The Manchild Behind the Mustache

The Bobcats have a lot riding on their most recent top draft pick. Can the kid deliver? Let’s find out together

Photograph by Chris Edwards

Adam MorrisonFifteen people are staring intently at Adam Morrison, who is hunched on a folding chair inside the smaller-than-you’d-imagine Charlotte Bobcats locker room. One person mans a video camera. Another stares into a monitor. A third holds a mike. A fourth cajoles the Bobcats’ latest and greatest pitchman to stroke his mustache for the camera.

"Just one take, that’s all."

"Aw, man. Really?"

"I know you don’t like to do it, but just one take."

"OK, one take. But that's it."

The camera rolls. Morrison repeats his line: "Are you ready for some Bobcats basketball?" And he strokes his mustache.

"Let’s try it one more time."

And so it goes, over and over (although his mustache goes unstroked), until the crew is either satisfied or just gives up. It’s hard to tell.

As for Morrison, he is happy the commercial shoot is over, glad to inspect his locker, where he finds a pile of fan mail and stacks of Adidas boxes.

"Oh, cool! Sneaks!"

The next time you see Adam Morrison in person, it’s on the basketball court, where you’re scheduled to play him in a game of H-O-R-S-E. It’s a gimmick set up by the Bobcats public relations staff, one of those let’s-put-the-writer-in-the-story-and-see-what-happens deals. But you accept, because how often do you get the chance to play H-O-R-S-E against the guy who led all of college basketball in scoring the year before?

Before this day, you read everything about him that you could find. Most of the stories were the same, and they bordered on the reverential—hard working, old-school, winner, intelligent, respects the game. You expected to meet this fellow who would hold forth on the vagaries of Communism, wax poetic about the greatness of Larry Bird, and lose himself in discussions of the finer points of the game of basketball. You, owner of a lackluster high-school hoops career, saw yourselves bonding over an equal disdain for playing defense. He has Type 1 diabetes; someone close to you has it. Figured you could rap about that. You envisioned hanging with Adam, maybe hitting a playground court: We got next! Maybe we’ll text each other, you thought, or he’ll ring you up late at night, just to talk.

Of course, none of that happened. Turns out Adam Morrison is just a kid. We tend to forget this about our sports heroes. Oh, he has all the trappings of manhood—the house, the car, the fat salary. But he’s only twenty-two, and a young twenty-two. He should be a senior in college this year. He loves video games. He likes the kind of music that adults call “noise.” He talks about girls (specifically, “Spokane groupies,” which “weren’t bad.”). At one point, you ask him to ask you a question, and he blurts, “Why aren’t there any casinos in Charlotte?”

Whenever you write about someone, people want to know one thing: Did you like the person? Usually, it’s an easy answer. This time, it’s not. Adam, for one, claims it’s not important to him. “I really don’t care what people think,” he says. He says this politely, like he says most things, but still, you suspect otherwise. Whenever a kid says they don’t care what people think, it usually means that the kid, in fact, does.

But you’re not even sure what this kid is. He says he just wants to be a basketball player. That’s impossible. Not when he’s the most famous rookie in the National Basketball Association. Not when he’s joining a franchise that desperately needs success on the court and at the box office. Not when he’s Adam Morrison.

There are several angles you could take here. The throwback kid who just wants to play hoops. The reluctant diabetic role model. The savior. But none of them feels quite right. And so, as of this moment, you have no idea how this story is going to end.

Mark Few recruited Morrison, signed him to a scholarship when he was a high school junior, then coached him through three years of college at Gonzaga University, after which Morrison turned pro. And one aspect of his former star stands out.

“It didn’t matter what we did, whether it was a one-on-one drill in practice or if he was playing somebody in cards on the team bus or team plane, he’s playing to win,” Few says.

And it’s true: Adam is not the fun-loving kind. You’ve never seen him smile. He told the photographer he doesn’t smile. He forced a grin for the Bobcats commercial shoot, and it looked like it hurt.

