Lakers guard Darius Morris tries to split the defense of Thunder guard Kevin… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
Born in Hawthorne and raised in Carson, Darius Morris spent his childhood cheering for the Lakers – largely because of his his admiration for Kobe Bryant. Morris is less than four years removed from his playing days at Windward School, and now his childhood idol is not only a teammate, but a mentor and friend.
In 2009, Morris led Windward to its first state championship in his senior season. Then his basketball career took an unexpected turn toward a bottom-dwelling college program 2,250 miles away. To know why Morris chose Michigan, it's important to understand how being a perennial underdog has always motivated him. Perhaps that's why, after being recruited by traditional basketball powerhouses like Kentucky and Arizona, as well as USC, Morris chose Michigan -- a low-end Big Ten program that by the time he signed hadn't made the NCAA tournament in more than 10 years. Four years after Morris' signing, the program he helped rebuild is in the Final Four -- thanks in large part to his influence that continues in Ann Arbor to this day.
In his first season at Michigan, Morris struggled mightily. One of the nation's highest ranked point guards coming out of high school, he averaged only 4.4 points and 2.6 assists as Michigan finished 15-17 despite beginning the season ranked in the top 25. In Michigan's four-game trip to Europe the next summer, the sophomore-to-be averaged only six points and just over three assists per game, shooting a woeful 29% from the floor.
"I had a tough time proving to them what I was recruited for and what I could be," he said. "But that struggle taught me how to be accountable and look at myself instead of pointing the finger."
Perhaps the turnaround of the Michigan basketball program began at 6 a.m. on Sept. 7, 2010, in the Wolverines' now outdated basketball arena. After waking roommate Jordan Morgan with his alarm clock, Morris crept quietly out of his first-floor dorm room at West Quadrangle, where mostly freshman and sophomore student-athletes are housed. The sun hadn't yet risen, but Morris was already in full sprint toward Michigan's Crisler Arena, about a mile away. Basketball manager Nick Berlage met Morris at Crisler, and the two began a shooting drill that included Morris making 500 jumpers and performing a variety of dribbling and passing drills. With Berlage's help, Morris practiced shooting from everywhere on the court.
"I took Coach [John] Beilein's drills and tried to perfect everything he was teaching me at the time," said Morris, describing the workout. "I wanted to perfect everything I had learned."
Although it didn't seem like much at first, Morris repeated the process every morning until the start of the season on Nov. 5, practicing at night on weekends too. He did all workouts in addition to regular team workouts, without the knowledge of his teammates or coaches.
"The janitor would see me and the managers would see me. But the only teammate that knew about it was Jordan Morgan because my alarm would always wake him up," Morris laughed. "He would get so mad."
As the season began, Morris quickly emerged as Michigan's on-court leader. Unlike his freshman season and the exhibition trip, he showed confidence shooting. Morris' leadership, combined with the emergence of freshman Tim Hardaway Jr., helped boost the Wolverines to a surprising 10-2 start in the nonconference season. Morris led the team with averages of 15.8 points and 7.5 assists.
"I think it was a total shock for everybody," said Morris of his emergence. "I was more relieved, because I knew the kind of work I was putting in."
Still, Michigan had played only one ranked team in that stretch, No. 10 Syracuse, and lost. When the Wolverines started 1-6 in Big Ten Conference play, the Michigan athletic department began offering free pizza for students who came to games, and $9 tickets for the public that included a hot dog and a drink, all to fill seats in an otherwise emptying arena.
"It was kind of a shock for us, 1-6," said Morris. "But it was kind of another place, another fork in the road where our season could have finished very poorly or very well."
The day after a loss to Minnesota and three days before the team's next game at rival Michigan State, Morris called a players-only meeting to apologize for his poor performance.
"There were things I could have done better," he admitted. "I didn't give my best effort at all."
All 15 players gathered around center court at Crisler Arena; the coaching staff was asked to wait before taking the floor with the team. Morris started what was supposed to be a simple statement, apologizing for his poor performance and vowing to be held accountable for his actions on the court.
"He called the players in, apologized, and said it wouldn't happen again," recalls former guard Zack Novak.