Inside the dazzling Breslin Center Sweet 16, Elite Eight, Final Four and National Title banners hang from the ceiling at every corner. Typically on a home game for the Michigan State Spartans, the place is at its 14,797 capacity.
But not on this day.
It’s 2004 at the Michigan State Shootout, a basketball camp Tom Izzo and his staff hold every summer in the offseason for high school programs around the area. Today there are only a few hundred in the arena. Some playing, others watching — none donning the typical emerald of a Spartan.
Michigan State's head coach Tom Izzo is standing at midcourt near a rack of basketballs, observing the high school players. Some may be next in line for the legendary Izzo to bring to Michigan State, but most are not.
Behind Izzo was the Beecher Buccaneers, a storied basketball program that had just been taken over by the energetic and animated Mike Williams.
Then the team’s waterboy — a fourth grader who was not yet five feet tall and less than 100 pounds soaking wet — trotted over to the rack and grabbed a ball to go shoot at one of the empty hoops on Breslin’s sparkling white pine and emerald floor.
Izzo looked down at the youngster.
“Hey coach,” said the 10-year-old Monte Morris, calm and collected. “You’re going to recruit me someday.”
Izzo smiled, the group of Beecher high schoolers laughed at the tyke.
But it was coach Williams who knew immediately in Morris’ moment that he was more serious than they could ever have imagined.
That same year Williams took over the program, his then-girlfriend’s son, Davonte, was one of Morris’ best friends. And so at 10 years old, Williams and Morris’ relationship started to grow.
Morris was over all the time to see Davonte and coach Williams. From playing video games to watching sports to playing basketball, Morris, Williams and the Flint Beecher program became a part of one another.
"I remember times we were playing one-on-one at his house and he was bigger than me and he would block my shot," Morris said. "I'd always tell him, man wait 'til I get older. We laugh about that almost every time we see each other."
Wherever coach Williams and his Buccaneers went, Morris followed with an insatiable hunger to understand the game.
“He was a fixture with my team,” Williams said. “Anywhere we went, he went. Any chance he could get he would come practice with the team. He really took pride in the fact that he was going to play for Beecher.”
Pretty soon Morris was playing up multiple grade levels at a time. In fourth grade, the same skinny kid who spoke to coach Izzo with confidence ran his eighth-grade AAU team with the same kind of authority and leadership.
“I saw him score 20 points and dish out seven assists to eighth-graders without any turnovers,” Williams said. “And for a kid that young to be able to handle the ball and have the court awareness that he had, you know I figured that he was going to be special.”
He vowed to take the young and frail, but brilliantly efficient Morris under his wing and mentor him into something great. Morris continued playing up levels into junior high, where in eighth-grade he was averaging close to 30 points a game and was gaining notoriety around the Flint basketball scene.
“I started working on my ball-handling and playing with older guys,” Morris said. “He told me he was going to develop me into a point guard.
"Ever since then I took it on head first.”
Coach Williams sat in his office at Flint Beecher High School on a warm day in August 2009. He was trying to figure out what in the world he was going to do.
His two best players, both backcourt guards, had transferred away and left the program. One of those players, Javontae Hawkins, now a sophomore at University of Southern Florida, had averaged close to 25 points per game and transferred to Huntington Prep, where now-Kansas star Andrew Wiggins played his prep years. The other was Tayron Boose, who transferred to a close rival in Saginaw.
Then in through his office door walked an incoming freshman, who stood 5-foot-8-inches and “couldn't have weighed more than 115 pounds soaking wet” according to Williams.
Monte Morris strolled into Williams’ office with confidence and wanted to address the hole that the two point guards were leaving behind.
“He walked up to me and he said coach, don’t worry about it,” Williams said. “They left to get out of my way.”
Midway through his first season, his reputation grew. The frail freshman had a handle like Velcro and was smooth when dishing or scoring. Morris’ performance against the No. 1 team in the state at that point is a vivid memory to his coach.
He scored 29 points while taking only 14 shots, which was frustrating to Williams because Morris took the majority of them in the second half. In the first half, Morris passed up open driving lanes and open looks to try and get his teammates involved.
“He said, 'Coach, I'm just trying to make the right plays,” Williams said. “When the media told me he had 29 points, I said, 'When? Where?' Because he did it so subtly and so efficiently that you really couldn't tell.
“That’s when we really knew how good he was going to be.”
In 2009, Morris was expected to be good and was exactly that. But in 2012 in his junior year, he was revolutionary. Not only did he propel himself into stardom in Michigan, but he pushed Beecher to heights it hadn't seen since the great Roy Marble [Yes, Iowa's Devyn Marble's dad] had played at Beecher from 1981-1984 before going on to be a Iowa Hawkeye.
His junior and sophomore year, he led the Buccaneers to Final Four appearances in the Michigan playoffs, losing both times in the semifinals. But this year was different.
Against rival Detroit Consortium in the quarterfinals, the slugfest carried into overtime, where it was tied 36-all.
With around 10 seconds left, a Consortium player drove down the right lane, when Morris helped poke the ball loose. Another Beecher player wound up with the ball, hit Morris on the outlet near midcourt and what Morris did next was etched into the minds of those Buccaneer fans who were privileged enough to witness it forever.