If it’s not fun, then it must be work. Over and over, Few said how hard Morrison worked. Adam’s dad, John, is a coach, too. Over and over, John said how hard his son worked. Adam even says it himself. You ask him what he thinks of the idea of getting paid $6.2 million over the next two years to play basketball. “I worked hard to get here,” he says. “It’s not like I deserve it, but I think I earned a little bit of it. I mean, I don’t want to sound like a dick or anything…”

When a player competes like Adam does, though, sometimes he comes off like a dick. During games, he struts around the court. He talks trash to opponents, although he won’t reveal what he says: “Basketball player’s code. At least that’s my code.” Before the gimmicky game of H-O-R-S-E, Adam suggested rock, paper, scissors to determine who would get the first shot. He, of course, won. He gave a little fist pump and exclaimed, “Yes!”

After the matchup, he advised you on how you could have gained the upper hand. “Man, once you got me down, you should have just kept the pressure on me. Just keep taking layups. Force me to make them.” Yes, the guy has a strategy for H-O-R-S-E. (Later, he shared the tale of a beatdown he had received. “Worst ever for me was up at Adidas. It was this little guy—no offense,” he says, glancing sincerely down at the five-foot-nothing Bobcats PR dude. “We played for like $300 and he beat the shit out of me. He didn’t miss. We were shooting half-courters, and he didn’t miss. I was like, fuck.”)

“Adam has a strong passion for the game,” says his father. “When he plays the game, if he makes a mistake, I’ll guarantee you someone’s going to pay for it at the other end. One way or the other. Especially on the offensive end of it. You talk about intensity, it’s usually sticking somebody defensively, or a linebacker sticking somebody, or a boardcheck in hockey, but Adam, he’s intense on offense.”

And there’s the rub. He works hard, all right. On offense. When the Bobcats made Morrison the third pick in June’s NBA draft, Jay Bilas, former Duke player and ESPN commentator, told a national television audience, “He’s not a very strong player. He doesn’t rebound the ball particularly well, and he’s not a very focused defender. Right now he couldn’t guard a bank with a machine gun.”


Then Bilas added, “But you know what, who cares, because he can absolutely score the ball. And when you can score and you’re as skilled as Adam Morrison, you’re going to be a big-time player in the NBA.”

So what do we know? Adam competes, and he’s a hard worker. Most of the time. And that might be enough.

There are four minutes and sixteen seconds left in the first quarter of the first preseason game for the Charlotte Bobcats, and Tone X is addressing the meager crowd. “Now, let’s welcome into the game for the very first time, first-round draft pick out of Gonzaga, Adam Morrison!”

The meager crowd duly responds.

A little more than a minute later, a teammate misses a shot, and the ball caroms into Morrison’s hands. He does what comes naturally. He shoots. It goes in.

Less than a minute later, he comes off a screen to nail a jump shot from the same spot.

With three seconds on the first-quarter clock, the Bobcats have to take the ball out from underneath the opponent’s basket. Sixty feet away, Morrison, the rookie, calls for the ball. He gets it. He spins, he dribbles, he fades away, he shoots. The buzzer sounds. The shot falls.

Before the half ends, Morrison racks up sixteen points, on his way to becoming an NBA superstar, on his way to helping the Bobcats fill arenas, the second coming of Larry Bird.

Let’s back it up.

Ranked highly all year, Gonzaga advances to the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament, where it is matched up against UCLA. Heavily favored, the Zags lead the entire game, with junior All-American Morrison scoring twenty-four points. But, somehow, with just a few seconds left, UCLA manages the grab the lead by two points. A Zags player commits a foul, putting a UCLA player on the line. Morrison breaks down in tears. He pulls it together long enough for a teammate to miss a last-gasp effort to tie, then collapses, wracked with tears. Sports talk nation is equally divided: crybaby/passionate competitor.

Let’s back up some more.

It’s early in Morrison’s junior season. It takes three overtimes, but Gonzaga beats Michigan State, 109-106. Morrison scores forty-three, playing all but three minutes of the game. The legend grows.

We need to know more.

Freshman year, and Gonzaga begins its season playing St. Joseph’s at New York’s Madison Square Garden, the most storied basketball venue in the country. “I honestly knew maybe four plays. I found out I was starting the night before. We were at the shootaround, and Coach Few was naming the starters, and he said my name last. I turned beet red. I still remember that feeling. I started sweating. I was so nervous. I was fucking scared.”

