A candid conversation with Gonzaga legend Adam Morrison - Sports Illustrated

Catching up with Adam Morrison—Gonzaga's nonconformist star who captivated the nation

Ten years after he captivated the nation with his unusual appearance and incredible scoring output, Adam Morrison is reveling in the run his alma mater has made to the Final Four.
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SPOKANE, Wash. — Jack and Dan's Bar and Grill, the classic watering hole in the vicinity of Gonzaga's campus that was formerly co-owned by John Stockton's father, is sleepy on the rainy Tuesday night before the Final Four. Just a few tables are in use—one crew celebrating the completion of a final exam, another half-watching a replay of an NIT semifinal, another having dinner—making it an easy place for one of college basketball's great, cult figures to slip in unbothered, his long hair tucked inside a turned-up hoodie, and sit down to discuss the past and present Zags.

Adam Morrison is living a simpler life now, at least compared to the madness that surrounded his Gonzaga team in 2005-06, when he and Duke's J.J. Redick engaged in a cross-coastal war for the national scoring title, and the Zags' season infamously ended with a Sweet 16 collapse against UCLA—one that was punctuated with the televised image of Morrison weeping, openly, while sitting on the court.

On this Tuesday, Morrison had just come from conducting exit interviews with high school hoops players he coaches at Spokane's Mead High, where he once played and is currently an assistant. Now 32 years old—he was drafted No. 3 overall by the Charlotte Bobcats in 2006, and last played in the NBA in 2010—Morrison is a father to two young daughters and a 7-month-old boy. He lives in Spokane, earned a graduate degree in sports management from Gonzaga in 2015, and still gets his competitive fix by playing poker at local Native American casinos. He's become enough of a politics-and-economics junkie, and an avowed libertarian, that he was eager to spar with a liberal, visiting reporter on that front—off-the-record—and then talk Zags hoops with the recorder running. 

The following Q&A was edited for length and readability.

SI:For you, what's the legacy of that 2006 Gonzaga-UCLA game? I feel like, prior to this Final Four trip, that might be the program's defining, NCAA tournament image [in its modern, non-Cinderella era].

Adam Morrison: We thought we had a Final Four team that year, so that part stings. But I didn't let it rule, or ruin, my life. It was hard at first, just because of all the pushback I got for showing emotion, which I understand. I was one of the better players in the country at the time. But it's just funny, this year, you see everybody crying after those types of games—you saw Kentucky's guys do it, you saw it with Xavier, you saw it with Florida. It happens.

It doesn't bother me that I showed emotion. The only thing that bothers me is the loss.

SI:When you were in the NBA, was it something that you heard about from fellow players?

Morrison: When I first got there, no [players] gave me guff, because a lot of them understood where it was coming from, right? They all played their last [college] game somewhere, and aside from select few, they lost. … A lot of times I got like, 'Hey man, I understand where you were coming from.'

But my first day in L.A., after I got traded there [from Charlotte, in February 2009], I show up for my first practice, and the famous picture of me crying is all over the locker room. I just got traded to the best team in the world, and there's maybe 10 pictures, taped up, of me crying my eyes out, like: Welcome to the team. They wanted to see how I would react. It was kind of a test, like, 'You gonna get mad about this or not?'

I laughed. I was fine with it, because I think it was [former UCLA point guard] Jordan Farmar who did it, which was funny. I knew him from before—I hosted him on a recruiting visit—so I knew he was just poking fun at me.

SI:Your last few teams at Gonzaga had the identity of offensive powerhouses—kind of like UCLA this season—that just tried to outscore people. Whereas this year's Zags have become, analytically speaking, the No. 1 defense in the nation. Why do you think [coach] Mark Few had you guys playing that way then, and this team operating so differently?

Morrison: I think Fewy probably wanted to play the same way [in 2006] that they're playing now. We just didn't have the personnel, and I'm including myself moreso than anybody.

The biggest difference now is the depth, the big guards, and just the willingness to play defense. They're unbelievable now—they rotate, guys talk, they switch and they don't have weaknesses. Even [7'1" center] Przemek [Karnowski] can move his feet in ballscreen defense and keep his hands high. We tried to play defense, but we just weren't very good at it.

SI:You used to wear a t-shirt that famously denigrated defense, right? What did it say again?

Morrison: It said, "IF IT WASN'T FOR OFFENSE, I'D PLAY DEFENSE." My dad gave that to me when I was a kid. It was one of those old, '70s t-shirts, and I wish I still had it, because it's awesome. It's one of those t-shirts that just fits. I used to wear it in pickup games when I played; it probably didn't go over well, but we were good at scoring.


