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Morrison reignites fire far from NBA

Better late than never, the Adam Morrison story was about to begin.

This interview was supposed to have occurred the day before, and the delay was not only symbolic but also understandable considering the logistics. As if managing the eight-hour time difference and making a video phone call from Serbia to the United States wasn't tricky enough, there was the unforeseen drama on the roads that had pushed back the original plan.

Morrison and his father, John, ran into construction while returning from his Red Star Belgrade practice the night before, and a 20-minute drive turned into a two-hour trek when the language barrier also got in the way. But Morrison has finally found someone to speak his native tongue now, and he will spend some 40 minutes discussing the many roadblocks and reroutes he endured in these last four frustrating years.

The 27-year-old who went from cult hero in college to purported NBA bust describes the inauspicious start in Charlotte, from the pressure of being the No. 3 pick in 2006 to the devastating knee injury that cost him a season, and how the hopeful return went awry with his unproductive pairing with coach Larry Brown. He talks about the two lost years with the Lakers in Los Angeles, a professional hell of individual failure and collective success where he might have been the most mocked champion in the history of the game. He details the disappearing act thereafter, how his release from the Washington Wizards in October 2010 led to such a low that he fell out of love with the game that once inspired him.

But he wouldn't have agreed to chat if his story stopped there, his many failures leading to so much embarrassment and a quiet exit from the basketball world. Nor was he looking to recount the Gonzaga glory days, those halcyon times when the long-haired forward was deemed "a poor man's Larry Bird" and captivated the country in a season-long shootout with Duke's J.J. Redick.

No, as Morrison twirls those unleashed locks in his fingers and agrees to share some of his soul for once, this conversation is happening because he is in the midst of a revival that simply must be explained.

A pair of online videos featuring Morrison in all his unique glory emerged like digital diamonds in this NBA lockout rough last month. One of them showed him burying deep jumpers and risky runners like before, his play begging the question of where that fire and flare had been all this time. The other featured the feisty side that used to define him, with Morrison involved in a scuffle and ejection so full of fury and raw passion that it gained notice half a world away. They were reminders of what he once was and clues of what he might become again, hints at a long-overdue revolution from the man who had seemed to surrender in recent years.

Is Adam Morrison back? He certainly is, but not in the way you might think.

***

This isn't about the NBA anymore for Morrison, about the dogma of a pro sports league and whether a certain player can fulfill his expected place in it. This is about his relationship with the game, a romance that went so very wrong before it could be renewed.

In that sense, the unconventional script is now a perfect fit for the nonconformist. Add in the irony that he's finally having fun on the floor while most of his former colleagues have been benched by a prolonged lockout, and it's looking like the basketball gods are smiling down on him again.

Even Morrison's loyalists aren't ready to predict a return to prominence anytime soon. Seven games played and a scoring average of 17.1 points in the Adriatic League hardly guarantee another chance in the NBA, even if he's playing with the same style for which he was once known. Morrison is battling inconsistency as well, alternating between offensive fireworks one game (a high of 30 points, with outings of 23, 23 and 27 points) and flame-outs from the field the next (a combined 17 points in his three worst games). Besides, there is no opt-out clause in his one-year contract worth about $350,000, and thus no chance to re-enter the NBA until the 2012-13 season.

But when the ejection video started making the rounds back in his hometown of Spokane, Wash., it was as if a missing person's case had finally been solved. In the eyes of those who know him best, the comeback that mattered most was already complete.

"We were just tickled pink that he found his passion again," his father said of the thoughts that crossed his mind while watching on his computer from home. "It made my heart feel good to see him out there on the court like that again."

Said Don MacLean, the all-time leading scorer at UCLA who has trained Morrison since the summer leading into the draft: "It looked like the guy I met two weeks after his college season ended -- kicking ass and taking names and talking s--- and all that stuff that made him so good."

Added his agent, Mark Bartelstein: "It was almost like an exorcism, like something had been taken out of his soul. To watch him play with that chip on his shoulder, with that fervor, and angry like he played at Gonzaga, it's just great to see it. It's like the guy is back."

It happened on Oct. 6 in Belgrade, where the famously maniacal group of Red Star fans were fawning over Morrison. They're stomping, shouting, celebrating his swagger and this ejection as if it were a buzzer-beater to finish off Bayern Munich in the so-called "friendly" match.

The elbow in the paint from Bogdan Radosavljevic is what flipped Morrison's switch, and hours would pass before would feel some sympathy for the 18-year-old opponent who, unbeknownst to Morrison at the time, is Serbian and was playing in front of family and friends in his homeland. If anyone could relate to being shamed in your own backyard, it's Morrison.

But those thoughts would come later, when he headed back to his apartment to reflect on his latest basketball breath of fresh air. In the moment, though, he clearly didn't care.

He gives Radosavljevic a forearm shiver as they run back down the floor, then a chest bump. He mutters angry English even though it isn't likely to be understood, then stays in pursuit even as the whistles have blown and a two-handed shove in his chest hasn't deterred him. Before Morrison relents and heads for the showers, he flaps his arms at the crowd and sends the decibel level soaring.

The locals are loving this, loving him. But no one is loving this as much as Morrison.