So the game starts. “It’s a crazy crowd,” Morrison says, “damn near sold out.” After a rough beginning, Morrison goes on autopilot. “Got the rebound, dribbled with my right hand down the left side of the court, pulled up and hit from the wing. The whole bench was laughing.”

OK, let’s go a little further back. To high school. As a sophomore, he’s playing on the varsity for Mead High School in Spokane, Washington. Mark Few, coach of the hometown Zags, does his duty and comes to take a look. He’s not impressed. “He was really, really skinny. He kind of had an odd way of running and moving and kinda had a very unique release on his shot.” Then the game starts. “I think he had thirty in the first half or something, so I said, ‘Whoa.’ ”

So the coach invites Morrison to scrimmage against his players in the summer. No one can guard him. “[The players]’d come in my office and were razzing each other about how nobody could stop him. So we took note and went out and watched him again and brought him in and offered him a scholarship, and he took it.”

OK, let’s go all the way back. Second grade. Coach’s son. At Wyoming’s Casper College, coach is running a basketball camp for third-graders and up. Adam is good enough to play, but he refuses, instead just hanging around, making a pest of himself. “One day, my session wasn’t until the afternoon,” John Morrison says. “The younger guys were in the morning. So I go out, I play some golf and come back for my session, and I get there towards the end of the early session and here Coach Dalton has got Adam as a second grader in a dribbling relay drill with a bunch of teens. They’re dribbling around chairs and they gotta race, and he just goes lickety-split. ’Course, he doesn’t see me. He’s the anchor on the one team, and they’re close to winning the thing, and I’m telling you what, he gets about five feet from the end line, he grabs the ball and dives across the line, in midair with the ball in his hand. They lost, but everybody was giving him high fives. The high school coach kinda winked at me and said ‘Yep, the light bulb just went on.’ Ever since then, he got the bug.”

So that’s Adam’s history with basketball. Now what do we know?

Wait, one more thing.

The Bobcats preseason game, second half. Because of a defensive switch, Adam ends up guarding Grant Hill. Or, he’s supposed to. Hill takes him to the basket like he’s not even there. Later, Morrison tosses up an airball, forces bad shots, and only scores three more points.

Now what do we know about Adam Morrison?

Adam Morrison is white. Extremely white. Looks like he hasn’t been outside in years.

In basketball, any tall white guy with a decent jump shot gets lionized. Call it the Larry Bird effect. Bird is one of the all-time greats—deadeye shooter, prescient passer, and an absolutely nasty competitor. Ever since he retired, white NBA fans have been searching desperately for his replacement. Remember Danny Ferry? Tom Gugliotta? Wally Szczerbiak? Didn’t think so. Morrison is now the anointed one.

And in fact, Morrison postered his freshman dorm room with Bird. Grew his hair and mustache to look like him. Mimicked his shot. One of his college professors gave him a collection of classic Bird games on tape, and he devoured them. “It was awesome,” he says. He calls himself an “old-school” player, too. Prides himself on moving without the basketball, instead of waiting for someone to pass it to him. And he’s a helluva shooter.

But there’s another side to this. Isiah Thomas, NBA hall-of-fame point guard, once said of Larry Bird, “if he were black, he’d be just another good guy.” Larry freaking Bird! So there’s always doubt. Is he really this good? Or is all the hype, the commercials, the plaudits just because he’s, well, white? Is he the Great White Hope? Or is he “just another good guy?”

Fact is, he doesn’t care. Morrison thinks of himself as basketball player, nothing more, nothing less. It’s everyone else that has a different idea.

When he was in seventh grade, Adam was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. In Type 1 diabetes, the pancreas does not produce insulin, which is what the body uses to convert sugars into energy. People with Type 1 diabetes have to either wear an insulin pump or give themselves injections. If they don’t, their blood-sugar levels skyrocket, they go into diabetic shock, and they could die.

Of course, when you’re in seventh grade and you’re in love with the game of basketball, you just want to get back on the court. Adam’s father remembers clearly the day his son was diagnosed. “The doctor said, ‘Adam, this is not going to change anything.’ He named off all kinds of pros in different sports that have diabetes. ‘There’s nothing that your mom and dad can do, it’s in the cards.’ ”

Adam tells the nurse, “Hey, you might as well show me how to give me my shot, because I’m going to be doing this for the rest of my life.”