SI:Are there any other NCAA tournament stories or memories that you don't get asked about as much as UCLA, but have stuck with you?

Morrison: One of my vivid memories, to this day, was at the end of my sophomore year [of 2004-05]—I missed a game-winner against Texas Tech, a game we should have won. They were a hard-nosed Bobby Knight team that came back to beat us, and I missed a three at the end. I walked into the locker room and saw [Martinique-born former Zags star] Ronny Turiaf by himself in the corner of the shower, in the University of Arizona locker room, just crying like a child.

And I felt so much guilt, like, I just ended this man's career—a guy who would pretty much set the table for all the Europeans to come to Gonzaga, and I just felt so guilty, like, why didn't I go to the basket? Or why didn't I make that shot? He's a good friend of mine to this day and that memory just sucks. It wasn't fun.

SI:If we're focusing on personalities, and not just defense, how would you describe the identity of this year's Gonzaga team, and how it maybe differs from when you played?

Morrison: I think this year's team is laser-focused, and I would have said that even if they didn't make the Final Four. We haven't seen many dips in their level of play. I attribute it to Nigel [Williams-Goss], and I said that to Fewy when I saw him 3-4 weeks ago. [Williams-Goss] has changed whole dynamic of this team and the culture of this team. You can just tell that everybody follows in his footsteps. I've never met the kid, but I've always given him praise: I love his focus.

SI:It's kind of another step in the evolution of the program.

Morrison: It's been this amazing, organic movement. The program really started to take off with that '99 tournament run, and it's just crazy that they could go from, how do I say this P.C.—slow white guys to McDonald's All-America type players? It's crazy. After they beat Xavier to go the Final Four, I just felt this sense of pride, having been a part of this thing that grew organically over almost 20 years.

SI:Even though this year's team was ranked No. 1 in the nation for a while, and went on the long undefeated run, I felt like you and your teams … were still more of a circus-like attraction on the road.

Morrison: Fewy always described it as traveling with The Beatles, and that's a cliche term, but it was also kind of true. We had people lining up in our hotels, guys jumping on our buses, guys hounding us for autographs.

After 18 years, Gonzaga—and one longtime follower—can finally celebrate a Final Four berth

SI:What was the craziest thing that happened on the road during that '06-07 season?

Morrison: One of the craziest experiences was at San Diego. I used to get in a wrestling match with this kid on their team [Corey Belser]. He was a good player, but we used to beat the s--- out of each other. I think he held me to 18 points or something, but one of my teammates hit a game-winner at the buzzer. It was a day game, and we're waiting outside on the bus, and somehow these two guys run on the bus and start yelling, 'Belser's B----!, Belser's B----!' at me. These guys were foaming at the mouth, and after the game, people had been throwing water bottles at me. The whole thing was just nuts.

And then—this was bad for both myself and J.J. Redick that year”—every place you went, there was a guy with a duffel bag and 18 Sports Illustrateds, just waiting for you to autograph them so he could go slang them on eBay.

SI:Were you looking on eBay that season and seeing this stuff?

Morrison: Well … another story is, we were playing at Pepperdine in a conference game, and I had a bloody nose, so they put some gauze up it and once it stopped, I threw it underneath the basket. Somebody grabbed it and put it on eBay, and my parents saw it, and I think the university stepped in and got eBay to stop the auction.

It was a booger-filled, bloody-nose wad of gauze and someone was trying to sell it. That was disgusting. When it gets to that point, you feel like a sideshow ape or something, honestly.

SI:You remain one of the biggest cult figures in college hoops over the past few decades. Why do you think you were such a rare phenomenon?

Morrison: I think we all know the answer, and I hope you portray it the right way, but: I'm white. That has something to do with it, wouldn't you agree?

SI:Certainly. There's some link there between you and Jimmer or McDermott—but your thing was still different.

Morrison: So that was part of it. Another part was, we're a school that's in nobody's conference, so it's easy to be somebody's second-favorite team. And the style we played was run and gun, let it fly. And then, I was a scorer. Everybody likes scorers.

SI: And it seemed like Gonzaga never tried to cramp your style—the hair, the mustache, the way you played. There are other schools that might've been restrictive.

Morrison: One of the biggest things I'm thankful for is that Gonzaga always let me be myself. And they still do, to this day, I'm still welcomed there. I'm not a normal guy—I think you've gathered that—but I never felt pressure from them to conform to anything.