Darius Morris, now a Laker, has a legacy at Michigan


Born in Hawthorne and raised in Carson, Darius Morris spent his childhood cheering for the Lakers – largely because of his his admiration for Kobe Bryant. Morris is less than four years removed from his playing days at Windward School, and now his childhood idol is not only a teammate, but a mentor and friend.

In 2009, Morris led Windward to its first state championship in his senior season. Then his basketball career took an unexpected turn toward a bottom-dwelling college program 2,250 miles away. To know why Morris chose Michigan, it’s important to understand how being a perennial underdog has always motivated him. Perhaps that’s why, after being recruited by traditional basketball powerhouses like Kentucky and Arizona, as well as USC, Morris chose Michigan -- a low-end Big Ten program that by the time he signed hadn’t made the NCAA tournament in more than 10 years. Four years after Morris’ signing, the program he helped rebuild is in the Final Four -- thanks in large part to his influence that continues in Ann Arbor to this day.

In his first season at Michigan, Morris struggled mightily. One of the nation’s highest ranked point guards coming out of high school, he averaged only 4.4 points and 2.6 assists as Michigan finished 15-17 despite beginning the season ranked in the top 25. In Michigan’s four-game trip to Europe the next summer, the sophomore-to-be averaged only six points and just over three assists per game, shooting a woeful 29% from the floor.


“I had a tough time proving to them what I was recruited for and what I could be,” he said. “But that struggle taught me how to be accountable and look at myself instead of pointing the finger.”

Perhaps the turnaround of the Michigan basketball program began at 6 a.m. on Sept. 7, 2010, in the Wolverines’ now outdated basketball arena. After waking roommate Jordan Morgan with his alarm clock, Morris crept quietly out of his first-floor dorm room at West Quadrangle, where mostly freshman and sophomore student-athletes are housed. The sun hadn’t yet risen, but Morris was already in full sprint toward Michigan’s Crisler Arena, about a mile away. Basketball manager Nick Berlage met Morris at Crisler, and the two began a shooting drill that included Morris making 500 jumpers and performing a variety of dribbling and passing drills. With Berlage’s help, Morris practiced shooting from everywhere on the court.

“I took Coach [John] Beilein’s drills and tried to perfect everything he was teaching me at the time,” said Morris, describing the workout. “I wanted to perfect everything I had learned.”

Although it didn’t seem like much at first, Morris repeated the process every morning until the start of the season on Nov. 5, practicing at night on weekends too. He did all workouts in addition to regular team workouts, without the knowledge of his teammates or coaches.

“The janitor would see me and the managers would see me. But the only teammate that knew about it was Jordan Morgan because my alarm would always wake him up,” Morris laughed. “He would get so mad.”

As the season began, Morris quickly emerged as Michigan’s on-court leader. Unlike his freshman season and the exhibition trip, he showed confidence shooting. Morris’ leadership, combined with the emergence of freshman Tim Hardaway Jr., helped boost the Wolverines to a surprising 10-2 start in the nonconference season. Morris led the team with averages of 15.8 points and 7.5 assists.


“I think it was a total shock for everybody,” said Morris of his emergence. “I was more relieved, because I knew the kind of work I was putting in.”

Still, Michigan had played only one ranked team in that stretch, No. 10 Syracuse, and lost. When the Wolverines started 1-6 in Big Ten Conference play, the Michigan athletic department began offering free pizza for students who came to games, and $9 tickets for the public that included a hot dog and a drink, all to fill seats in an otherwise emptying arena.

“It was kind of a shock for us, 1-6,” said Morris. “But it was kind of another place, another fork in the road where our season could have finished very poorly or very well.”

The day after a loss to Minnesota and three days before the team’s next game at rival Michigan State, Morris called a players-only meeting to apologize for his poor performance.

“There were things I could have done better,” he admitted. “I didn’t give my best effort at all.”

All 15 players gathered around center court at Crisler Arena; the coaching staff was asked to wait before taking the floor with the team. Morris started what was supposed to be a simple statement, apologizing for his poor performance and vowing to be held accountable for his actions on the court.


