Morrison reignites fire far from NBA
There wasn't one seminal moment that brought Morrison back to the court. It was, more than anything else, boredom.
"Last May, he just called out of the blue and said, 'Hey do you want to shoot today?' " Lloyd recalled.
And so they did.
"It was more talking than shooting, but after 20 minutes he was gassed," Lloyd said. "He had no juice, was in absolute horrible shape. He had not done anything, really, since he got cut."
The rhythmic beat of his own dribble would eventually pound the relentless white noise out of his head. And with every session, a career that was on life support came back a little more.
"We started doing it every day, and then eventually went a little bit harder, and then one day he finally said, 'You know what? I'm sick of sitting on my ass at home,' " Lloyd said. "'That's not how I want to live the rest of my life. I'm bored. That's not for me. I feel sorry for myself and have basically become a recluse. I love basketball. It's my passion, and I want to try again.' "
The workouts would soon become a daily affair, including occasional double-days for good measure. Early mornings. Late nights. His lungs came back, along with his legs. Above all else, the confidence, a huge part of his game, returned too.
There was a time when he was as invincible as an athlete could be, when even Morrison's weaknesses were seen as his strengths. His struggle with Type I diabetes turned him into a hero for millions who also suffered from it and made his on-floor feats all the more amazing.
He capped a wondrous prep career at Mead High School in Spokane by scoring 37 points despite severe symptoms of hypoglycemia in the state championship game, his team's only loss of the season. His local prowess went national in the biggest of ways during three seasons at Gonzaga, where he led the nation in scoring as a junior (28.1 points per game) and had another agonizing finale.
His 24 points against UCLA in a Sweet 16 matchup weren't enough, and the mocking of Morrison was well on its way after he fell to the floor in tears following the Bruins' rally from a nine-point deficit with 3:13 left. Morrison would eventually respond publicly in a commercial for EA Sports' NBA Live, saying in the spot, "Yeah, I cried. I cried on national television. So what? Failure hurts. ... I hope I never lose that intensity. More people should cry. And when I get to the NBA, more people will cry."
It didn't turn out that way, though. The edge and emotion that once empowered him started evaporating in Charlotte, where his teammates were convinced the hype and pressure had handicapped him. The ACL tear in his first offseason was even more debilitating, and the return a year later went south when Brown would wonder why this supposed scoring sensation was so gun-shy. Before long, Morrison was sliding down the slippery slope of his own insecurities.
"Everyone wanted him to be something he wasn't," said former Bobcats teammate Sean May, a No. 13 pick who struggled to deal with similar pressures and injuries after leading North Carolina to a championship in 2005.
"They wanted him to be strictly a shooter, to catch and shoot. And early on, he wasn't making shots and he got down and it just continued.
"They wanted him to average 20-plus points, to be the face of the franchise, and those expectations are tough on anyone."
MacLean, like all of Morrison's supporters, watched with disappointment while the most vital part of his game disappeared.
"He lost a lot of his confidence, and that was what his game was built on at Gonzaga -- superior, supreme confidence," MacLean said. "He thought that every time he walked onto the floor, he was getting 30 [points], and pretty much every night he did. Once you took that confidence away from him a little bit, it kind of took away his game."
Yet with Lloyd pushing him every day inside Gonzaga's McCarthey Athletic Center and Morrison dedicating himself to a return, it was all coming back.
"It was just like he was when he was younger," Lloyd said.
Morrison had mostly been practicing with college kids, though, and it would take one major letdown for him to regain his confidence against pros.
"All of our [Gonzaga] guys were gone for the summer, and it was just a bunch of NBA and overseas guys [formerly] from Gonzaga over here," Lloyd said. "And [Pistons forward] Austin Daye came in one day and destroyed Adam. He just destroyed him."
Lloyd had noticed Morrison's sluggish pregame routine that day, and even wondered if it might have been related to the diabetes. But there was no excuse for not taking warmup shots, or not stretching, so Lloyd made it clear to Morrison that his standards simply had to be raised.
"I said, 'Adam, if you're here to play, you need to play like you were meant to play. Get warmed up, be the most aggressive guy, come out and score,' " Lloyd said.
With that, Morrison was on his way the next day. While sharing the court with other prominent former Zags -- including Daye, Casey Calvary, Ronny Turiaf, Jeremy Pargo, Matt Bouldin and Derek Raivio -- he scored at will and never let up. It was, you could say, his coming-out-of-retirement party.
"I showed up when those guys were playing, and Adam had come 30 minutes early," Lloyd said. "And then he destroyed everybody. It was like one of those epic performances, where guys just have those days. That's when I knew that he still had the ability, the competitiveness in him to rise to that occasion, rise to that level."
The ending will take care of itself. That's how Morrison sees it, anyway.
And besides, how could he worry about his NBA future when he's busy dealing with the overseas present? He is the only American on his team and none of his teammates speak proficient English, meaning long stretches of practice time come and go without any true understanding of what his coach, the legendary Svetislav Pesic, is teaching. His team is just 2-6, and Morrison is consistently facing defenses geared to stop him. He's playing again, and playing fairly well, and that's more than enough for now.
"When I first came over here, I was just excited to be on a team where, first and foremost, I'd get an opportunity to play," he said. "Every athlete has that feeling in whatever sport they're in, the adrenaline, the anxiety, the passion, the doubting yourself, the picking yourself up -- that all came back in a rush. And it was nice. I hadn't felt that in basically four years. It was just always, 'Well look he's on the bench,' people saying you're one of the biggest busts in NBA history."
His biggest supporters, meanwhile, have been convinced all over again that he could eventually be an impactful player in the NBA. MacLean, who trains Bartelstein's clients in L.A., sees him as a potent sixth man if that time ever comes.
"He's the guy who comes in [off the bench] and is the second-leading scorer on your team," MacLean said. "He's the kind of guy where the minute he comes in, the game is geared toward him. ...You get him shots, and he makes them. And he makes tough shots. With his will and confidence -- if he brings it back to the league -- I have no doubt he can be that guy."
Lloyd compared Morrison to Vinnie "The Microwave" Johnson, the super sub from the Pistons championship teams in 1989 and 1990.
"I think he can be as high level a player [now] as he ever could have been," Lloyd said. "He's going to be a lot better the second time around as far as how he approaches it and putting himself in a position to be successful. ... He's learned a lot. I think his next chance in the right situation could be good."
None of the projections seem to matter to Morrison as he wraps up this unofficial therapy session with a reporter. It's nearly bed time in Belgrade, and another day of basketball is around the bend. And that, all things considered, is reason enough to be content. Better late than never indeed.
"For me, it's all about feeling good about myself again and just having fun," he said. "If it translates to the NBA, yes, that would obviously be great. If it translates to me continuing my career in Europe, that's fine with me too, honestly. I want to end my career on a solid note in my mind and in my soul, I guess you could say, to feel good about basketball again.
"I don't want to walk away from the game with a negative attitude."
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