Counter Puncher Gonzaga's Adam Morrison, who does daily battle with diabetes and the limits of conventional thinking, is a most refreshing freshman

January 19, 2004

Do Adam Morrison a favor. Don't make him a poster child. ¶ Check
that. Don't make him a poster child for diabetes. Oh, it's part
of his life, and he's happy to talk about it, but there are so
many other posters you could design for Gonzaga's trippy freshman
forward. Revolutionary posters, boxing posters, hoops posters.
(Who knows, maybe even a wanted poster.) Countless basketball
players decorate their walls with posters of Larry Bird, but how
many hang pictures of Che Guevara and Karl Marx? How many can
recite their favorite Allen Ginsberg poem? How many would defend
their dormitory's honor in a prizefight one day, then go and drop
20 on Stanford the next?

"You don't want to be stuck in the world of conformity," Morrison
says, lounging in his DeSmet Hall dorm room below a red Che
banner with the slogan hasta la victoria siempre (Always, until
victory). "Some people think I'm a Communist, but I'm not. I just
like to see the other-side-of-the-fence point of view." Hand
Morrison a copy of Jon Lee Anderson's 813-page book, Che, and the
response comes quickly: "Already read it." The Autobiography of
Malcolm X? Already read it. The Communist Manifesto? The Wealth
of Nations? Read those too.

Talk about throwbacks. Which decade is this kid from anyway? The
1960s? Or the 1840s?

Truth be told, Morrison has been rebelling since he arrived on
the Gonzaga campus, which is in his hometown of Spokane. You want
subversive? Subversive is infiltrating a senior-dominated
rotation, going from surefire redshirt to sure-firing gunner for
the No. 16 Bulldogs. Subversive is flying under the recruiting
radar, committing to Gonzaga in April 2002 as a 6'4" waif and
showing up this past August as a sturdy 6'8" forward (who may
still be growing). Most amazing of all, Morrison has crashed the
short list of the nation's top freshmen--at week's end he was
averaging 12.0 points in just 22.3 minutes a game--while waging
war against a deadly disease that afflicts some 18 million
Americans.

"We see him as such a vibrant part of our basketball family,"
says Gonzaga coach Mark Few, "but then you remember: This is a
life-threatening deal." That's an easy fact to forget for anyone
who is captivated by Morrison's precocious playing style, which
is just the way he likes it. "I'm just a normal player with
something on the side," he says. "I've never said, 'I have
diabetes, so I can't bust my ass on this play.'" His maturity
extends to embracing his role as the Zags' sixth man. "We've got
five seniors who have put in the time, so I'm better coming off
the bench," says Morrison. "My job is to provide energy, rebound
and play defense. Scoring is extra. The best advice I ever got
was, Don't worry about your numbers."

Well, that's not entirely true, for there are certain numbers
that consume Morrison's attention, numbers he depends on for his
very survival.

by now Morrison has the routine down cold. Using a spring-loaded
lancet, he pricks one of his fingertips and squeezes a drop of
blood onto a test strip in a small device called a glucometer.
Within five seconds it registers a number. If Morrison's blood
sugar level is between 100 and 150 (measured in milligrams of
glucose per deciliter of blood), he won't do anything. If it's
too low, he'll drink some fruit juice or swallow some peanuts or
glucose tablets. Too high and he'll pull up his shirt and give
himself an insulin shot in the abdomen. There's little unusual
about the process--up to a million Americans have type 1
diabetes--except for where it's taking place.

On the Gonzaga bench. During a timeout. In the middle of a game.

"Pit stops," Morrison calls them, and with the help of Bulldogs
trainer Steve DeLong he has trimmed the ritual to around 40
seconds, leaving enough time for him to hear last-minute
instructions from the coaching staff before returning to the
court.

Type 1 diabetics like Morrison have high levels of glucose, the
body's major fuel source, because of an autoimmune disorder that
renders the pancreas unable to produce insulin, the hormone that
pushes glucose out of the blood into the cells of the body. Even
with insulin therapy, the disease can be devastating. By age 55,
35% of type 1 victims have died of a heart attack, and in the 15
years after diagnosis 80% suffer significant damage to their
eyesight. Type 1 has a strong genetic link, and Morrison counts
diabetics on both sides of his family tree. His maternal
grandmother, Mae Hames, died at 51 of diabetes complications,
while a paternal great-grandfather, Jim Morrison, lost a leg as a
result of the disease.