“He called the players in, apologized, and said it wouldn’t happen again,” recalls former guard Zack Novak.

Novak then stood up, apologized for his own poor performance and outlined a similar plan of personal accountability. Co-captain Stu Douglass followed suit. Soon, each of the 15 players made known their intentions for bettering the team and their commitment to be held accountable for their play.

“Even the walk-ons were talking about their effort in practice,” said Morris. “Everybody increased their sense of accountability and that kind of started everything from there. We said people can think what they want, but we’re going to go out here and we’re going to play for each other because we’re brothers. We’ve come this far, starting with the Europe trip, and we can’t go out without a bite.”

That players’ meeting, on the morning of Jan. 23, 2011, lasted only 10 minutes, but its impact is still being felt.

On Jan. 27, Michigan broke its six-game losing streak, knocking off Michigan State at the Breslin Center for the first time in 14 years. Morris was on the floor the entire game, leading the Wolverines with 17 points and eight assists. It was also the first time in 1,181 days the Wolverines had beaten Michigan State in either football or basketball.

“It was definitely a turning point in our season, and I think that was the turning point of the program. Say we don’t go on to win that game and we don’t go on to have a good season – who knows if Coach Beilein is still there? A lot of things could’ve happened, but thank God things worked out the way they did.”


Propelled by the win in East Lansing, Michigan went on to win eight of their final 11 Big-Ten regular-season games and made the NCAA tournament as a nine seed.

Disappointment and pursuing the next level

After throttling eighth-seeded Tennessee in the opening round, Michigan nearly overcame a 15-point deficit against top-seeded Duke in the second round.

With a berth in the Sweet 16 on the line and five seconds left on the clock, Michigan trailed the Blue Devils, 73-71. After a missed free throw by Duke’s Nolan Smith, Morris took an outlet pass from Novak and drove down court. Getting just past the foul line, he shot a running 10-footer over the outstretched arms of Duke forward Ryan Kelly. The shot rimmed out, and Smith got the rebound as time expired. Michigan’s improbable season had ended.

Morris was asked by reporters if that missed attempt was his final shot as a Wolverine.

“When I missed that shot, I really had all intentions of coming back and couldn’t wait to go even farther the next year,” he said. “There was something about the emotions there and the feeling that left you waiting. I wanted it; I couldn’t wait to lace them up again with the guys and go fight.”

Morris turned had 16 points and six assists in that game, and his performance was on display for a national audience.


Not surprisingly, Morris was garnering attention from NBA scouts and general managers. After speaking with representatives across the league and NBA draft consultants, Morris was told he could potentially be a first-round pick in the NBA draft.

“I felt blessed that people were even mentioning me as being able to go to the NBA,” he admitted, “especially coming where I came from my freshman year.”

The Wolverines were projected to return all of their players from the successful 2010-2011 campaign and were mentioned in some conversations as legitimate Big Ten title contenders. But on April 21, 2011, Morris announced he would declare for the 2011 NBA draft.

“Once I examined the situation I knew it was going to work out for both parties,” Morris said of his decision’s effect on the Wolverines. “I was confident to pursue my dream I always had as a little kid knowing the program was going to be in good hands and that they had a great future ahead of them.”

No regrets

Two seasons later, the Wolverines find themselves in the Final Four for the first time since 1993, thanks in part to eight of Morris’ former teammates, nearly all of whom he keeps in regular contact with. If he had stayed at Michigan, Morris would be in his senior season, starting alongside national player-of-the-year candidate Trey Burke in Michigan’s backcourt. Asked if he regretted leaving early and missing the chance to play for a potential national championship contender, Morris said no, because the program has done so well during the last couple years.


“I would probably change my mind if the program wasn’t doing so well,” said Morris. “Because of the love I have for the guys and the coaching staff. I’m on the Lakers doing something I dreamed of all my life. Would it have been nice to be on a Final Four team and have a shot at the national championship? Yes. But I’m just happy that everything worked out the way it did and that they’re able to do that. I think everything happens for a reason. And I love it. And it has happened, and I wouldn’t change a thing.”