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John Blanchette: Morrison one of a kind

Gonzaga forward Adam Morrison was almost always the center of attention during this past season, whether with his adoring fans or the media.
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga forward Adam Morrison was almost always the center of attention during this past season, whether with his adoring fans or the media. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

Just as an exercise, whenever someone invokes the phrase “the next level,” imagine yourself on a department store elevator.

From the second floor, it’s pretty obvious what the next level is.

But if the toys are on 2 and men’s suits are on 3, it’s just as obvious where the fun is.

Inevitably, however, there comes the day. …

For Adam Morrison, it came Wednesday. He put on a suit – well, a shirt and tie – and made official what everyone has been presuming of him for a year, a leap to the National Basketball Association before the clock on his college career ran out. There were enough wistful moments at his press conference to call to mind another early jumper to the pros who once said, “I don’t want to leave college, but it’s time for me to go do the next best thing.”

But in the end, that’s not Morrison. He is very much a basketball guy and the best players play at “the next level.” So while there were tugs to keep him in Spokane – really, whether hard-bitten souls wanted to believe it or not – the pull from the other direction was stronger.

Also there were keys to a new SUV in his pocket. So it’s not as if the toy department is a faint memory.

“It’s basketball in my mind,” he said. “It’s going to be fun, too – not strictly business.”

Maybe that’s the best wish that can be sent along with him – that in two, 10 or 20 years, he can walk away from the pro game still feeling that way.

This much is certain: Things will never be the same at Gonzaga.

Oh, some other Bulldogs team will win 29 games and reach the Sweet 16, probably. Eight years into this giddy escapade, the odds are now more tilted toward it happening again than it not happening. Not next year – not when the best player in the nation (J.J. Redick’s lifetime achievement awards notwithstanding) is leaving, along with probably the best big man the program has seen. But the Zags have reinvented themselves before – and there’s every chance another young player with fire and feel will show up at their door and develop into something special before their eyes.

But it won’t come down like this.

“Nobody has ever had an impact at a place like this the way he has,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “Our program was riding high on national notoriety before this, but because of him, it’s off the charts.”

There are many ways to illustrate that, but one way to distill it.

From the day he tattooed Michigan State for 43 points in Maui to the last strains of “One Shining Moment,” Morrison was on somebody’s TV network or cable channel or million-hit-a-day Web site every day and night for four months. Maybe it was a SportsCenter highlight or the professional yellers on “Around the Horn” or a CBS game or another poll about the mustache – Rollie Fingers didn’t get this kind of attention for a mustache, and his had style – but it was a daily dose. Yes, maybe an overdose.

Thanksgiving to April Fools’. All Adam, all the time.

And by association, all Gonzaga – even if it didn’t always seem that way. Morrison acknowledged as much when he paid tribute to his teammates Wednesday.

“Sometimes that team success meant the light shined on me when it could have been shining on somebody else,” he said.

There were other side effects. Having to register him under an alias in hotels. Managers and coaches forming a human tunnel between arena and bus to shield him from the eBay jackals.

Which reminds us: the bloody gauze.

There is something about Morrison’s game and swagger and talk and sense of theatre – all honed right here in Spokane – that didn’t just capture imaginations, but made some people lose their minds. And if the craziness was excessive and the debate often veered into the hurtful, it was still helpful to Gonzaga.

“This game of his and persona of his has street credibility, it has suburb credibility, it’s regional, it’s socioeconomic – it’s everything,” said Few. “I don’t think there’s a (recruit) we’ve talked to on the phone who doesn’t start the conversation with, ‘I love Adam Morrison.’ So obviously it’s helped there. And the fact that he’s so highly thought of and will be picked so high, it’s a great thing for him but it’s a great thing for our program, too.”

Will he be the same superstar at that next level? Beyond the fact that it would be nice for him and the fans who’ll track his career, does it really matter so much?

Adam Morrison has been a transcendent college player and he’s done it here in his hometown, a special gift.

And just as the Gonzaga staff made it a mission to build on that initial NCAA success, the Adam legacy is no less a responsibility – even if, beginning next season, things will never be quite the same.

“It’ll be,” said Few, allowing himself a smile at the multiple meanings, “a lot quieter here.”

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