UCLA, Gonzaga, and the Legacy of Adam Morrison's Tears

Nine years after Morrison broke down on the court, UCLA and Gonzaga once again face off in the Sweet 16. This time Morrison is on the Bulldogs' sideline as a coach.

|
Mar 27 2015, 1:55pm

Photo via Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Adam Morrison has been out of the public eye since June 17, 2010. That was the last night of his NBA career, and it was a memorable one, for reasons that had nothing to do with Morrison himself. That was the night the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Boston Celtics 83-79 in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

Morrison spent Game 7 on the Lakers' bench, and not even in a purple-and-gold sweatsuit. He wasn't even on the Lakers' active roster, and did his part for the team's esprit de corps by clapping and fistpumping in jeans, a blazer and untucked shirt. For this Morrison collected a second NBA championship ring. Then his contract expired and he disappeared from view.

Read More: John Calipari Cares a Lot

This week, Adam Morrison will return, thanks to archival footage of an NCAA tournament game played almost exactly nine years ago. You know the game and will recognize the clips; if you don't or had forgotten, you will be reminded over and over again during the runup to Gonzaga's Sweet 16 matchup with UCLA on Friday night.

When those teams met in the Sweet 16 back in March 2006, UCLA trailed by 17 points in the first half, by 13 at halftime and by nine with just over three minutes to play. Their first lead came with 9.3 seconds. Soon after that came an on-court crisis for Adam Morrison that forever changed how people thought and talked about him.

Ample time remained for Gonzaga to marshal their scattered forces, run a good last possession and secure the win. The Bulldogs were out of timeouts, and senior point guard Derek Raivio took the inbounds pass, panic-dribbled upcourt into a cluster of Bruin defenders and was tied up with 2.6 seconds left. UCLA had the possession arrow. Bruin players went triumphally crazy. The CBS cameras smash-cut to Morrison, who had succumbed to the acute pain of Gonzaga's astonishing collapse.

Morrison was crying. Or not just crying: he was bawling. Eyes rimmed red, mouth contorted in agony, he looked, to put it as gently as possible, like a pitiful child. On the ensuing UCLA possession, guard Arron Afflalo was fouled intentionally, and as we waited for Afflalo to shoot his free throws, CBS cruelly (if understandably) kept showing us Morrison in close-up, ensuring his emotional disintegration would enter the canon of March Madness imagery. Keep in mind, Gonzaga still had a chance. A faint one, but a chance. Even if Afflalo made both free throws, there would be time enough for a Laettner-style miracle. And who better than the nation's top scorer—and one of the most deliriously hyped college players since Laettner—to recreate that moment?

He never got the chance. Afflalo made one of two free throws, putting the Bruins up 73-71 with 1.9 seconds left. Shooting guard David Pendergraft was Gonzaga's inbounds passer and could have fed it to Morrison, who was calling for the ball in the backcourt. Instead Pendergraft tried, and completed, a Grant Hill football heave to center Tony Batista, who caught the ball at the left elbow, whirled and shot. His Laettner imitation was perfect except in outcome. Batista's shot missed the rim entirely. Morrison collapsed face down at center court, infusing an already insane night with an almost unbearable pathos.

In his final college season, which ended in those brutal seconds, Morrison and Duke's J.J. Redick were the signature players of the sport. They appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated together, they were locked in a head-to-head, season-long race for the nation's scoring title, and they were avatars for contrasting values in college basketball fandom. As a white guy and a Blue Devil who wrote terrible poetry, Redick's perceived villainy was inevitable. Duke began the season ranked first overall, never dropped below three and was back to number one when the tournament began. Unless you were a Duke alum or harbored a pathological love of empire, you hated J.J. Redick. Whether he personally deserved it or not was beside the point.

Adam Morrison came with less baggage. He was fun to root for, and for that one season, he was the perfect countercultural folk hero. He played for quirky Gonzaga, the team forever biting at the ankles of the sport's blue-blood programs. He had type 1 diabetes. More than that, though, Morrison was a blast to watch: his offensive style, featuring ragged-looking spin moves and leaning jumpers that would never have survived the "fundamentals" fetish of an old-guard drillmaster like Krzyzweski, brought to mind the extemporaneous scoring flair of Pete Maravich and Larry Bird. (Those comparisons had more to them than racial taxonomy.)

Morrison in his prime. Photo by Jordan Murph-USA TODAY Sports.

Morrison's personal appearance rounded out his oddball appeal. His shoulder-length hair qualified him to be lead singer in a Stillwater cover band, and he wore a '70s-style moustache just as unkempt facial hair was taking root in Portland, Brooklyn, Silver Lake and other strongholds of young caucasian ironism. Redick edged him out for the Wooden Award, but Morrison made first-team All-American and was regarded as by far the better NBA prospect. (A consensus mock draft posted at NBA.com ranked Morrison as the fifth best prospect in the draft, one spot ahead of Brandon Roy and nine ahead of Redick.)

But in a span of about five minutes on March 23, 2006, Morrison's image among sports fans shattered. Crying after a season-ending loss isn't a sin. But crying during the game, when the outcome was still in doubt... well. That's something we hadn't seen before and, needless to say, did not comport with dominant norms of sportsman behavior. Social media was in its infancy at the time, but on blogs, comment boards and anywhere else sports fans interacted, Morrison got slaughtered. Adam Morrison, literally overnight, had become a joke.

