per game against D1 competition. It isn’t inconceivable that he could still be a decent player. Fans hold on to this idea that a guy can either play at a certain level or he can’t, because he’s either fast enough or he isn’t, a good enough shooter or not, a hard-enough worker or lazy. This isn’t necessarily true. Guys get better; guys figure it out. They identify the way in which they can effectively contribute to a team, or what they need to do to compensate for weaknesses that, against inferior competition in college, never showed themselves. Think about Morrison’s foil in college, J.J. Redick, who went from flamboyant, spoiled bomber to respected role player over the course of his pro evolution. If new-Morrison makes the NBA this year, it’ll be immensely satisfying; if he plays like he’s capable, or shows any of the scoring ingenuity and primal rage that flared on the screen in that Red Star Belgrade clip, he’ll be fun as hell to watch. And he’s off to a good start — with the idea of revamping himself as a bench marksman, Morrison notched 9 points on 4-6 shooting in only 12 minutes in yesterday’s preseason win over the Lakers.

One of the last things Morrison says in this video is, “I’ve kind of seen it all. Hopefully I can find my way on this squad.” Few 28-year-old athletes have seen as much as Morrison has. And he still might not make it. Chance plays a role. So does need and availability; a web of lines have to converge just right. He could also find footing on the squad but never see the floor. It seems as though he’d consider that a victory.

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