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Free Stylin'

4/15/2009 - Charlotte Bobcats

Adam Morrison sits on his girlfriend's couch, mindlessly flicking a cigarette lighter. His long, wiry legs stretch from baggy shorts to black sneaks stacked on a coffee table. A Dale Earnhardt "3" cap sits loosely atop a scruffy, pageboy cut that could peg him as a lost member of the Ramones. In half-repose, Morrison seems almost mellow. It's a state of being not usually associated with Gonzaga's junior forward. But when the subject of his participation in an impromptu boxing match is broached, the mood quickly shifts to a more typical pitch. Morrison straightens up, leans forward and says excitedly, "You want to hear the whole story?"

We asked, didn't we? Two years ago, shortly before the start of basketball practice, Morrison and a couple of friends were watching a GU cable access show hosted by members of a rival dorm. One of the hosts unwisely challenged anybody from Adam's dorm to an on-air fight. "My buddy was like, `I've got gloves upstairs,'" Morrison recounts. "All three of us wanted to do it, so we roshamboed, and I won." Twenty minutes later, amid a crowd of about 100 onlookers, it was on. "The fight probably lasted 15 seconds," he says. "I started punching him and he turned around. It was pretty ridiculous. Just a bunch of immature freshmen. But it's a good memory."

Gonzaga has had its share of characters. Richie Frahm would talk to himself in the third person. Zach Gourde was an accomplished computer hacker and green tea aficionado. Ronny Turiaf, a multilingual extrovert, would make fast friends wherever he went. But a player getting into a televised fight in his first month on campus? "We've never had anyone do something like that," says assistant Bill Grier.

Then again, the Zags have never had anyone quite like Morrison, for whom the distance between flame and wick has never been far. On the court and off, he is a shaggy-haired catalyst, a man of the moment. Michigan State was the most recent to find that out, when the Maui Invitational MVP dropped 43 on the Spartans in a three-overtime, 109-106 semifinal win just before Thanksgiving.

Even before that outburst, one rival coach said Morrison might be the best Zag ever. Remember, this is John Stockton's alma mater. Morrison's pugilistic verve has made him a burgeoning Northwest legend in his own right: one part Larry Bird, another part Bill Walton, with a little Woody Guthrie thrown in.

But the box-a-kid-on-a-dare part? All him.

FOR YEARS, a handful of Gonzaga students clad in red Kennel Club T's have slipped onto the floor to flank the Bulldogs' pregame introduction line, slapping hands and dishing out chest bumps. But the tradition took a strange turn last season, when Morrison transformed the line into his personal mosh pit, gliding past teammates to bat around the students with a lowered shoulder or gut punch, particularly to those he sensed had already "had a few."

"I started drilling people to get us pumped up," he says. "The first time, everybody was looking at me like, what the … ? I think I hit a cameraman one time. I felt bad, this guy is just trying to do his job. Other than that, I don't feel any shame. You're on the court, you're in danger." And you don't even need to be on the court. Morrison frequently head-butts teammates who are sitting on the bench.

One time last season, after missing a couple of jumpers, Morrison got in assistant Tommy Lloyd's grill. "What's wrong with my shot?" he yelled. "Come on, coach me up!" Normally, Gonzaga's go-to guy has the utmost confidence in his offensive abilities. During a timeout in a game against Oklahoma State last season, he told the huddle he was insulted that defensive specialist Daniel Bobik, and not the more athletic Joey Graham, was guarding him.

In another game, he pulled up on a fast break and missed from 25 feet. "Heat check," Morrison told head coach Mark Few. Worried, Few asked his assistants if "heat check" had something to do with his player's health? No, he was told, Morrison was just testing how hot he was. "You make three in a row, next time down it might not be a good shot, but you let it go," he explains. "If that one goes, it's over."

Morrison has long embraced a gunner's rep. For a while, his favorite hand-me-down was his father's T-shirt that read: "If It Wasn't for Offense, I'd Play Defense." John Morrison, who now runs shooting camps in Spokane, played professionally in Europe in the 1970s and, according to his son, "couldn't guard a dead dog." Adam is pragmatic about his own defensive failings. "I've always been told if you score more points than your guy, that's good D," he says.

Morrison's shoot-first stripe made him a local star by his junior year at Mead High in Spokane, but his value wasn't immediately apparent to Few. Four years ago, the Zags coach visited the Spokane Arena to scout prize recruit Sean Mallon of Ferris High. (Mallon now plays for GU.) He stuck around for the second game only because assistant Leon Rice told him he had to check out

the gangly kid from Mead. At halftime, Rice called to ask Few what he thought. "He's got a weird gait, he's hunched over, he's got a strange-looking body and a really odd stroke," Few said. "And he plays no D whatsoever." Rice had seen all that too. But he knew something else. "How many points does he have?" he asked. Few found a box score. "Thirty-one," he said, surprised. "You know, maybe I need to watch him more closely in the second half."

In many ways, Morrison was destined to play for GU. After working a series of NAIA and juco coaching jobs in Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming, John Morrison quit the itinerant life and settled his family in Spokane. Adam, then 10, got a ball boy gig for a Zags team that hadn't yet become a bracket buster. Eight years later, Gonzaga was the only school to offer him a scholarship. But even then a roster spot wasn't guaranteed. Coach Few thought the rail-thin Morrison needed to get stronger and, with Gonzaga loaded at the wing, he toyed with grayshirting the gunner.

The notion faded as soon as Morrison began to play pickup with other Zags in the summer before his senior year. When star guard Blake Stepp ripped on teammate Cory Violette for getting burned by a high schooler, Violette suggested Stepp take a turn. He tried once before deciding to pick Morrison for his own squad whenever he could from that point on. Once Few heard back from his players, there was no chance Morrison would be spending his freshman season away from the team.