Morrison's parents, John and Wanda, can vividly recall the exact
day they learned that their youngest child had diabetes: May 2,
1999. Adam, an eighth-grader, had lost 30 pounds that spring,
dropping from 130 to 100. When he could barely run at a
basketball camp operated by former Gonzaga coach Dan Fitzgerald,
the Morrisons set up a doctor's appointment. "We knew that we
were predisposed as a family to diabetes, so we watched for it
closely," Wanda says. "Quite frankly, I knew in my heart." The
call came within hours of taking his blood sample: Get Adam to
the hospital now. Anyone who has a fasting glucose level above
125 is considered a diabetic. Adam's was 865.

"For a few days I thought I was going to die," Adam says. "I
weighed so little, and my blood sugar was so high. But then I
figured out I can still be active and get used to it." His
specialist, Dr. Ken Cathcart, made it clear from the start:
Diabetes is not a death sentence. In fact, many diabetics have
had successful sports careers (page 65).

Moreover, the treatments for controlling diabetes have never been
better. When he's not playing, Morrison carries an insulin pump,
an iPod-sized unit attached to a wire-thin tube implanted in his
abdomen. It might be the only time Morrison, a gunner at heart,
is happy to limit his shots. "I thought it would be weird having
a machine connected to me, but pushing a couple of buttons is so
much better than taking four shots a day, and you get used to
this thing instantly," he says.

Morrison has also figured out over the years which game-day
routine works best for him. Whereas the other Gonzaga players
meet for their pregame meal four hours before tip-off, Morrison
eats two hours and 15 minutes beforehand. His protein-packed
menu--two five-ounce steaks, a baked potato and peas--is always
the same, the better to maintain his glucose level. "I usually
get a better meal than everybody, so I can't complain," he
cracks.

After eating, Morrison checks his numbers every half hour until
game time, once more during warmups and again during breaks in
the action. Blood sugar is notoriously unpredictable in
diabetics, especially diabetic athletes, whose readings can
nosedive to dangerously low (even coma-inducing) levels because
of sickness or a surge of adrenaline. "We haven't had any
problems this year, knock on wood," says Morrison, who usually
sits out if his number dips much below 70, "but there's probably
going to be a game where it's messed up, because there always is
every year." Last spring his level went out of whack at the worst
possible time: the state title game, during which Morrison's
blood sugar, sent plummeting by the flu, hit 54. He felt, he
recalls, as if he were running in sand. After his parents
scrambled to get him some extra fruit juice (he'd already
exhausted his usual supply), Morrison somehow scored 37 points in
a losing cause.

Morrison hasn't missed a game yet for the Zags--his single-game
record for courtside insulin shots is three--but he admits that
he's still learning about the disease, which is why he's quick to
respond to other young diabetics. Already he has helped persuade
two diabetic high school athletes in Washington to wear insulin
pumps. "To watch Adam's career unfold is a blessing to us," says
Wanda. "But as proud as we are about that, we're more proud of
how he took on this burden and said, 'O.K., this is what I have
to do.'"

one night last fall, not long before the start of basketball
season, Morrison was watching K-Zag, a show on Gonzaga's
student-access channel 16. When a K-Zag loudmouth boasted he
could destroy anyone from all-male DeSmet Hall in a boxing match,
Morrison called him and accepted the challenge. Wearing headgear
and gloves, they duked it out in the courtyard surrounded by a
crowd that included 50 of Morrison's dorm brothers chanting,
"DE-SMET! DE-SMET!" It was more mock fight than prizefight;
Morrison finished his foe off in 15 seconds, then ran to
celebrate, Rocky-style, up the steps of a nearby building.

From the day he became a Bulldogs ball boy in the fifth grade,
Morrison seemed destined for Gonzaga, the Little Jesuit School
That Could. A classic coach's son, he grew up with the game,
riding on long bus trips with his father's teams at Casper (Wyo.)
College. Says John, a former European pro who's now a high school
referee, "It wasn't uncommon for me to be changing Adam's diapers
in the locker room before a game." As Adam's AAU coach for four
years, John made sure to teach him perimeter skills, reasoning
that his son would probably mature late, as he himself had, and
that's exactly what happened. When Adam sprained his wrist early
last year, his doctor looked at the X-rays and could tell by
Adam's growth plates that he was going to get bigger.

