By Ken Howlett
Randolph Morris arrived at Kentucky in 2004 as one of the top rated players in the nation. A Parade and McDonald’s All-American out of Landmark Christian School just outside of Atlanta, Morris had great size at 6-foot-11, 260 pounds, soft hands and a nice around-the-basket game.
While at UK, Morris showed great promise as a freshman as he averaged 8.8 points and 4.2 rebounds on the year, and he culminated his season with a team-leading 20 points in the Wildcats’ double-overtime Elite Eight loss to Michigan State.
After his freshman year, Morris declared for the NBA Draft, but wasn’t selected. The big man returned to UK, and after missing the first 14 games of his sophomore season due to his early entry efforts, he led the Cats in scoring at 13.3 points per game and field-goal percentage (60.8).
In his junior season, Morris topped all other Wildcats in both scoring (16.6 per game) and rebounding (7.7 per game), as he ended his UK career with 1,123 points (47th all-time in UK history), 531 rebounds (43rd), 125 blocks (14th) and 57.8 percent field-goal accuracy (10th).
Only days after the end of Morris’ junior season, UK coach Tubby Smith abruptly left Kentucky for the University of Minnesota. Since Morris declared for the draft after his freshman year, he was considered a free agent due to a provision in the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, which states a player may declare only once for the draft.
One might assume Smith bolting for the Big Ten would have made Morris’ decision to stay at UK or leave for the NBA an easier one, but that was not the case at all.
Photo from UK Athletics.
“Leaving UK for the NBA was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make,” Morris said. “There were so many factors that I took into account when coming to that conclusion (to leave for the NBA). First, Kentucky had become my home for the last three years. The relationships that I built in those years I still have to this day. It was very difficult to leave all my friends behind so suddenly.”
Also weighing on Morris’ mind were his Wildcat teammates, and the bond they formed through rugged practices and competing together on the hardwood.
“The level of unity that you develop when playing with your teammates will never be experienced again,” Morris said about playing for the Cats. “My fondest memories of life happened while playing basketball for Kentucky.”
Surprising to some, was the third and final reason Morris thought about staying in Lexington.
“There is no feeling in the world that can compare to playing in Rupp Arena,” Morris said. “I cannot even begin to describe the energy and pride that it creates. However, I had to take a leap of faith and go after my dream of playing in the NBA.”
The New York Knicks and setting a record
On March 23, 2007, Morris signed a two-year, $1.6 million contract with the New York Knicks. When Morris’ pen hit the contract paper, he became the first player to ever play in an NCAA Tournament game and appear on an NBA roster, all in the same week.
Certainly, it was an NBA dream fulfilled for Morris, but the quick turnaround from college student to professional basketball player would be a challenge for even the most focused athlete.
“Whenever I am asked about playing for Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament and then playing for the New York Knicks all in the same week, one word seems to fit a little better than all other: whirlwind,” Morris said. “Everything just seemed to happen all at once. One minute I was in Lexington going to class and being a student-athlete, and then all of the sudden I am in Times Square driving to Madison Square Garden for a game.”
Going from college to the NBA also brought challenges on the court for the 6-11 center.
“The NBA is much faster (paced) than college and to be tossed right into that style of play was difficult,” Morris said. “There was little-to-no transition phase. But to have the distinction of being the only player to play in college and the NBA in the same week is still pretty sweet.”
Adapting to the pace of the NBA was just one of Morris’ challenges. Inherent for any professional athlete plying his trade in the Big Apple is dealing with the notoriously ruthless New York media. But Morris had an ace up his sleeve; his time at UK playing for the most scrutinized college basketball program in the nation.
“When I went to the NBA I kept getting warned about the New York Knicks’ beat writers and the dozens of media outlets, and to be careful what I tell the media, but I flowed seamlessly into interviews and didn’t miss a step due to the training I received at UK,” Morris said. “I am thankful to Scott Stricklin, Mandy Brajuha and all the media relations personnel who prepped me for the scrutiny of the Wildcat media.”
The unique experience of playing in front of Kentucky fans in Rupp Arena also smoothed Morris’ NBA modification.
“The fans at Kentucky are very dedicated and passionate,” Morris said. “They provided an atmosphere that could somewhat simulate an NBA game. In many ways, playing in Rupp Arena prepares you for the big NBA arenas and crowds. It is yet another way UK players have a slight leg up on other universities.”
Although Morris only played a season-and-a-half with the Knicks – performing in 23 games and averaging 3.1 points and 2.1 rebounds in 10.1 minutes per contest his second season — he matured in his time in New York.
“The playing time I got in New York was sparse, but the everyday living while I was with the Knicks I will remember for the rest of my life,” Morris said. “I was in New York on my own and I learned to become self-reliant and responsible. Playing for the Knicks was my first official job and helped to shape and develop the rest of my career.”
A career which took a hometown turn as Morris was offered a chance to try out for the Atlanta Hawks after his stint with the Knicks. It was a chance he relished.