Even if he'd become a top-tier player in the NBA, it's unlikely he'd ever have lived down his on-court crying jag. (See: Chris Webber and timeout jokes.) But his short, disastrous NBA career ensured that he would be frozen, in fans' collective memory, in that moment of on-court agony. Morrison was drafted third overall by the Charlotte Bobcats, and pro competition instantly exposed him, ironically, as what everyone thought J.J. Redick would turn out to be: too slow, too robotic, too stereotypically white, to hack it in the Association. After a couple horrendous years as a Bobcat, he was sent to Los Angeles as salary ballast in the deal by which the Lakers acquired Shannon Brown. Morrison made about $17 million off his rookie contract. That he won two championship rings is itself a recurring joke among NBA fans.

That night in 2006 was a turning point for UCLA as well. Three years earlier, the Bruins replaced hapless coach Steve Lavin with Ben Howland. The 2005-06 team won the Pac-10 regular season and tournament titles but had yet to capture national attention. That all changed with the Gonzaga win. The exhilarating comeback, the vicious takedown of media darling Morrison, followed by tournament wins over Memphis and LSU that landed the Bruins in the 2006 title game, made UCLA hoops nationally relevant again.

Alford and the Bruins celebrate after advancing to the Sweet 16. Photo by Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Bruins would reach the Final Four the next year, and again the year after. But that was the peak of the Howland era. The next five seasons featured zero return trips to the Sweet 16, the departure of star players to the NBA or other college programs at the earliest possible moment, shrinking attendance at Pauley Pavilion and a Sports Illustrated exposé reporting, among other charming details, how Reeves Nelson, once a prized recruit, intentionally injured his Bruin teammates and urinated on their clothes. UCLA fired Howland in 2013.

His replacement, Steve Alford, is encountering Gonzaga at roughly the same career juncture Howland faced in 2006. Alford's rebuilding project seems headed in the right direction. The uptempo he's implemented has made the Bruins watchable again and is washing away the bitter aftertaste of late-period Howland. What Alford needs is a big national statement. The opportunity awaits in Houston.

Vegas and offshore books favor Gonzaga by 8½ to 9½ points, which makes sense. Most everyone's salient memory of this UCLA team was their scoring seven points in the first half of a December annihilation at the hands of Kentucky. And when the Bruins and Bulldogs met at Pauley earlier that month, Gonzaga won by double digits and was plainly the superior team. Wings Kyle Wiltjer and Byron Wesley lit up the Bruins with 44 combined points on 16-for-21 shooting.

Wiltjer and Wesley are emblematic of Gonzaga basketball in its advanced evolutionary state. The Bulldogs' ankle-biting days are a thing of the past. The 2006 debacle in Oakland plainly devastated Morrison, but the program picked itself up and kept rocking and rolling under Mark Few. They've made the tournament 17 straight years and were a number one seed in 2013. The Gonzaga brand now competes with the likes of Arizona and UCLA for A-list recruits.

Wiltjer was a McDonald's All-American whom Few stole from the Kentucky Death Star after Wiltjer won a title on the Wildcats' 2012 team. Wesley, a former USC Trojan, was the 6th-leading scorer in the Pac-12 the year before he transferred to Gonzaga. Current Atlanta Hawk Austin Daye grew up in Southern California and his father played at UCLA, but Howland thought he was too skinny for UCLA and so failed to offer him a scholarship. Daye became a five-star prospect and signed with Gonzaga.

Damantas Sabonis has never cried. Photo by Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports.

Few, moreover, has become the nation's best recruiter of international talent. Ronny Turiaf, Robert Sacre, Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris—all now cashing checks in the NBA—came to Gonzaga from abroad. This year's team includes Przemek Karnowski, a starting center from Poland, and Damantas Sabonis from Lithuania, who put up 18 and 9 in the Bulldogs' second-round blasting of Iowa. Damantas, perhaps the best NBA prospect on Gonzaga's roster, is the son of Blazers legend Arvydas Sabonis. Few's masterly work has ensconced Gonzaga, alongside Arizona, as one of the West Coast's two premier hoops programs. If Alford enjoys his employment at UCLA he'd do well to get the Bruins back into this elite club. Beating Gonzaga to reach the Elite 8 would be nice step toward that goal.

The talent's there to pull it off. Virtually no one thought UCLA belonged in the tournament, and they caught a huge break when Iowa State's faceplant served up a softish second-round opponent in UAB, but on paper the Bruins belong. Three McDonald's All-Americans (Isaac Hamilton, Kevon Looney and Tony Parker) are in the starting lineup, with a fourth (Thomas Welsh) coming off the bench. Point guard Bryce Alford has been one of the tournament's best players in the first two rounds, and starting shooting guard Norman Powell is that rare and precious tournament asset: a four-year college player who, on talent alone, could have left for the NBA early but chose to stay.

UCLA is a classic "eye test" team. Did their resumé justify an NCAA bid? Few care at this point. Their close loss to Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament showed how far they'd come since their seven-point half against Kentucky. Their defeat of SMU and blowout of Cyclone-slayers UAB confirmed their bona fides. It's not crazy to think they're ready to deal the Bulldogs another crushing Sweet 16 loss.

When it all goes down this Friday in Houston, Adam Morrison will be there to face the ghosts. He's on Mark Few's coaching staff, now, and his official title is assistant video coordinator. During games he sits behind the Gonzaga bench, charting plays and tracking stats. He wears an actual suit, like a grown-up might. The moustache is gone. It's not clear whether he wears either of his Laker championship rings. We'll see on Friday, when he finally gets another close-up.