CHICAGO — Normally, nothing is too good for Ty the dog, because Monté Morris loves his 13-year-old Yorkshire terrier without limits. Monté, an only child, calls Ty his little brother. He schedules FaceTime sessions with his mom so he can talk to Ty while the dog looks on curiously, with his ears perked up. But it turns out the pampering of a 5-1/2-pound hairball can go too far, as Morris discovered on a December visit home over Iowa State's winter break. He watched his mother refill Ty's water bowl and had a question for her.
"Ty drinks bottled water, Mama?" Morris asked.
At that point, Latonia Morris decided to tell her son the full story about what had happened to the water in Flint, Mich. She had been instructing him to take quick showers and to avoid drinking from the tap, due to the city's contaminated water crisis, which had become a national story late last year. Yet Monté hadn't quite grasped the depth of the problem as he concentrated on playing point guard for a Big 12 basketball program with championship aspirations. Now the reality overcame him.
"I didn't have any idea how bad it was until I came home," Morris said, as he walked down a United Center hallway on Thursday afternoon. "That's when I really knew."
Days later, the wiry 6'3" junior returned to Iowa State. Months later, his fourth-seeded Cyclones face No. 1-seed Virginia in a Midwest Regional semifinal on Friday night. If Morris and his teammates manage the upset, they'll carry the program to its first Elite Eight since 2000. It will probably be his most significant basketball accomplishment ever, but it will not be the most important thing he's done all year.
It was more important that Morris decided to talk about what was happening to his hometown, to anyone who would listen.
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There's an odd link between Flint and Ames, Iowa. The first-, third- and 10th-leading scorers in Iowa State basketball history—Jeff Grayer, Barry Stevens and Justus Thigpen, respectively—are all Flint natives. And that connection may now include the player who is, arguably, the best point guard in the Cyclones' storied history. Morris enters the Sweet 16 as only the third player in school history to record 1,000 points, 500 assists and 150 steals in their career. (Jeff Hornacek and Diante Garrett are the others.) He led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio as a freshman and a sophomore and, at his current rate of 4.16-to-1, he has a shot at becoming the eighth player ever to lead the nation in the same statistical category— any category—for three years running.
"When Monté is good—and the best thing is now I think he's healthy and rested and we got him some time off to heal up—he's as good as anybody in the country at his position," Iowa State coach Steve Prohm said.
He is also like many of the players Flint has produced over many years, stretched both ways by his feelings about his home city. There is a deep pride in having grown up there—"The community kind of rallies around you," said Grayer, who played for Iowa State from 1985 to '88 and now lives in Grand Blanc, about 10 minutes outside of Flint. "It gives you something you don't ever want to forget"—and there is also a drive to create a life outside of that place. That's what Morris reiterated to his mother in December: I'm going to get you out of here, he said.
But Morris couldn't ignore what he saw when he looked back.
Flint, a city in which the median household income is less than $25,000, according to Census Bureau statistics, switched its water supply in 2014 from treated Detroit Water and Sewerage Department water to the Flint River in order to cut costs. The water, which wasn't properly treated, caused lead to leech into the water. By Sept. 2015, a team of Virginia Tech scientists issued a report indicating that 40% of Flint homes had elevated lead levels.
Over the years, there have been plenty of images associated with Flint: shuttered car factories, crime and poverty. The latest, now, is lead in the pipes.
"It just drives me crazy," Morris said. "We have so much more to offer that we just don't get noticed for."
Morris felt he had to do something. So, after Iowa State's shootaround on Feb. 10, before a game at Texas Tech, Morris shot at 21-second video with a cell phone. He talked about how the water crisis affected many of his neighbors. He said he'd been asked about what he could do to help. He implored everyone to text the word WATER to a specific number in order to make a donation to the Salvation Army. He then posted the video on his Twitter account that afternoon under a short message: Flint's always on my mind. Anything you can do to help would be great. And that was it. Morris had said what he could, whether anyone heard him or not.