"It was such an adrenaline rush and an emotional high to be out there on the court again," Morrison said. "Everybody who has done something in their life that they've had a passion for or done for a long time, and then all of a sudden it's not there anymore, and then it comes back to you in such a rush [can relate].

"I would've run through a brick wall that night for anything. Goose bumps. Sweating. That whole day, I've never been so focused. It was a friendly game, and I was thinking, 'All right, I'm going nuts tonight. I don't care what happens. I was ready to fight, to do anything, just to play."

***

To understand Morrison's high, you have to go back to his many lows.

He was ready to retire, to run from the ridicule and live the sort of low-key life that ensured the "kick-me" sign would be removed from his back. Shipped out of Charlotte, laughed at in Los Angeles and cut by the Wizards after he failed to deliver on a make-good contract last November, Morrison headed for the hills of his hometown on the east side of Spokane.

Just near the tree line and in plain view of the mountain range that peered down on him as a child, his new ranch offered 10 acres of undiscriminating bliss. The people he loved and trusted most were there, from his longtime girlfriend to his two daughters. His parents, who lived nearby, would stop in, along with friends who knew him before his memorable rise and through this humbling fall.

Morrison was just your everyday Joe when in Washington. He spent most of his days shoveling snow off the long driveway, using an all-terrain vehicle he had rigged with a snowplow. There were trips to the dump every five days, and the installation of a well on his property that kept Morrison and his father busy for months on end.

He embraced life as a stay-at-home dad, enjoying his kids, ages 3½ and five months. He thought about finishing his college degree or perhaps beginning a coaching career, but never moved forward with those plans. The man who used to only operate in fifth gear was officially in neutral.

"It was a mental break," Morrison said of that time, "just inhaling and exhaling and being with the family."

What he didn't do was play basketball.

"I didn't touch a ball, didn't want to watch basketball, didn't really want to be associated with it," he said. "I wanted to be forgotten as far as the public spotlight.

"To be honest with you, I just said, 'I don't know if I really want to play anymore.' That was the bottom line. It wasn't the fact that I didn't like basketball. I was just fed up with people taking shots at me for the way my career went."

His home was his safe haven, but he didn't have to go far to find the nearest critic.

"You'd go to the grocery store or wherever, and you can see how people look at you different," said Morrison, whose family moved to Spokane when he was in the fourth grade. "You hear them whispering behind your back when you leave. You can feel the tension.

"You see people who take joy in your failures, when they walk up to you and say, 'Man, I thought you played.' They know what happened, but they just want to pick and poke fun at you. That's part of life."

His life, anyway.

That's how it was in Los Angeles, too, except that the jabs and jokes were often broadcast across the country rather than on the nearest street corner. He played just eight games in his first season with the Lakers after being acquired from Charlotte in February 2009 and only 31 games in his second season, watching two championship runs from the bench in street clothes.

Among his teammates, he said he always received support, encouragement and respect. In some factions of the media, however, Morrison became a convenient punch line.

"You get the first ring, and then it's on [ESPN's] PTI -- 'Do you think Adam should deserve a ring?' " he said. "It's like, 'Well, I got traded here, so what do you want me to do?' And then to be the only guy to not play on the opening ring ceremony night and then not play the whole playoffs, and not even suit up, it's tough."

Even tougher when the media types who had celebrated his ascent were making light of his fall.

"I remember Gonzaga played Pepperdine in L.A., and I had the two guys who used to [commentate] our games from Gonzaga ... basically berating me [in an off-air discussion] and kind of mocking me for not playing," Morrison said. "What do you say to that? They're saying, 'How come you don't play?' They think it's funny, but at the same time, it's like, 'Man, I'm on a good team, I go to practice every day, I play hard, I'm supporting my teammates, which is what you're supposed to do.' ... I guess some people don't understand that."

No one was tougher on Morrison than late-night talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel.

First came his 2009 appearance to celebrate the title: Morrison sitting quietly in the back row next to his seven teammates, then Kimmel chiming in with a quip of "Adam is so baked right now" that sent everyone but an uncomfortable-looking Morrison into hysterics. Kimmel took it to a new level and a new low a year later, this time taking aim at Morrison when he wasn't even on the show. With Kobe Bryant heaping genuine praise on Morrison and the group of seven Lakers likely wondering why he had come up in the conversation, Kimmel cued a clip of "Adam Morrison's contribution to the NBA Finals" that featured unflattering shots of a suit-wearing Morrison playing the part of cheerleader.

With every shot taken, he recoiled a little more.

"When Jimmy Kimmel moved in and started making fun of Adam, and the media all caught on and Adam became this guy who it was en vogue to make fun of and say he was a bust, I think Adam was like, 'F--- it, whatever, I don't need this,' " said Tommy Lloyd, a Gonzaga assistant coach who met Morrison in the ninth grade and is one of his closest friends. "Then the next year, he's getting ready to go to the Wizards, and at that point he hated basketball. He was like, 'I'm sick of it.' But he couldn't quit. So he goes out for the Wizards, and I don't even know if he wanted to make the team, to be honest with you."

It would turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And after Morrison was cut by Washington, he headed home in a heap of humility.

***

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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