It is difficult to believe that James Morris, the thoughtful, well-mannered junior guard who has lent stability, three-point shooting and ballhandling to Cal State Northridge’s cause, was once a self-described “bad kid.”
“I skipped school, I stayed out late, I got in fights and I got in trouble,” Morris said.
“I was a rebel. I knew if I didn’t do something I’d end up in jail. I knew I wasn’t ready for college. I needed to calm myself down.”
With one uncle in the Marines, another in the Army, and a sister in the Air Force, the military seemed a natural choice.
Morris chose the Navy.
The conversion from hell-raiser to choir boy didn’t happen overnight, however.
“There was a rebellion once,” Morris said. “I almost got into a fight. I bad-mouthed an officer and told him where to get off.”
Morris’ punishment was “physical training” in the “big room": Running in place while holding a rifle at arm’s length.
Every bone in Morris’ compact frame ached afterward.
“When I first went in I had a bad temper,” Morris said. “By the time I came out I had a better grasp of the situation.”
Morris served as a security guard and a secretary at bases in Philadelphia and San Diego. His time at sea, unlike his time on the basketball court, was limited to six weeks.
“I played basketball every day,” Morris said. “I thought about staying in the military, but when I started playing basketball with the military teams I saw a way to go to college.”
After a game against Morris’ Navy squad, Imperial Valley Coach Jeff Deyo recruited Morris to the junior college located 120 miles east of San Diego.
In two seasons, Morris went from reserve to standout with averages of 18 points, 3.6 assists and 3.5 steals as a sophomore.
Morris earned Basketball Weekly Junior College All-American honors and was selected as the co-most valuable player of the Pacific Coast Conference.
But most Division I teams were turned off by his 5-foot-8 stature.
However, Northridge assistant Jerry Carrillo and Coach Pete Cassidy were certain that the 24-year-old Morris could help the Matadors.
“He’s an excellent perimeter shooter with exceptional strength,” Cassidy said. “He’s mature and emotionally stable and he brings us a great work ethic.”
Despite his sixth-man status and 19.3-minutes-per-game average, Morris is the Matadors’ second-leading scorer (8.7 average) and most accurate three-point shooter (41%).
If Cassidy has a criticism it is that sometimes Morris tries to drive the lane when it’s jammed. “He takes it too deep into the paint and gets swallowed up running right into those trees,” he said.
Ever improvisational, Morris still gets his shot off whether it is from behind his ear or flipped one-handed off his hip.
“You have to find some way to get the ball off against guys bigger than you,” Morris said.
Morris’ strength, huge quadriceps, and a 180-pound body that seems as wide as it is tall have inspired several nicknames, including Rock, Muscle and Bowling Ball.
Scrappy is the most common adjective to describe a style that enables Morris to wrest rebounds (2.2 per game) from bigger foes.
Morris’ quickness--he has a team-leading 12 steals--and leaping ability are equally vital. They enable him, despite his lack of height, to pull up for three-point jump shots over tight man-to-man coverage.
Morris also can dunk, although Northridge fans have yet to see him slam one home because he has been hampered by knee and groin injuries.
The fourth of eight children, Morris was born in New Orleans. At age 13, he and a younger sister moved to Tallulah, La., to live with his grandmother, Ophelia Madison.
“New Orleans was such a wild place, my mother didn’t want me to stay there,” Morris said.
Morris barely knew his father.
“My grandmother was more like a mother and a father to me,” Morris said.
One of the many gifts Ophelia Madison instilled in her grandson, an aspiring English teacher and coach, was confidence.
From the moment Morris arrived at Northridge last fall, he was his jovial self, teasing and joking with teammates he barely knew.
“I started off the same way I am now,” Morris said. “I think it sort of surprised everyone. They probably thought, ‘He’s new. He won’t talk to anybody.’ Now they say I talk too much.”
Morris’ teammates think so much of their diminutive military man that they had him paged at an airport in Atlanta last month.
They used a code name: “James Bushwick Cassidy.”
It seems that the real Bushwick Cassidy is a midget in the rap group “The Ghetto Boys.”
“I like to keep people loose,” Morris said. “We have fun with the little jokes. We don’t go overboard. It sort of brings everyone together. There’s a lot of closeness on this team.”
Andre Chevalier, Northridge’s sophomore point guard, said Morris is the replacement for Kirk Scott, a senior who kept the Matadors in stitches last season.
Teammate Keith Gibbs also appreciates Morris’ attitude on a team that is 0-10.
“Everybody tends to get down, but James has the most positive attitude,” Gibbs said. “He is always up. He is a positive influence.”