The people at Hy-Vee, an Iowa-based supermarket chain with about 240 stores throughout the Midwest, heard him. One week after his original call to action, Hy-Vee announced it would send bottles and gallons of water to Flint. All told, 11 semitrailers—a number matching the digits on Morris's Iowa State jersey—would make their way to Michigan.
On the evening of Feb. 18, at around 5 p.m., Latonia Morris received a call. It was a representative from Hy-Vee, who said she was very happy that Latonia was going to be able to meet the trucks when they arrived. Latonia had no idea what this woman was talking about; Monté hadn't told her. But around 10 a.m. the next day, Latonia Morris was there to greet a convoy rallied by her son some 600 miles away. "I'm looking at all trucks pulling up, and I'm like crying: This boy is crazy," Latonia said. "He cares deeply for the community. It shows he has a big heart. It shows he's willing to give back to the city when he didn't really have to acknowledge it. He could have turned a deaf ear to it and not done anything."
Actually, that wasn't much of an option.
"If I wasn't [at Iowa State], I'd be one of those people facing that adversity," Morris said. "I feel like if I had a chance to give back, that was the only way I could right now. I wanted people in the city to know that I don't think I'm bigger than anybody. I want to give back to show [them] I really care."
There are years and years of recovery still ahead for Flint. Even though the water on her street was tested and deemed clear of lead, Latonia Morris still takes brief showers, still uses bottled water to cook macaroni or wash her hair, still walks into restaurants and asks, Is this Flint water? There are thousands of houses that require new pipes running from the sidewalk all the way inside, to say nothing of digging up the pipes under the streets. Monté Morris's plea couldn't solve those problems, but it did more for his city than even he had originally imagined.
"First of all, they are really proud of the fact that you've got a young man that's reaching back and contributing in such a strong way," said Grayer, who has known Morris since he was a middle-schooler. "There's a huge sense of pride there that the community starts to feel. It also makes them realize their level of responsibility. That young kid that is the next Monté Morris that's coming through, he's saying, not only am I going to be the type of player he is, I'm going to contribute back in the same manner in which he is. It gives them that ownership."
As he stood before the Hy-Vee trucks in February, Morris said he only wished he could ride along and deliver the goods himself. But he had work to do. He's still doing it, and he doesn't want to stop here. The world is watching basketball now, he says. And the further Iowa State goes, he reasons, the more people will say, He's from Flint.
And maybe after people finish talking about all the bad things that have happened to his city, they'll find ways to help.
"I actually like speaking out," Morris said. "I want everybody to hear what I have to say about it."
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Basketball has been interesting enough for Iowa State and Morris this year. It began with a seismic change: Cyclones legend Fred Hoiberg left to take the Chicago Bulls head coaching gig and was replaced by Prohm, who was coming off a successful four-year run at Murray State. A team that was considered equipped to dethrone Kansas in the Big 12 and possibly make a run at a national title finished 10–8 in league play. It lost three of its last five games before the NCAA tournament. It was also perhaps no coincidence that Morris, who has averaged 13.9 points and 6.9 assists and a career-high 38 minutes per game this year, looked decidedly worn down. (He has been dealing with a lingering right shoulder injury this year.)
By Thursday, the outlook was brighter, despite the persistent rain outside the United Center.
The Cyclones dominated No. 13-seed Iona and No. 12 Little Rock to reach their second Sweet 16 in three seasons. One day earlier, the team had worked out at the Bulls practice facility across the street and received a pep talk from Hoiberg before attending the Bulls game against the Knicks that night. "He told us the same things he told us when he left," Cyclones senior forward Jameel McKay said. "We have a chance to do something that not any other team in Iowa State history has done, and to take advantage of the moment."
When Iowa State took the floor for its open practice Thursday, it looked loose and energized, an approach that will serve it well against Virginia's pack-line defense. Once their allotted time was done, the Cyclones gathered for a team picture at center court. Cass Prohm, the 1-year-old son of the head coach, guest-starred in the shot, held up by a beaming Monté Morris.
"That's what it's about," Steve Prohm said. "It's about the progression of how we become a team and how we get relationships stronger."
The idea is to build connections that can't be severed easily. In that case, as the cameras clicked, little Cass Prohm was in the surest hands possible.