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The Legacy of Gonzaga, Adam Morrison, and Gus Johnson

18 March 2009

Mainstream college basketball got its first good look at Gonzaga 10 years ago. A (fairly) small Jesuit school in the cold eastern Washington town of Spokane, Gonzaga had a long but mostly anonymous history in college hoops dating back to 1908. The Dan Monson Era changed all that in a hurry. After being robbed of what many felt was a deserving spot in the NCAA Tourney in 1998, the Zags returned Monson and star guards Matt Santangelo the next season. After a huge run in the second half of the season swept them through the WCC tourney, the Zags drew a #10 seed in the Big Dance.

What followed was one of the greatest Cinderella stories in modern college hoops history. The Zags knocked off #7 seed Minnesota, then shocked #2 Stanford to advance to the Sweet 16. That regional semifinal game against #6 seed Florida was a classic that went right down to the wire. This was also the game that launched Gus Johnson into the national spotlight as an announcer. Known for his maniacal last-second calls and memorable catchphrases over the years, this was the game that gave most of the country their first real taste of Gus. Casey Cavalry’s go-ahead tip-in gave the Zags a one-point win, and gave Johnson a chance to utter that famous tournament exclamation: The Slipper Still Fits!

Monson left for Minnesota after that season. But Gonzaga had now established a national reputation as a legitimate basketball destination. Coach Mark Few built on Monson’s success, growing the Zags into an even stronger franchise and a highly viable recruiting destination. In Few’s first season, Gonzaga came right back with another Sweet 16 appearance, further cementing their no-longer-a-mid-major rep. The Zags’ cachet kept growing from there; another Sweet 16 showing; a 29-3 season; a 2nd-round tourney run that ended on a heartbreaker double overtime loss to Arizona; a #2 tournament seed; and a #3 tournament seed. By now Gonzaga was a staple of nationally televised games and big tournaments. Their triple-OT win over Michigan State in the 2005 Maui Invitational was one of the greatest regular-season games in decades.

It was during this era that Gonzaga trotted out a raw-boned, floppy-haired assassin named Adam Morrison. Modeling his game after Larry Bird and his appearance after some kind of porn star-‘stached Muppet, Morrison became a huge star. In his junior season, Morrison waged an epic battle with Duke’s JJ Redick for Player of the Year honors, scoring at a ridiculous pace and carrying Gonzaga to what seemed destined to be their greatest season in school history. That season, I got a chance to see a game live from the MAC, Gonzaga’s cozy, student section-dominated arena. It was a Saturday night ESPN game, with Stanford coming to town, Dickie V in the house, and everyone freaking out. The Zags won by 4 in a highly entertaining game. Morrison tossed in 34 points, in classic Morrison fashion alternating floating jumpers with wild exhortations of the home crowd and emotional outbursts. He was me from my high school days, basically, only with 80,000 times more talent. Even Angele, not normally a big basketball fan, was impressed, instantly adopting Morrison as the one player she’d make an effort to watch.

It was during this season that Morrison helped further elevate the profile of Gus Johnson. In the newly christened Battle in Seattle, Gonzaga took on Oklahoma State. The game went down to the wire, with the Cowboys taking a one-point lead with just over 10 seconds left. After a missed free throw, the ball found its way into Morrison’s hands. What ensued was an impossible game-winning shot, and the single craziest call of a sports play I’ve ever witnessed, combining the mania of Gus Johnson with the madness of Bill Raftery.

“Zags no time outs, they’ve gotta hurry. Here comes the All-America. Morrison…six…FIIIIIREEEES….OHWHAHAHAGHWHWGAHAHAGHWHHAGH!!!!!!!”

“HE BANKED IN A THREE!!! OOOOOOOOOHHHHH!!! WHOOOOOOOAAAA”

“ONIONS!!!”

“WHAT A GAME! AIII! LARRY BIRD! BABY! WHOA! HA-HA!”

