Monté Morris buried his head into his mother’s shoulder, but there was nothing he could think about besides the pain in his own shoulder.
“Why can’t I come back from this injury?” he asked on the verge of tears.
It was March 2016. The Cyclones had just lost 79-76 to Oklahoma in the opening round of the Big 12 tournament. Monté, a rock for the Cyclones all season, could only muster an uncharacteristic five points and two assists.
But there was a deeper problem.
Monté was hurting.
“He was hurt more than a lot of people know,” said Latonia Morris, Monté’s mother. “It was hard to watch him push through that.”
The Cyclones played at Kansas about a week earlier. At the end of the game, with the Cyclones trailing, Monté jumped into Jayhawk guard Frank Mason III, who was jumping backward into Monté to try and alter his shot. Monté’s shooting shoulder — his right arm — collided with Mason’s shoulder blade.
Monté let out a scream.
The team called it a shoulder strain after the game, and the team’s trainer Vic Miller thought it would pass with time. Monté thought it was something more.
Going into the game against Oklahoma, Monté’s arm didn’t get better. To make the pain more manageable, the team trainers shot his shoulder with painkillers.
They missed the spot. They gave him a shot again. Missed again. Monté felt funny.
The numbness extended down to the edge of his fingertips. He couldn’t feel the basketball. He tried to dribble, but his signature touch was gone.
“That whole Oklahoma game, I was all messed up,” Monté said.
The shoulder injury didn’t go away before the NCAA Tournament, and it lasted longer than fans knew, affecting his decisions along the way.
But the injury was just one aspect of Monté’s crazy junior season.
The biggest decision of his life
After the noise reverberating inside Hilton Coliseum became a distant ambient sound in the back of his head, Monté had to make one of the biggest decisions of his career.
It was January of his junior season, and Iowa State had just won its biggest game of the season so far — an 85-72 thriller on ESPN’s Big Monday against then-No. 4 Kansas. The Cyclones overcame a seven-point deficit at halftime, and Monté finished one of the best games of his career, putting up 21 points and nine assists.
But after the crowd dispersed and he was alone in his room, Monté couldn’t celebrate.
“Everybody thought I’d be on top of the world, but reality just hit me,” he said.
Although there were a few months left in the season, Monté felt the weight of a looming decision: to stay for his senior season at Iowa State or to leave and declare for the NBA Draft. It had been on the lips of reporters and fans all season.
He pulled out his phone and thumbed through his Twitter. Tweets filled with fans willing him to stay littered his notifications.
The options puttered around in his mind. His grandma, who died the year before, always wanted him to get a degree. He wanted to leave a legacy at Iowa State. He couldn’t leave now. Not like this.
But on the other hand, Monté’s draft stock was soaring. After putting up a career game against one of the best teams in the nation, national analysts such as ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla were calling Monté one of the best point guards in the country.
In his mind, time was winding down, and he had to take his best shot and hope for the best. He FaceTimed his mom and tried to piece together his thoughts.
“I’m really leaning towards coming back here for my senior year no matter what,” Monté said. “No matter how I do in the tournament and no matter if we made the Final Four.”
Latonia’s face crept into a smile. She was proud. Monté was no longer the 17-year-old kid who moved to Ames as a freshman. He was a man.
“I wish I was next to him because I would’ve given him a huge hug and kiss,” she said later.
Trying to battle through
Monté had never felt an injury this bad in his entire body before — let alone in the shoulder.
In the weeks leading up to the first round of the NCAA Tournament and through the loss to Oklahoma, Monté couldn’t practice. He said he felt out of shape. He could barely shoot without a sharp pain striking his shoulder with force.
“[The pain] was big time,” Monté said. “[There were even] nights that I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep on my right side. I couldn’t practice. That was the biggest thing — I couldn’t practice. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t extend my arm at all.”
The physical pain in his shoulder was one thing, but the mental toll was real too. Monté had always been able to bounce back from injuries, but this time was different.
“He had never been hurt,” Latonia said. “He’d always been able to play through it.”
It would’ve been hard for a fan or even a teammate to see how Monté struggled through Iowa State’s 94-81 win against Iona in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament on March 17. He looked like the pre-injury Monté — dipping, driving and seamlessly dishing assists. He ended the night with 20 points and just two assists shy of a double-double.
But Monté was still in pain. After the game, he couldn’t keep it in anymore. His roommate, former Iowa State forward Jameel McKay, heard the extent of it.
“Bro, I don’t know how I did that. I’m still hurtin’,” Monté told him. “I’m hurtin’.”