Coach Few started pursuing Morrison two years ago after hearing
reports of how "that Morrison kid" was torching his Zags in
off-season pickup games. Although Morrison set the Greater
Spokane League career scoring record (1,904 points) at Mead High,
few observers thought he would contribute much this season to one
of the nation's deepest and most experienced teams. Expectations
started changing last summer, though, soon after senior point
guard Blake Stepp confided to assistant Bill Grier, "I'm telling
you, Adam's like our third-best player." Says Grier, "Blake
doesn't have many opinions about other players, so for him to say
that was something, like maybe Adam's better than we thought."

The word has seeped out. In his debut, a 73-66 loss to then No.
17 Saint Joseph's on Nov. 14, Morrison introduced himself to
Madison Square Garden by yanking down a rebound, zipping coast to
coast and canning a preposterous fallaway 18-footer. (Not bad for
his first collegiate touch.) "Honestly, I didn't know half the
plays," Morrison says of his first (and still only) start, which
was necessitated by injuries. "I was nervous as hell the whole
game." Most revealing, perhaps, is the fact that his top three
scoring outbursts have come against heavyweights Maryland (18
points), Missouri (17) and Stanford (20), the first two of which
helped seal victories that will be crucial to Gonzaga's NCAA
tournament seeding in March. With his high-release fadeaway
jumper, Morrison bears an uncanny resemblance to his idol, Larry
Bird, whom he began studying in reruns of classic NBA games. "I'm
not very athletic, and I can't jump, so I figured, you might as
well model your game after somebody who's similar to you," he
says. "It's funny. He's the only player who has a highlight tape
without a dunk."

But don't expect him to emulate Bird in every regard. Morrison
believes that athletes should speak out on global issues--as long
as they're informed. "Look at Bill Walton when he was playing,"
Morrison says. "He wasn't afraid to say how he felt about
anything. Athletes are citizens too. But you can't just go off
like Rasheed Wallace or John Rocker."

Morrison can go off too, but what spills out of his mouth is
informed by his broad interests. It might be the Ginsberg poem
Hadda Been Playin' on the Jukebox ("The CIA and the Mafia are in
cahoots...."). It might be his rationale for boycotting
Audioslave, the deradicalized remnants of his alltime favorite
band, Rage Against the Machine. ("I felt betrayed. I can't see
those guys not being political.") It might be his takes on
subjects from Winston Churchill ("greatest leader of the 20th
century") to stem-cell research ("If it's going to cure diseases,
why not?") to his fascination with Che.

Morrison first encountered Guevara while researching a history
paper on Cuba in his sophomore year of high school. "He was a
doctor and a revolutionary, a guy who could go from the operating
room to the jungle, and that really interested me," he says.

As you might expect, Morrison's views have sparked plenty of
mirth among his teammates on long bus trips. Says senior center
Richard Fox, "I like Morrison a lot, and I'm a pretty liberal
guy, but not as much as he is. Don't worry: We'll make him a
capitalist soon." Morrison, though, says his views are more
nuanced than his teammates would have you believe; he calls
Marxism "a good idea that will never work. It's impossible to
make things totally fair."

Small wonder that Morrison, who hopes to take a Modern
Revolutionaries course next summer, is considering a major in
philosophy. And whether you agree or disagree with him, you can't
help but smile at his Waltonian chutzpah. Idealism lives. Hasta
la victoria siempre.

SI.com
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COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY RICH FRISHMAN UP AGAINST THE WALL Morrison's dorm room is festooned with images that reveal his wide range of interests. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS SUPER SUB Sixth man Morrison (driving on Chet Stachitas of Saint Joseph's) supplies instant energy and offense. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS QUICK SHOT During his "pit stops," Morrison can complete the insulin-injection process in 40 seconds.

COACH FEW STARTED HEARING HOW "THAT MORRISON KID" WAS TORCHING
HIS ZAGS IN PICKUP GAMES

"I'VE NEVER SAID, 'I HAVE DIABETES, SO I CAN'T BUST MY ASS ON
THIS PLAY,'" MORRISON SAYS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)