LAS VEGAS — Monte Morris stamped out any faint hope the Milwaukee Bucks were clinging to.
In the final game of group play Monday at NBA Summer League, the Bucks were in possession down five with 20 seconds to go. D.J. Wilson got jammed up along the three-point arc and tried to find teammate Jordan Barnett, but Morris read the play perfectly, poked away the pass and laid it up for an easy two. The swipe and score, which made Denver's lead too big to overcome, capped a masterful 20-point, six-rebound, eight-assist performance.
Asked afterward what he was trying to prove in Las Vegas, Morris said: "That I'm a dog. Whoever comes out in front of me, I just want to win. I'm going to compete at a high level. It's just a Flint chip that I carried."
Morris was referring to Flint, Michigan, the city of 96,448 known nationally as the place that's fallen on hard times because of the loss of manufacturing jobs and, more recently, a water crisis. More than 40 percent of Flint residents live in poverty, according to the most recent U.S. Census. Morris is one of four current NBA players who grew up there along with the Lakers' Kyle Kuzma, the Hornets' Miles Bridges and free agent James Young. Those four are the latest in a long line of successful hoopers Flint has produced.
Morris, a 2017 second-round pick, has developed a reputation as an unflappable undersized point guard on the floor. As a freshman at Iowa State, he set the NCAA single-season record for assist-to-turnover ratio. As a senior, he broke his own record. Morris has not yet gotten his chance in an NBA rotation and will likely have to wait longer than he wants to after Denver agreed to a one-year with Isaiah Thomas on Thursday. When he does, don't be surprised if he runs with the opportunity. Morris has overcome any obstacle in front of him so far, which in many ways is a testament to the place he comes from.
Mike Williams knew he was watching something special the first time he saw Morris play in 2004. Morris was a fourth-grader. Williams had just been hired as the varsity boys basketball coach at Beecher High School. What stuck out even then was Morris' ability to see the game several moves ahead of anyone else.
"You could really see this kid understood the game at another level," Williams said. "You don’t find many kids who make the right play at a young age. A lot of kids want to score or prove themselves. He’s been playing like a winner for a long time.”
Williams grew up in Flint. In high school, he played against the men who would eventually form the backbone of Michigan State's 2000 national championship team: Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell a.k.a. the Flintstones. He'd watched plenty of Division I and NBA talent up close. He believed early on Morris could reach those heights.
"He was the best player on his fourth-grade AAU team, and he stuck out like a sore thumb," Williams said. "He moved up to play on the team with the sixth and eighth graders, and he ended up being the best player on the floor with those kids."
Morris got used to playing against bigger and stronger competition at a young age. He routinely went up against kids two or three years older than him, a strategy hatched by his mother, Latonia, and endorsed by Williams. It didn't seem to matter how many years the competition had on him; Morris dominated.
By the time he was a freshman at Beecher, Morris stood 5-foot-9 and "115 pounds soaking wet," according to Williams. He started on varsity as a freshman. The Buccaneers made a surprise run to the state semifinals that season. Williams had never coached a player with Morris' poise, a vital quality in any good point guard. Morris' ability to connect with his teammates was unique, too.
One of Williams' policies as a coach was that he required every member of his team to dress identically during games. Players only wore team-issued shoes, and if someone tried to be sly and rock a pair of fancy socks, Williams forced them to change into a pair of the white Hanes he carried around in a bag with him. Williams did this as a way to downplay the differences between players who come from different social classes.
"Everybody is going to look the same," Williams said. "With the kids I’ve coached, some of them can afford it, some can’t."
The Buccaneers were wearing Nike shoes that year. Morris desperately wanted to wear Nike socks to match. At first, he didn't understand why Williams wouldn't allow it.
"I kind of pulled him to the side and said, ‘Monte, honestly I don’t have a problem with it.’ But I said, ‘Some of your teammates can’t afford Nike socks. Some of your teammates live in the shelter,'" Williams said. "He said, ‘Are you serious, coach?’ I said, ‘Yeah, everybody doesn’t have what you have. That’s why I make you all wear the same thing.’ He said, ‘Coach I didn’t realize that.'"
The next day, Williams was laying out uniforms in the Buccaneers' locker room when Morris popped in with a dozen pairs of Nike socks. Morris had gone to the store the night before and purchased enough for everyone on the team with his allowance money. He left a pair at each player's locker.
"You have givers and you have takers," Williams said. "Monte is definitely a giver. Those are the special people in this world who realize they have a bigger purpose than just playing basketball."
Beecher went a combined 55-1 during Morris' junior and senior seasons. They won the state championship both years, two of the five titles Williams has won in 14 seasons at Beecher. As a senior, Morris averaged 23.8 points, 8.8 assists, 5.1 steals and 6.8 rebounds on his way to winning Michigan's Mr. Basketball Player award.
"He’s special to this area," Williams said. "He’s the type of kid that everybody is rooting for. I just left Staples, and the guy at the register asked me, ‘Have you talked to Monte?'"
When word of Flint's polluted water supply started to make national news, Morris was a junior at Iowa State. In 2014, the city switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River in a cost-cutting measure. The swap caused pipes to corrode and lead to seep into the water supply. Brown and orange liquid began to flow out of pipes. Residents were forced to either boil the water or buy it bottled.
Dismayed by what he was seeing, Morris shot a video on his cellphone sent out social media posts asking for support. "Flint’s always on my mind. Anything you can do to help would be great," he wrote on Twitter. Hy-Vee, the Des Moines, Iowa-based grocery store chain, offered to deliver 11 semi-trailers full of clean water in honor of the number Morris wore as a Cyclone.
"I was just thinking, 'Do whatever I can do to help.' Morris said. "That’s all I was thinking. It was tough. It’s still tough. There are still things going on that we can’t control."
Morris' connection with his hometown is one of the forces guiding him as he tries to climb the rungs of professional basketball. He was only four years old when the Michigan State team stuffed with players from Flint defeated Florida in the national championship, but he has vivid memories of watching it at home. The images of Cleaves rolling his ankle and returning to the game are burned into his memory forever.
Now Morris is a part of the next generation of hoopers from Flint. He, Kuzma, Bridges, Young and others from the area who play overseas keep up with each other in a group chat. Morris still considers Kuzma his best friend, two elementary school classmates living out their hoop dreams.
"You've kind of just got to play basketball because that’s all there really is to do in Flint," Morris said. "That’s all anybody does in Flint. Everybody wants to be a basketball player — besides Mark Ingram."
Morris, Kuzma and Bridges are carrying that Flint chip like Cleaves, Bell and Peterson did before them. They learned how to play the game there, and it took them to basketball's highest level. The hope, if you ask Morris' high school coach, is that history repeats itself and this generation inspires a new one.
“Basketball is so important here because it gives the kids around here hope," Williams said. "That’s what Monte represents. What he said about Flint — that was for these kids. Hope represents a reason to wake up the next day, a reason to fight. He knows. When he was a kid, he was watching the older guys, and he knows how much they meant to him. That’s why he made sure he said something about the city of Flint."