The Cyclones kept trudging through the tournament, and so did Monté, even through his shoulder pain was nearing an unbearable level. He never did put up a game like Iona again, but he wasn’t hurting the team either. Against Little Rock in the next round — the round of 32 — Monté had eight points and four assists. It was a far cry from the Monté whose season made him a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation’s best point guard.
In the Sweet 16, Iowa State faced one of its biggest challenges of the season: No. 1-seed Virginia, a team that was known for slowing down a high-octane offensive like the Cyclones.
Monté never shied away from those types of obstacles. On Dec. 10, 2015, the Cyclones were still trying to claw back from a 20-point deficit against Iowa. Monté was the central driver in that comeback, putting up 20 points and nine assists in the game. That included one of the biggest shots of his Iowa State career.
With time winding down, Monté dribbled to the elbow of the free throw (ree-throw line and let loose a floater. It sank through the basket flawlessly. The Hawkeyes couldn’t answer in the final eight seconds, and the Cyclones pulled off the 87-86 win, sending fans into a frenzy at Hilton Coliseum.
So Monté wasn’t fazed.
He had 10 points and eight assists against Virginia.
It wasn’t enough.
Virginia stifled the Iowa State offense and won 84-71. Monté missed shots he usually made, and he couldn’t be aggressive.
“I was afraid to get hit,” he said.
Monté felt like he let his senior teammates — Jameel McKay, Georges Niang and Abdel Nader — down.
“I wish I could’ve helped Georges, because he gave it all he had. But I couldn’t do anything,” Monté said.
The bus after the game was a somber scene. Monté went down the line and shared an embrace with each of his teammates. But a hug with teammate Naz Mitrou-Long, who was on his way to a fifth season after sitting out the year while recovering from hip surgery, lasted a bit longer.
Monté had something to tell him.
“I just want to let you know that I’m coming back,” Monté said. “I know you’re getting your year back, so I want to come back and play with you.”
That resonated with Mitrou-Long, who remembers that conversation to this day.
“It means everything,” Naz said. “He could have had millions of dollars right now. He was regarded as one of the best — and in my eyes the best — point guard in the country last year.
“For him to turn down his situation, and where he comes from, it means more than I could even put into words,” Mitrou-Long said.
The loss hasn’t been lost on Monté. It still creeps into his mind when he reflects on his season.
“I feel like [if] my shoulder was normal, I guarantee that we would’ve beat Virginia,” Monté said.
“I’m going to live with the results.”
Monté announced to the world he was staying at Iowa State on April 8, just a few weeks after he assured Mitrou-Long he would help him in his senior season.
The announcement video, posted online, was 4 minutes and 25 seconds in length, but its meaning transcended that length to fans, teammates and his coaches. Many of those teammates believed he wouldn’t be returning.
“A lot of people thought I was leaving,” Monté said. “Like, they lost bets. A bunch of people thought I was leaving. That surprised a lot of people.”
Although Monté made his decision to return for his senior season in January, a new NCAA rule could’ve allowed him to test the waters with NBA scouts and camps so long as he pulled out of the process in time. But his shoulder continued to hold him back. It wasn’t until May that he felt 100 percent. By then, it was too late.
“I’m going to live with the results and just know that if I have a better year or a worse year than last year, it’s not going to change me as a person with my character,” Monté said. “I’m going to live with my decision no matter what.”
Latonia has seen a change in Monté since he made his decision. He has always spent time in the gym, but he has been spending copious amounts of time shooting, dribbling and working on his game since April.
That’s where Monté was on June 23, 2016 — the night of the 2016 NBA Draft.
While NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced LSU’s Ben Simmons as the first overall pick of the draft, Monté was practicing to hear his own name called in just one more year.
More to come
Monté still has droves of goals he wants to achieve at Iowa State.
He is close to Iowa State’s all-time assists records and steals records — both held by former NBA player Jeff Hornacek. He wants to make the Final Four. He wants to sweep Kansas. He wants to break those records.
“If he wants to do all that, he’d have a perfect season,” Latonia said, laughing.
As a senior at Beecher High School in Flint, Michigan, in 2013, Morris put up his best season to date. He averaged 23.8 points, 8.8 assists and 5.1 steals on his way to earning Michigan’s Mr. Basketball award. He led his team to a 27-1 record and its second straight state championship, in which he scored 29 points.
If that senior magic can carry over to his senior season, Iowa State will be in for a treat.
Monté believes it will.
“I can’t really tell you [what I’m working on], you’ll just have to see,” Monté said. “When it’s that time, I want people to say, ‘He took his game to the next level.’ I’m really going to do that this season.”