Career calling

Legendary point guard Monte Morris reflects on a long career that has enriched him and his university

02-01-17 MONTE 573A1255

Elite college basketball players rarely have four-year careers anymore — a fact that makes Monte Morris’ choice to spend four years at Iowa State University one of the most meaningful things he’s ever done.

For Morris, a four-year career meant becoming only the second member of his family to earn a college degree. It meant besting seemingly unbreakable records held by an ISU and NBA legend. It meant becoming so completely immersed in the nation’s college basketball fraternity that, when beating Kansas coach Bill Self on his home court, he gives you a high five during the game.

“I want people to know that even though I struggled at first, I didn’t cut corners,” Morris says. “I didn’t want to leave this place because it’s like home. I was as loyal to this university as it was to me, and I learned a lot, saw a lot. I’m blessed and thankful that I came to Iowa State.”

Growing up in Flint, Mich., Morris spent a lot of time as a gym tagalong with his basketball-coaching single mother, Latonia. In those gyms is where he first met Flint native and Michigan State legend Mateen Cleaves, who remains a close friend and mentor to Morris today. It’s also where he met former ISU star Jeff Grayer, another Flint native who was persistent in telling the young Morris how good he’d look in the Cardinal & Gold gear Grayer was always donning. Both Morris and his mother were skeptical about what Ames had to offer. Until, that is, they saw it for themselves.

“My mom always said we weren’t going down here because ‘What’s in Iowa?’ But they just kept calling,” Morris recalls. “So I went. And after seeing the campus and meeting the people it was literally two days after we got back that I told my mom this is where I wanted to be. I came back with all the gear and Grayer was like, ‘There you go.’ I committed on my birthday in 2012.”

To say Morris committed to Iowa State and has never looked back would not exactly be accurate. He faced dark times during his college career. His home city faced a devastating crisis in 2014 when it was revealed that the city’s drinking water was severely contaminated. He lost his grandfather, with whom he was extremely close. And in 2016, Morris’ former Cyclone teammate and close friend Bryce Dejean-Jones was shot and killed. But he leaned on teammates and friends during those times and became even more grateful for his support networks at home and at Iowa State.

But in 2015, Morris’ foundations were shaken by the news that Fred Hoiberg was departing Ames for a job with the Chicago Bulls. “I honestly thought about transferring,” he admits. “Coach Fred taught me how to be a pro and how to live life in Ames under the microscope. He was just a cool guy. I wondered if the new coach would let us do the same things Coach Fred did.”

But now, Morris says, he hasn’t spent a minute regretting his eventual decision to trust in Steve Prohm.

“He’s someone who’s been good for me in my life, both on the court and spiritually,” Morris says. “I love his kid, Cass, and [Coach Prohm and I] have grown together over the past year and a half.”

During his four years at Iowa State University, Morris says he’s embraced the complete college experience — including football Saturdays with friends, classes and community service, discovering his passion for the fashion industry and even bowling. And yes, making lifelong friendships with teammates like Georges Niang — someone Morris says inspired him to improve his diet and exercise habits, DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim — elder statesmen who helped Morris mature quickly during his freshman season, and Naz Mitrou-Long — someone Morris describes with one simple phrase: “If I had a kid, I would want him to be just like Naz.”

“I’m so glad I stayed. There’s nothing I will regret here at this university,” Morris says. “I did everything I wanted to do here.”

“Everything” includes two very prominent achievements on Morris’ list that couldn’t have happened without a senior season. In January 2017, he was able to change his phone’s screen saver from a picture of the number “665” — the Iowa State career assist record that was formerly held by now-New York Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek — when he surpassed it at Vanderbilt. In February, he also surpassed Hornacek’s career steals milestone.

“I wanted to go somewhere where I could leave my legacy,” Morris says. “But I also wanted to come somewhere where my spot wasn’t just going to be thrown at me, where I could work for minutes and get rewarded for it. And that’s exactly what I’ve been able to do here.”

And in May, Morris will walk across the stage in Hilton Coliseum as a liberal studies graduate — something he hopes will help him pursue his future career goals of working in both the fashion and sports broadcasting industries.

“My mom wasn’t able to get her degree because she had me when she was [a student-athlete] at Grand Valley State,” Morris says. “Without a father figure around my mom took so much on her shoulders. She worked overtime hours so I could get things for Christmas and for my birthday, when things were rough and I didn’t even know how rough they were. Now I just want to give it all back to her.”

Earning his college degree, Morris says, was one of the ways he felt like he could pay back his mom.

But, despite her heartfelt desire to see him come back to ISU for his senior season, she never pressured him. Latonia Morris, who still lives in a home piled with bottled water in Flint, is the ultimate example of a strong woman, her son says. She’s Iowa State’s biggest fan, traveling to many Cyclone games and storing every one on her DVR so she can break down film with her son. (“When I broke the career assists record at Vanderbilt, I also fouled out,” Morris remembers, laughing. “She didn’t say anything about [the record]; she just said ‘Stop fouling, stop going over guys’ backs.’”) She’s been a loving and steady influence on her son, who has achieved at college basketball’s highest levels with her support.

But she also, Morris says, never forced a basketball into her son’s hands.

“I think basketball, they say, sometimes can find you,” Morris says. “[Mom] had me at the gym a lot but she never forced me. The game definitely found me. I think it called on me.”

Iowa State is all the better for Morris’ answer.


This article was originally published in VISIONS magazine. To receive the full issue delivered to your mailbox four times per year, become a member of the ISU Alumni Association.

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