In midair Morris caught the ball. Then, without touching the court, he contorted his body and delivered a dime across the court to where only his streaking teammate could catch it — and he did. Rising and firing just before the buzzer sounded, he sunk the game-winner, spurring Beecher into the semifinals once again.
"A 45-to-50 foot pass on the money with this kid off balance to win the game. He just made plays, he made winning plays. A lot of kids can make plays, but that kid made winning plays for us."
Mike Williams, Flint Beecher
Williams called it a selfless play. Morris says it was a play he'll never forget. From there, Beecher cruised to a 20-point win in the semis and a 14-point win in the title game, giving Beecher its first state title since 1987.
"Everybody rushed us on the court," Morris said. "That play, that game right there, that was my biggest moment of my high school career."
Fast forward past Beecher’s first ever back-to-back state titles, which were hand-delivered by Morris. Past him being named Michigan’s Mr. Basketball over players like James Young and his AAU teammate Derrick Walton. Sift through Morris' stardom he'd established, where he was beloved by the state of Michigan.
Even look past Morris’ signing with Iowa State, where he could get away from the noise that playing at a Michigan-based school would bring. No tickets to get for friends and family every night. No high school friends distracting him with parties — just Ames, Iowa, coach Fred Hoiberg and basketball.
Pause during Morris’ first big road test at BYU. In that game he said his mindset was off, he didn't command the floor like he'd done his entire life when the ball was in his hands.
With less than a minute left, with DeAndre Kane ejected and Dustin Hogue and Melvin Ejim fouled out, Iowa State led 89-88 when Morris missed a crucial front end free throw, leaving the door open for a potential BYU win.
But thanks to a block from Daniel Edozie, BYU's attempt fell short and Iowa State escaped with its first major road win of the season. Morris didn't know how to explain it, but said simply that his mindset was wrong.
"Early on I didn’t know when to take a shot or when to get others involved,” Morris said. “I was guessing too much instead of playing and just thinking about it. Those games that had me struggling at first I think it was just all a mindset."
But after the game something clicked.
The next morning, Hoiberg sat in his office ready to put together the pieces that nearly fell apart against BYU the night before.
And as he did in ninth-grade, walking into coach Williams’ office to fix a problem, he did that morning with Hoiberg. And in his head coach’s mind, that was the moment he knew Morris was something special.
“He was the first guy in my office the next morning saying, 'Coach we need to watch film, that can't happen again,'" Hoiberg said. “And we sat in there and watched film and talked. He’s been spectacular since then as far as taking care of the basketball.”
After the ball released from Morris' hands in the deep corner, he hopped three times holding his right hand in the virtual cookie jar.
Morris says when he hops, it feels good. And on that shot, he hopped a few times.
"I just stepped up with confidence. As soon as it left my hands, if you watch it over, I did a little bounce and when I bounce I feel it’s going in. I was really confident taking that shot."
- Monte Morris
Morris had just hit the biggest 3-pointer of his career, giving then-No. 16 Iowa State the final lead of the game against then-No. 19 Oklahoma State at 96-95 before the Cyclones held on for the 98-97 win.
In the first trip to Stillwater, Okla. in his young career, Morris had helped end an 18-game drought and give them the first win in Stillwater since 1988.
“I just stepped up with confidence and as soon as it left my hands,” Morris trailed off, smiling and holding up his right arm, replaying the biggest moment of his career through his mind.
Nearly three months after the BYU road win, Morris is sitting under the hoop at Hilton dribbling back and forth between his legs. Like clockwork the ball goes back and forth while Morris’ mind races.
He’s talking with a grin about his days as a kid growing up in Michigan, with pride about playing for Beecher and with confidence about how he’s taken control of a starting role in his freshman year for Iowa State.
"He’s a winner and that shows by winning back-to-back state championships. He did whatever it took for that team to win. To win the Mr. Basketball in the state of Michigan with that caliber of class with Derrick Walton and James Young, it shows what people think of him in that state."
- ISU head coach Fred Hoiberg
The freshman has more than doubled his average minutes since Big 12 play has started. Since that game at BYU, Morris has played beyond his years and he leads the country in assist to turnover ratio at 4.79 — two more than the next closest in the Big 12. One of his goals is to break that ratio record as a freshman and he's well on his way.
“You want to know why he’s so good,” jokes ISU forward Georges Niang walking over to Morris under the hoop. “Because I schooled him to the game. I took him under my wing. Make sure you get that in there.”
Morris laughs. Niang’s joke is yet another example of Morris’ acceptance as a key cog of the now-No. 11 ISU men's basketball team.
Sitting under the hoop, feverishly dribbling the basketball — it’s just another instant in a long line of moments that’s led him to this point.
From the fourth-grade kid who was confident enough to approach Tom Izzo, to telling coach Williams he'd fill the void as a scrawny freshman, to giving Beecher its first ever back-to-back state titles, to winning Michigan's Mr. Basketball and now to running the show for Iowa State — Morris’ moments are all pieces of an equation that has led to where he is now, dribbling back and forth again and again under the hoop at Hilton, confident as ever.
Then Morris ran off to go grab another basketball from the rack, preparing to capitalize on his next big moment, whether that's three days away during their next Big 12 home game or three years away, where Morris' dream of playing in the NBA awaits.
"I know next year I'll have the ball in my hands more to showcase my ability," Morris said. "I'll be prepared for that situation when my time comes.