The college basketball season is barely a month old, yet the top two candidates for national player of the year are already talking smack. "You've gotta pull your weight, man!" Gonzaga's Adam Morrison howled at Duke's J.J. Redick one night last week, a few days before Morrison added another chapter to his growing hoops legend. "Time to pick it up!" ¬∂ "I know, I know!" came Redick's adrenaline-fueled response. "I'm trying!" ¬∂ As the country's premier defenders are learning, the shaggy-haired, '70s-porn-star-'stached Morrison can be a merciless squawker. "J.J. and I always give each other crap," he says. "He's a good player, but I think I'm a little better." ¬∂ Granted, Morrison is referring to Halo 2, the shoot-'em-up video game that allows Xbox Live users around the planet to compete (and talk trash) via broadband. As often as five times a week, Morrison and Redick--friends since they met at Michael Jordan's summer camp in 2004--will pull on their headsets and descend as teammates into a futuristic world of alien nasties and M-7 submachine guns. (Morrison's top-secret gamertag, or online handle, is the name of a notorious Communist dictator, Redick's that of a 19th-century composer.) "It's pretty addictive," says Redick, who admits his kill counts don't come close to those of Morrison, the self-proclaimed "best Halo 2 player in Spokane." ¬∂ Sometimes they talk shop, too. After Redick spent one Halo game offering Morrison tips on how to attack No. 12 Michigan State, the 6'8" junior forward trained his plasma rifle on the Spartans, pouring in a Maui Invitational-record 43 points in a 109-106 triple-overtime win on Nov. 22. And last week they had plenty to discuss after Redick dropped 41 points on Texas in a 97-66 victory and Morrison countered with 25 against Oklahoma State, banking in a preposterous last-second three-pointer to beat the Cowboys 64-62 at Seattle's KeyArena.
It was yet another did-you-see-that? moment for Morrison, a throwback gunner who has overcome all manner of obstacles--type 1 diabetes, collapsing triple teams and "Shave your mustache!" taunts--to lead the nation in scoring (28.5 points per game through Sunday) for the No. 10 Bulldogs. Of all the circus shots he has hit this season, none required more cojones than his last-second prayer against OSU, which he nailed with two defenders in his grille. "I've practiced that move hundreds of times," he says. "If you want to be a great player, you've got to take those kinds of shots."
More and more the nation's hoops cognoscenti are concluding that the best Halo 2 player in Spokane deserves a loftier superlative. "He's the best player in the country," says Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, whose No. 11 Huskies beat Gonzaga 99-95 in Seattle on Dec. 4 despite Morrison's second 43-point explosion this year. "We had three guys on him, and he just kept coming," marvels Romar, who considers Morrison the most dangerous attacker in the college game since Syracuse's Carmelo Anthony.
While NBA scouts are divided on where Morrison might land if he declares for next June's draft--some say in the top three; others, citing his spotty defense, say top 15--at least one agent thinks Morrison could be No. 1 in endorsements. "He'd be the most marketable guy in the draft," says Aaron Goodwin, who has represented several NBA All-Stars, including Gary Payton, Jason Kidd and (until recently) LeBron James. "The fact that he's having success as a diabetic sends a great message to kids, and he has a game that transcends race. When you look at him, you don't see Superman, you see Clark Kent. But then he'll come out of the phone booth and whip your butt."
The term coaches use to describe Morrison's offensive quiver is complete. He can score with ruthless efficiency on spinning drives, midrange jumpers, post-ups and fast-break finishes, and he has a preternatural knack for improvisation. "In the Michigan State game he hit a runner off one leg going down the lane from 17 feet," says Gonzaga assistant coach Bill Grier. "I've never seen him work on that shot before." Morrison spent last summer improving his movement away from the ball--he now uses screens and backdoor cuts with alacrity--and increasing the arc on his three-point shot. Sure enough, Morrison's long-range accuracy is up this season, to 37.8% from 31.1% (and his overall shooting to 53.5% from 49.8%).
As Morrison burnishes his folk-hero reputation, a growing number of observers are committing what some purists regard as sacrilege. "I think he's a poor man's Larry Bird," says Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. "Is he at the level of Larry? No, but very few people are even in the same area code as Bird, and I think he's in the area code. If he keeps improving, maybe he has a chance to be mentioned in the same breath."
When Morrison was seven his parents, John and Wanda, took him from their home in Casper, Wyo., to a Celtics-Nuggets game in Denver to watch Bird play. It was 1991, Bird's last season. "He looked like he could barely run--with his bad back--but at least I got to see him play," says Morrison, who wore old-school Converse Weapons (the shoe Bird endorsed) at Spokane's Mead High and devoured 1980s-era Celtics tapes.
Morrison isn't nearly as prolific a rebounder or as visionary a passer as Larry Legend was in college. Yet he does have that high-release jumper, that Promethean scoring ability, that extraordinary drive to win. "Adam's best quality isn't how much he scores, it's the type of competitor he is," says Bulldogs coach Mark Few. "Bird was known for being one of the greatest winners of all time. To me that's going to be what Adam is ultimately judged on: How far does he lead us? All the great ones led their teams deep."
New comparisons keep sprouting--the latest are to Alex English, Pete Maravich and John Havlicek--but in some respects they undervalue Morrison's funky but mesmerizing style, which is sui generis. Consider, for example, what teammate Derek Raivio calls Morrison's "grimy little mustache," a new look this season. "It's the first time I've been able to grow facial hair," Morrison says. "I know it doesn't look great, but I'm pretty proud of it." A left-leaning thinker, Morrison isn't as freewheeling with his political opinions anymore after receiving angry letters for provocative statements he made as a freshman (SI, Jan. 19, 2004). "I still have the same views, but I tend to keep them to myself more," he says.
His coaches and teammates can't help but laugh when they recount Mo stories. Take the time he was yanked from a game and apologized to a bewildered Few for "playing like a f---ing Communist." Or when the coaches were struggling to teach the younger players a multioption offensive set and Morrison interjected, "It's not that hard, guys. All these plays only have one option." Or when Few, a preacher's son, asked his players to consider attending one of three local churches, and Morrison wrote on a dry erase board: RELIGION IS THE OPIATE OF THE MASSES.
"I don't think any coach in the history of basketball has seen that quote in his locker room," says Few. "I don't necessarily believe what I wrote," Morrison explains, "but I just wanted to see Coach Few's reaction and start a debate with him."
That's not the only debate he's sparking these days. Who's the nation's top college basketball player: Morrison or Redick? After their remarkable performances last week, it was hard to tell. "We'll probably see each other on Halo tonight," Morrison predicted on Saturday. "I'll say 'Good game,' and he'll say 'Good game.' Then we'll focus on how many guys we can kill on the screen. It'll be fun."
At the rate these 40-point gunners are obliterating their foes on terra firma, so will the rest of the season.