(Shot of Morrison practically jumping out of his skin on the sideline)

Raftery’s hoarse by now.

“Look at the clock…and when you’re sleepless in Seattle, why not get…A LITTLE KISS!!! GUS! OH! MAJOR! ONIONS!”

Led by Morrison, the Zags looked primed to finally break through and charge their way to their first Final Four. They made it back to the Sweet 16 once again, where they faced UCLA. After building a 17-point lead on the young Bruins, it looked like Gonzaga was a lock for the Elite Eight. But a furious run by UCLA, led by tenacious defense, set up one of the biggest heartbreakers in tournament history

After a UCLA steal and go-ahead bucket put UCLA up by one, Gonzaga tried to rush the ball down the court. Yet another Bruins steal triggered another defining Gus Johnson Moment, and another case where his partner (the normally mild-mannered Len Elmore) also lost it. First, Elmore exclaimed “Unbelievable” at least 63 times, followed by an incredulous “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!” Gus topped that in a hurry:

“AFTER BEING DOWN BY 17….HEARTBREAK CITY”

And it was. Morrison was bawling his eyes out, even with two-plus seconds still remaining in the game.

Gonzaga got the ball back and threw the ball downcourt for a desperation heave.

“BATISTA WITH THE CAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAATCH!!!!!! …AND THAT’S IT! WHAT A COMEBACK! UCLA DEFEATS GONZAGA 73-71, AFTER BEING DOWN BY 17!

Morrison collapsed onto the court, his body convulsing with sobs and tears. If someone has ever more moved by the results of a sporting event, I’ve certainly never seen it.

I remember seeing Morrison again that summer, in SEA-TAC airport, waiting for his flight. As it turned out, it was the same flight I was taking, Seattle to L.A. People couldn’t help but stare. Morrison stood a full 6’8″, his mop of hair and trademark ‘stache making him impossible to miss. He was slouching, wearing warmups, shuffling onto the plane. The weirdest element of the whole scene was what he had underfoot. Morrison was, step by step, nudging a boxed XBox with his feet toward the plane. He was still the overgrown kid, the one who let his emotions get the better of him on the brightest stage imaginable. Now he was slouching and kicking an XBox, on his way to L.A. to train for the upcoming NBA draft.

Right then, it hit me: You can’t put your whole soul into something over and over, without burning out–mentally and emotionally, even if not physically. The talent was there. But this was no cold-blooded Larry Bird-like killer incarnate. This was a kid who couldn’t quite center himself the way the great ones always do. The NBA just wasn’t going to work out.

Meanwhile, after Morrison’s departure from Gonzaga, it seemed like it might take the Zags a while to regroup. But Few kept the ship steered in the right direction. Now, three years after Morrison’s heartbreak, Gonzaga finds itself a very strong #4 seed, riding one of the biggest hot streaks in the country. The Zags have their most balanced squad ever, with a great point guard in Jeremy Pargo, skilled wing players like Matt Bouldin and good size with Josh Heytvelt. The prohibitive favorite to win the South Region is North Carolina, looking like an impassable roadblock in a potential Sweet 16 game. But fortune might be smiling on the Zags this time. UNC’s ace point guard Ty Lawson is hobbled with an injury, and Pargo’s got the speed and killer instinct to exploit that kind of advantage.

In my biggest going-out-on-a-limb pick of this tourney, I’m taking the Zags to win the South Regional and roll all the way to the Finals against Louisville.

And if you look up in the crowd, you’ll see a still-awkward 20-something, watching intently, still getting a little too emotional over the proceedings. As we look at Adam Morrison the Fan, we’ll remember Adam Morrison the Player, the decade-ago Cinderella story that was Gonzaga, the joy and insanity of Gus Johnson, and everything that makes all of us come back to March Madness, year after year after year.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 5 August 2009 7:03 pm

    Gonzaga has been a magnet for drama.

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