The hometown Atlanta Hawks
“When the opportunity to work out for the Hawks and possibly make the team came about, I was thrilled,” Morris said. “Playing in the town where I was familiar and had family and friends was an exciting two years in my life. My mother and father, in particular, were with me in the second grade when I started playing basketball, and for me to be able to play in front of them and show them how much all of their sacrifice and hard work had paid off was a way to honor them.”
Playing on a very young but talented Hawks team, Morris played in 51 games, but averaged only 4.2 minutes per contest in his two years in Atlanta.
“The hardest thing for me in Atlanta was staying ready to perform when your minutes are so sporadic,” Morris said. “It is virtually impossible to simulate game timing and game factors from just practice and individual workouts.”
Although Morris found it a challenge coping with his lack of floor time, he has a message for those who might find themselves in a similar situation.
“If I could give some advice to someone that was in the same position as I was, (it is) never get discouraged, your time will come,” Morris said.
For Morris, his time to shine came in the form of an opportunity to play basketball in the Chinese Basketball Association, one of the world’s most competitive pro basketball leagues, which boasts 13-time NBA All-Star Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis, Javaris Crittenton, Donta Smith, Quincy Douby and Bonzi Wells as one-time or current team members.
After spending three-and-a-half years in the NBA, and drawing more pine time than he cared for, Morris simply had to entertain the opportunity to play abroad, even if it meant going from playing in his hometown to playing halfway around the world.
“I began to second guess myself and abilities,” Morris said. “China offered a fresh start. I looked at it as a new opportunity to renew my love for basketball and re-energize my career.”
A championship in China
With the support and backing of his wife, Morris dove head first into the chance to enjoy the game of basketball again, but moving to a country with such vast cultural differences would surely present its own challenges. Morris, though, segued into the Chinese landscape quite nicely.
“The initial shock of being in a foreign country can take some adjusting, but the thing that eased the transition was having my wife with me,” Morris said. “She was extremely supportive and tried to make our apartment feel as much like home as possible. We were both open to the new experience and ended up enjoying learning the new culture.”
Playing for a team, the Beijing Ducks, who he was wholly unfamiliar with in a league composed of teams he had never heard of caused Morris to open his mind to the Chinese basketball experience.
“When I arrived in China I did not have any preconceived notions (about their basketball),” Morris said. “I just told myself I would work as hard as possible and then good things would happen.”
And work Morris did, harder than he ever thought possible.
“I will say, I have never practiced as much is my life,” Morris said. “I arrived in China in October and practiced twice-a-day for three hours (each session) for two months. After the initial shock of six hours of practice, six days a week for two months, it actually became like second nature. I gradually noticed improvement in my skills and conditioning.”
In the end, Morris’ open-minded attitude, his work ethic and willingness to be coached by and share ideas with the highly respected Min Lulei paid huge dividends, as Morris and Marbury led the Ducks to their first CBA championship in March 2012.
Marbury netted 41 points in the title tilt, but it was Morris who sealed the victory with two free throws with 21 seconds remaining in Beijing’s 124-121 championship win.
“Winning the CBA title was one of my greatest career accomplishments, (and) helping Beijing win its first CBA championship is even more fulfilling,” Morris said. “I was so grateful that I was able to accomplish a goal that many thought was unattainable, and (I’m) even more thankful that I could witness how much it meant to the people of Beijing.”
Still a Wildcat
While Morris has been a dedicated member of the Beijing Ducks for the last two years and left UK in 2007, he still closely follows the program and most definitely likes what he sees.
“I have been an extreme Cal fan for a long time,” Morris said about UK coach John Calipari. “His ability to recruit young talent and mold and direct them is a rare gift. So naturally I was ecstatic when I learned that he was coming to the University of Kentucky. What he has accomplished in his short tenure is nothing short of remarkable.”
Echoing the players-first theme of the Calipari era, Morris is most impressed with Cal’s dedication to those who matter most.
“The one thing that impresses me more than his recruiting or game management is his commitment to his players,” Morris said. “He re-energized the program and it makes me proud to have played at UK and even more proud to live here (in Lexington).”
And like many former Cats, Morris is eager to give back to UK and its fans after enjoying his time in a Kentucky uniform.
“I would be honored to be around the program,” Morris said. “The University of Kentucky prepared me for not only a professional career but also prepared me for life. I also learned that making mistakes is a part of that learning process, and it’s not how many times you fall; what really matters is if you can pick yourself up and keep moving in order to achieve your goals.
“I would not take lightly a chance to give back to the program anyway that I can. The University of Kentucky, Kentucky basketball, and the state of Kentucky has done so much for my family and me, and I am extremely grateful.”
This story was reprinted by permission from Coachcal.com. It is one story in a series that looks back at the careers of former Kentucky basketball stars and/or John Calipari-coached players and find out what they’re doing now.