Something sort of eerie is going on with the jerseys Gonzaga elects to raise to its rafters.
The two up there now were taken out of circulation long before they were officially retired. No one wore Frank Burgess’ No. 44 from his senior year in 1961 until his 2005 ceremony. Ditto with John Stockton, whose No. 12 sat in a drawer for 20 years after he went off to the NBA. Somebody, you figure, had a sense of history.
Now comes Adam Morrison, whose No. 3 goes up Thursday night at McCarthey Athletic Center, though without being technically retired. Four Bulldogs have worn it since he electrified college basketball in 2006 – including Filip Petrusev, the current model.
But there’s this: Morrison was the first Zag in 51 years to don No. 3.
In this case, maybe he was the one with the sense of history. Or at least a notion of how to bring a shirt back in fashion.
He is also keenly aware of the company he now keeps.
“Those two guys set standards,” Morrison said. “Frank led the nation in scoring and became a federal judge, and what John’s done in basketball and for the community speaks for itself. To be talked about with two guys so highly esteemed, that’s exciting.”
But in truth, as accomplished and revered as they were during their playing days, neither of them generated the same hubbub – even hysteria – as did Morrison, spinning Zags basketball from its nascent notoriety into yet another sphere.
Surely you know the vitals: college hoops’ leading scorer in 2006, when he was also a consensus All-American and co-Player of the Year by the measure of coaches and writers with Duke’s JJ Redick. Their long-distance rivalry for the scoring title gave the season its buzz, but it was Morrison’s style that provided the bite.
And nowadays, no one remembers how improbable it all was.
He was a local kid out of Mead High School – an ex-GU ballboy – with no other Division I offers, despite outsized scoring numbers.
“That was a little surprising, honestly,” Morrison admitted. “But I didn’t play on a big AAU team, and I think the Type 1 diabetes scared people. I’m sure they thought I was too slow and not a good athlete. So I was always grateful to Fewie (coach Mark Few) and the staff for going into the unknown.”
Which makes one wonder: How big did Morrison allow himself to dream?
“To be honest, I just wanted to not get redshirted that first year,” he said. “I felt I was good enough to play, and I wanted to be a part of it with those seniors.”
Something else that the Morrison supernova sometimes obscured.
He learned from heart-and-soul program-builders like Blake Stepp and Cory Violette. As a sophomore, he and Ronny Turiaf gave the Zags an unprecedented dynamic. And the ensemble of that 2006 season seemed uniquely suited to deal with both Morrison and the attendant mania.
“I played with great players,” Morrison said, “and with guys who kind of sacrificed their own personal deal. That included Ronny, but especially that junior year. David Pendergraft was a guy who could have said, ‘This is not for me – I don’t want to be a screener.’ I was lucky to have a pass-first point guard in Derek Raivio. Some of the things I was able to do came at their expense, but there was always a commitment to winning and you’ve always seen that in the program.”
These days, Morrison sees it from his courtside perch as the analyst on GU’s radio broadcasts. But he’s noticed that while Gonzaga continues to be everyone’s big game on the road and the gyms still fill, there’s a rawness and even some heat from his time that’s often missing.
Some of it is that there’s no villain like Mo himself – responding to hecklers by throwing up 40 points (five times that junior year) or jawing with face-guarding defenders. Whether it was banking in a 3 in Seattle to beat Oklahoma State or breaking down in tears when Gonzaga’s championship dreams were snuffed by UCLA’s incredible comeback in ’06, there always seemed to be drama – with Morrison in the middle of it.
He’s OK with reliving the history, and it’s a rare game now when a fan doesn’t seek him out to do just that and stand for a picture. But it’s not old glories that he finds most fulfilling about his Gonzaga experience.
“It’s that they allowed us to be ourselves,” he said. “That’s the thing I was most thankful for. I was never asked to change or to act in a certain way. There was a standard, but I was allowed to play and be myself, and they’ve done that with a lot of guys. And now they’ve accepted people from all over the planet and still maintained that same atmosphere and brotherhood.
“That’s why you see so many guys come back. When you retire from whatever sport you’re doing, you search the rest of your life trying to find a locker room.”
Because it’s not just a place to hang your jersey.