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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

‘Settled’ with his playing past, Morrison returns to GU as assistant

By his own admission, Adam Morrison has gone to the dark side.

No, not of the moon or the Star Wars’ version. He’s patrolling the sidelines just like his dad, John, albeit at the bottom rung of the coaching ladder as the newest addition to Gonzaga’s basketball staff.

At practice earlier this week Morrison pulled Louisville transfer Angel Nunez aside for a brief chat, gesturing to a spot on the court to emphasize his point. Morrison then walked to the other end of the floor to help five players learn an offensive set.

Morrison eased into coaching last year at his alma mater, Mead High School. He has graduated to his collegiate alma mater, Gonzaga, where he became the nation’s leading scorer in 2006, adorned magazine covers, shared player of the year honors with Duke’s J.J. Redick and was eventually selected by Charlotte with the third pick in the NBA Draft.

“Just doing this last year it’s crazy how you go from a player and ‘These coaches are on my ass for the littlest stuff’ to ‘Coach, I get it now, you didn’t close off the baseline, I have to yell at you,’  ” Morrison says. “We used to call it the dark side. You go to the dark side right away.”

It’s a good place to be, especially for Morrison. He’s a student assistant, where he can do what most coaches do with the exception of recruiting and he probably won’t be breaking down video since he’s carrying 18 credits.

Morrison, 29, is basically a scholarship student-athlete again, back in class with his education paid for by the university but with different duties on the court.

“A lot of people when they first heard said, ‘Why?’ ” Morrison said. “I said, ‘Why wouldn’t you want to further your education and I get a chance to coach here. I’m the lucky one. I’m getting experience in a great program. I get to come back to the university I played for. I get to stay at home. And if everything goes right then doors open up for me.”

He knows all about doors closing on him during a checkered NBA career. A prolific scorer at GU with five games of 40 points or more, Morrison averaged 11.8 points as a rookie with Charlotte but lost his starting job midway through the season.

Then came a torn ACL and a lost season, a new coach, a trade to the Lakers and a couple of seasons where he was pretty much a fixture at the end of the bench on two championship teams. He launched a comeback attempt overseas and played well, drawing interest from NBA teams. He averaged 20 points per game for the Clippers’ summer league team. He had a brief stay with Portland but was released roughly 11 months ago.

“I didn’t play well enough,” Morrison said matter of factly. “They had 15 guys on guaranteed (contracts). I would have had to play out of my mind and somebody else would have had to play badly.”

Morrison is pragmatic about his NBA career.

“There was a time in the past it was really upsetting,” he said. “It was a combination of things. I didn’t play well my first year and then I had a knee injury. Then there was a new coach and I got traded to a very good team. So that part is frustrating, but at the same time I had so many life experiences, made so many friends and did so many things that other people have never had had the opportunity to do. I had a good career leading up to that and I’m settled with it.”

It was time to move on.

“I made that decision the day I got cut by Portland,” he said. “As good as I played in summer league and then I couldn’t even get a half-guarantee (contract) or a make-good (contract). I went to Europe and played well. Then I came back and had a good summer league and if I can’t make it then I’m not going to be one of those guys that beats my head against the wall. Sometimes you have to look at yourself in the mirror.”

Morrison always knew he’d transition into coaching at some point. His dad, a collegiate coach with stops in Wyoming, South Dakota and Montana, coached Adam through eighth grade. Morrison exited Gonzaga for the NBA after his junior year, leaving about a year of classes to finish his sports management degree.

“He has a very high basketball IQ and he sees things in a very unique perspective,” Bulldogs assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. “He has a little of that ‘been there, done that’ persona. And he’s arguably the greatest competitor we’ve ever had. He brings toughness, fire and competitiveness that will be good for our guys to be exposed to.”

Lloyd has stressed numerous aspects of Morrison’s game to GU players in recent years.

“Whether it’s helping a guy raise his shooting pocket or how he picks a ball up from the floor and the path it travels,” Lloyd said. “Those are things he did that I always talked to Kelly (Olynyk) about, the release point on the shot, ball positioning and movement. Adam was really a master at that stuff.”

Asked if he was easy to coach, Morrison pauses for a second.

“At times,” he said. “I don’t think I was a distraction to coach, but I was ornery. That’s something you’d probably have to ask Coach (Mark) Few. I think I was all right, but I’m sure there were moments he was like, ‘This guy …’ ”

Morrison worried how he might be perceived by students and faculty but the reception has been overwhelmingly positive. He chats with inquisitive students. A professor in class brought up the McCarthey Athletic Center, prompting Morrison to chuckle to himself, ‘Yeah, I played in the old building, too.’

Morrison is fully aware of the opinions others have formed about him and his NBA career. He offers a typically blunt reply on the topic of his image.

“People always assume I’m really aloof and maybe a jerk at times, but I’m just more of an introverted person,” he said. “I don’t have an outgoing personality so people portray that as being mean or whatever, but I wasn’t very comfortable in large social settings and I never have been.”

He’s already making an impression on the players.

“I saw him when he was in high school when I was in Seattle. I don’t know what grade I was in but I was young,” junior guard Gary Bell Jr. said. “I was like, ‘Who is this guy.’ I went up to him and said, ‘Man, you’re really good,’ and he said, ‘Thanks.’

“He’s a funny guy and not a lot of people see that. He kind of keeps to himself but when he does say something it’s meaningful.”

Morrison’s role will become more defined over time but he enjoys being part of a team again. The players refer to him as Adam or Mo, not coach.

“I see a lot of myself in some of them, which is funny,” Morrison said. “And then I shake my head, too, because I see the stuff I used to do. But GU has always had a good group of guys, that’s the beauty of the program.”

Morrison’s imprint on the program is unmistakable.

“He’s obviously a huge part of the history of our program,” Lloyd said. “I don’t think people really understand how deep that runs with him and his family. A lot of his best memories were while he was at this university and on this floor.”

Like any good coach, he’s preparing for every situation. For example, will he wear a tie on game day?

“I don’t know if I’m going to travel or if I’m going to sit on the bench,” Morrison says. “I did go to Men’s Wearhouse and get some suits. I don’t mind dressing up a little bit. Shoot, I did it in L.A. for 110 games so I guess I’m kind of used to it.”

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