There is no cure for diabetes. Discipline is the key to controlling the disease—eating the right foods at the right times and keeping a constant watch on blood-sugar level. Discipline, and exercise. For those reasons, Adam is ideally suited to live with it.

Which he does very well. He never missed a game or practice at Gonzaga, and he’s never had to come out of a game because of anything related to diabetes. He checks his blood sugar on the bench. He eats the same meal—steak, baked potato, and green vegetable—exactly two hours and fifteen minutes before every game. And you likely know all of this already, because the media will not let you forget it.

Which bothers Adam. “I’m not just a diabetic who plays basketball,” he says. But he also understands that being a famous athlete with the disease is an opportunity. “At the same time, it’s good to raise awareness. It’s a double-edged sword. It can get annoying, but I gotta remember that it helps people.”

Diabetes has also informed his reading—his scholarship, if you will. Every profile of Adam ever written mentions that he admires Che Guevara and Karl Marx. It’s not that Morrison is some commie sympathizer (though he did tell one writer that if he didn’t play basketball in college he’d “probably be in one of those student protest groups”). For him, this is about health care. After he was diagnosed with diabetes, he says he was fortunate that his family had good insurance and could afford quality medical care. It could afford to put him on an insulin pump at a time when the devices cost thousands of dollars and insurance wouldn’t pay. But what about all the other kids, Adam wonders? What about the ones who can’t pay? Guevara and Marx had the right idea. Power to the people! Screw the HMOs! Free health care for all! “Lots of kids can’t afford insurance,” he says. “That’s what’s wrong with America.”

But diabetes has done more than make him a reluctant role model and inform his personal philosophy. It’s made him rich.

Early this fall, Morrison signed a multiyear, multimillion-dollar endorsement contract with LifeScan, a division of Johnson & Johnson. LifeScan makes blood-sugar monitors and test strips—the stuff of life for diabetics. B.B. King starred in the company’s last marketing campaign. Adam Morrison will star in the next one.

If Morrison is anything, he’s marketable. Before he stepped on the court for the Bobcats, he had signed four major endorsement deals worth “millions” according to his agent, Rob Lefko. Besides LifeScan, look for Adam on the cover of the Electronic Arts’ NCAA Basketball 07 videogame, on the wrapper of Topps basketball cards, and look for him to be clad in Adidas shoes and sweats. He’s an agent’s dream.

“I think the real key with Adam is he transcends demographic categories,” Lefko gushes. “Kids love Adam Morrison and emulate him, and he’s got a cool factor with kids of all ages, teenagers as well. And yet LifeScan, for instance, found in their test marketing and their focus grouping that he had the respect of adults. Grandmothers are intrigued and interested by Adam Morrison.”

Lefko says it’s a rare quality, this demographic transcendence.

“It’s incredibly unique, not just among NBA players, but the sports world. . . . One of the unique things they found with B.B. King was that he also had that effect. That somehow eight-year-old kids thought he was cool.”

So there it is. Adam Morrison. B.B. King. Equally cool.

“His hair. His mustache. His demeanor. The way he walks, the way he acts . . . ” says Lefko. “Adam doesn’t fit a mold. He’s just his own guy doing his own thing.”

Since he brought it up, let’s discuss that hair. It’s long. It’s wild. It’s woolly. When he sweats, it gets wet and greasy. His mustache is, frankly, pathetic. When he grew it on a dare, he said he’d shave it off if the team that drafted him asked him to. Of course, the Bobcats promptly built a marketing campaign around it. You ask his agent if Morrison’s hair makes him more marketable.

“Yes.” Pause, then laughter. “How’s that for honesty?” So, as his agent, does he advise him against cutting his hair? “I encourage Adam to continue to do what he’s always done—be himself, do his thing. For Adam, he won’t be cutting his hair and shaving his mustache anytime soon. . . . I’m certainly not going to talk him into it.”

So perhaps that’s it, then. Adam Morrison is neither a passionate baller, a role model for diabetics, nor the ultimate endorser. Instead, he’s a character right out of the Bible. Adam Morrison is the Samson of the NBA. As Isiah Thomas might put it, if Adam Morrison was clean-shaven and had short hair, he’d be just another good guy.

But do you really believe that? Nah, didn’t think so.

Richard Thurmond is editor of this magazine.