Sports Illustrated-Adam Morrison vs. Larry Bird

Adam Morrison vs. Larry Bird

Gonzaga forward Adam Morrison has been turning heads with his infallible game — 3-point bank shots at the buzzer, 43 points againstMichigan State — and unflattering looks: a hairy caterpillar mustache and long messy hair.

All the excitement has led to some lofty comparisons with another shaggy-haired, mustachioed, do-it-all basketball star by the name ofLarry Bird. Personally — because I can’t resist adding my own shameless interpretation — Morrison looks more like a cross betweenPete Maravich (colorful tube socks), Steve Prefontaine (mustache), and the teenage Amish kids who used to sell pies on my rural Ohiocollege campus (locks-ridden bowl cuts).

I caught Morrison’s performance at the Maui Invitational, where he led the Zags to a ready-made classic triple overtime thriller overMichigan State. I happened to be sitting a few rows behind a certain former Boston Celtics player and current head honcho. Speaking of hair worth watching, as a lifelong redhead, I was a little chagrined to see Danny Ainge sporting hair a shade brighter than my own. Two words: frosty tips.

I glanced over at Ainge every time Morrison did something eye-popping (which was often), and make no mistake, the man looked like he was watching a Celtic ghost as Mr. Gonzaga lit it up with impossible bank shots, hard drives, and crisp passing. There was a magic in the gym, aside from the Thanksgiving Maui heat and customary college basketball coach paunches that were bouncing along the sideline through the button-down Hawaiian shirts.

Watching Gonzaga take on and defeat a talented and equally sound Michigan State team was a joy. There were four missed free throws in the entire game. Both teams rode players with hot hand throughout the game instead of forcing play, and they both attacked the basket, boxed out, and took care of the ball.

This “how-to” college basketball extravaganza was a tough act to follow, and was proceeded unceremoniously by an Arizona-Connecticut stinker marred by sloppiness and offensive disarray. That’s right, I referred to a matchup between two of college basketball’s storied programs as a stinker. That’s what watching Gonzaga and Morrison will do: make you remember and appreciate a style of basketball that is well-executed, thoughtful and well-played.

Rolling into conference play, Gonzaga had played one of the tougher non-conference schedules in the nation and was 10-3, including a two-point loss to Connecticut and a four-point loss to Washington. They have won with injuries and despite the fact that Morrison is stoppable, especially when teams collapse four defenders on him (yet, he still leads the nation in scoring).

After Morrison purposefully banked in a shot from an impossible angle to beat Oklahoma State in December, an NBA scout sitting next to me turned and proclaimed, ” Larry Bird.”

Yes, impressive, I thought, but even more electric was watching Morrison miss and then sprint — trust me, that is a generous statement for a man who runs about as gracefully as a penguin — to catch his mark. He also routinely engaged his supporting cast in a heated lecture after a turnover or foul, especially when the game got close down the stretch.

What seemed most Bird-like to me was Morrison’s fire. He did not make every shot, but he kept his team’s intensity up and buoyed their will to win.

The Bird comparisons flow freely these days. Morrison has an eerily similar jump shot that is fired up like a pinball and trickles down like a raindrop. He is also small-town and a gym rat. They have both overcome adversity: Bird his father’s suicide; Morrison his diabetes. Rumor even has it that Morrison idolizes Bird.

Yes, this all makes a nice tidy story. But Morrison also reportedly has sported a Che Guevara poster on his dorm room wall, and not because Che is from the same country ( Argentina) as Manu Ginobli (there is more to life than sports, people.)

Perhaps Morrison is trying to lead Gonzaga in a guerilla revolution at the NCAA Tournament, or maybe just trying to make college hoops a little more sharing, a little more Marxist. (Just for the record, hold up a photo of Morrison next to the classic photo of Che. Now you are seeing a ghost, Mr. Ainge.)

Jokes aside, there is a literal connection here. Part of what makes players like Bird and Morrison fly, aside from a thick-winged moustaches, is that they do have a little socialism in them, the ability to be great without being greater than.

At the end of the day, the can’t-miss kid obviously has a lot of influences, basketball and non. He is Larry Bird and Che Guevara, a natural leader who sparks a successful team and a successful system. He makes shots and draws defensive attention, passes out of double teams, finds the cutting man, runs hard up and down the floor, and his team is right there with him.

Nobody ever said that being a team player and leader meant you had to be boring.