Still, when Morrison enrolled in 2003, he figured to be a redshirt. Instead, the night before the Zags' nationally televised opener against Saint Joe's at Madison Square Garden, he was told that lingering injuries to teammates had landed him in the starting lineup. "I started to sweat," he says. But the anxiety was short-lived. The first ball he touched was a defensive rebound that he took coast to coast. Stepp looked at Few on the bench, shook his head and laughed. "There was a ball and a rim and competition and they were keeping score," says Few. "Adam was just doing his thing." Morrison averaged 11.4 points as a true freshman and became an even bigger sensation around town. He began to draw some national attention, too-mainly for the shots he took off the court.

When Morrison was 14, he was so listless at a basketball camp that he scored only four points the entire weekend. A doctor back home diagnosed type 1 diabetes. Over the next several months he had to learn to regulate his blood sugar with insulin injections. It was a tough time made a bit easier by a strange, almost karmic, coincidence. Two years before, the family dog, Megan Patricia, was found to have diabetes too. Since then, twice a day, Morrison and his two sisters had been giving the dog shots in her scruff. "My mom swears it's some sort of religious thing,"

Thanks to Morrison's high release, shotblockers normally come up short.

Adam says. "She believes the dog got diabetes because I was going to get it."

Morrison now wears an insulin pump, a pagersize device that delivers insulin as needed into his abdomen. But because of the pounding he takes on the court, he switches back to syringes on game days. On the bench, he often checks his blood-sugar level. If it's high, he gives himself a shot, right there on the sideline. If it's low, he eats a protein bar or drinks apple juice. Low blood sugar can make a person cranky, which could explain the scraps Morrison got into last season with Missouri's Jimmy McKinney, Santa Clara's Doron Perkins and San Diego's Corey Belser.

Or not. "That's just me," he says. "I was pissed off."

ON A warm early fall day, Morrison is playing pickup ball on campus at the McCarthey Athletic Center. Some former Zags, including Stepp and Violette, are here to prep for upcoming NBA tryouts. Today, then, is a little like old times: Stepp trying to stick Morrison, and Adam having none of it. He greets his former 'mate with a terse "Let's go, Blake," then hits a 20-footer over Stepp the first time down the floor. On subsequent possessions, Morrison claps his hands and calls for the ball even when it's on the opposite wing. When there's a dispute over the score, Morrison pipes up. "That's four," he shouts. "I've got two." He tacks on a couple more with a reverse layup and baby hook as his team coasts to a win.

The day is no aberration. A month later, when practice begins, Morrison is as ornery as ever. He simply refuses to be punked. Few compares the daily battles between his offensive star and Erroll Knight, the West Coast Conference's Defensive Player of the Year (and Morrison's best friend on the team), to those in the old cartoons featuring Sam Sheepdog and Ralph Wolf. Like their animated alter egos, Morrison and Knight beat the hell out of each other, then punch their time cards, only to resume the tussle the next day.

Morrison's aggressiveness spills off the floor. He constantly tries to engage teammates in political arguments of all kinds. "I wouldn't call it argument," he corrects. "I call it intelligent thought, logic." A favorite sparring partner is guard Pierre Marie Altidor-Cespedes, who hails from Montreal. On bus rides, the two debate the relative merits of their countries' foreign policies. Last season, Turiaf, a native of Martinique who went to high school in Paris, was often drawn in to mediate. "It's certainly better than people plugging in their headphones and sitting there," Few says.

His major is sports management, but Morrison's passion is history. He credits his favorite band, the now-defunct Rage Against the Machine-he cried when the band broke up-for helping to open his eyes to political thought. And he's no dilettante. He's read Karl Marx (and not as a class assignment), has a soft spot for Che Guevara and generally talks a good game. When his taste in leftist literature became public two years ago, Morrison received his share of hate mail from Spokane-area locals. Some of it made him angry, but he chose not to respond, believing in the writers' right to freedom of expression.

What bothers Morrison more is how few of his peers share his interest. "We've had Sept. 11, the Gore-Bush recount, a war in Iraq, a war in Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina," he says. "How can you not care about who's laying out the country for you? This is the time of life you get to question things." Bill Walton's activism at UCLA and in the NBA is an inspiration. "You should always think for yourself and speak out," Morrison says.

On the court, though, the 6'8", 205-pound forward remains more Bird than Walton. He even favors striped, Celtic-style socks. Riding arguably the best midrange game in college, Morrison led the Zags in scoring last season at 19 ppg. He's up to 27 ppg so far this fall. Morrison has a knack, thanks in part to a high release, for hitting shots with defenders in his face. Against San Francisco last February, he nailed a game-winning J with 0.6 seconds left. In the WCC tournament championship last March, he went for a then-career-high 30 as Gonzaga won its sixth title in seven years.

And in two NCAA Tournament games, he totaled 52 points. That's what prompted Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett to proclaim that Morrison could be the best Zag ever.

That spectacular late-season stretch ignited talk of moving on. But he quickly squashed the speculation. As usual, he'd thought it through. He didn't want to compete with that last-ditch rush of 18-year-olds who were bound to declare before the NBA age limit kicked in. And he knew he needed to tighten up his three-point shooting to prove last season's 31.1% was an aberration. (So far, so good: he's at 45.5%.) A gunner to the core, Morrison isn't nearly as concerned with improving his defense.

There are other reasons he stayed in Spokane. The next level has no room for courtside mosh pits or squabs with rival dorms, and you don't get to play alongside your buds. Morrison is quite content to be a true student-athlete for a while longer. But someday he will have to face the all-business reality of the NBA, and he's come to terms with its capitalist reality. "You can't be an activist about everything," he says, "or else you'd be walking around in rags and eating bark."

Like this one time freshman year …