SportsMonday Column: Opposite paths lead Morgan and Horford back together
CANTON, Ohio — Jordan Morgan didn’t sleep much during his first night back in the United States. His flight from Paris landed in Detroit on the evening of March 24, and he needed to be in Canton early the next morning for a physical with his new team, the Canton Charge of the NBA Developmental League.
His professional basketball career is nearly two years old now. He has lived in Paris and he has lived in Rome; he has packed up his entire life in less than 24 hours to move cities and switch teams; and he has been told to pack up all of his belongings only to hear that a potential deal with a team had fallen through. At times, the best reminder of home was eating at Chipotle.
So it was a relief to Morgan when, upon arriving at his physical about 12 hours after landing in America, the first face he saw was a familiar one. It was the face of a teammate, an on-court rival, a former roommate.
When Morgan got out of his car to embark on his next basketball journey, there was Jon Horford, walking into the Canton Civic Center.
“It was a cool moment to see him again and say, ‘What’s up, man? How you doing? How is everything?’ ” Morgan said later that morning.
It has been two years since they last suited up together for Michigan, two years since they jockeyed for playing time and manned the middle for the Wolverines’ 2013-14 Elite Eight team.
Morgan and Horford were never the first options at Michigan, never the stars in the spotlight. The spotlight, typically, belonged to guys like Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert.
And now, two years later, the situation is similar: Five of those teammates are in the NBA with LeVert soon to join them, and Morgan and Horford are tasked with finishing out the D-League regular season and the playoffs with the Charge, an affiliate of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“Me and Jordan played together for four years, lived together for two years, won championships together, been through everything,” Horford said.
This time around, a man who has watched them play for years brought them together. Like Morgan and Horford, Charge General Manager Mike Gansey played under John Beilein in the Elite Eight — he was one of West Virginia’s stars in 2005. He considers the Beileins a second family and lived with Beilein’s son, Patrick, for two years in Morgantown.
The D-League, by reputation, is known for overeager scorers who feel as though they can only make the NBA by scoring and standing out individually. Morgan and Horford both acknowledge that will not be their path, and when Gansey saw that Morgan’s contract had expired with his team in France, he reached out to his agent. Horford has been with the Charge since December.
The Michigan connections with the Charge don’t end with Horford and Morgan, either. Hardaway, who lived with Morgan and Horford in college, had a brief stint in Canton earlier this season as he returned to form following an injury.
“I’m going to bring in good guys, good teammates, good workers and guys that want to play together,” Gansey said.
Morgan earned two engineering degrees in his five years at Michigan while Horford notably read books on ancient Chinese philosophy during the team’s NCAA Tournament runs. Stereotypical jocks they are not. The teammate from Michigan with whom Horford most frequently keeps in touch is former walk-on Eso Akunne — they text weekly about manga, a type of Japanese comic.
Former Michigan captain Josh Bartelstein lived with Morgan and Horford during the 2012-13 season along with Hardaway, and believes their eclectic interests are derived from a desire to understand how the world works. When they were at home, away from basketball, they’d discuss politics, big business and the state of college athletics.
But at practice, the relationship was different. Throughout their careers, each stood in the other’s way of playing time.
“They went at each other,” Bartelstein said. “You would never know they were roommates. They would talk trash and go at each other on the court. Off the court, we were all best friends.”
The presence of McGary, who emerged as a star during the team’s run to the national championship game in 2013, only added to the intensity of the competition. Morgan had started most of that season, his fourth year in Ann Arbor, before McGary took over during the most important part of the season.
Morgan’s role was diminished during the team’s NCAA Tournament run, and coaches from other programs reached out to him after the season, trying to tell him he should take advantage of the graduate transfer rule.
But in the end, the pull of finishing his time at Michigan was too strong. He had given his all to the program and could not bring himself to leave. Even at his lowest point, when he had essentially been benched during the 2013 NCAA Tournament, he still made the best of it. He took a charge in the Final Four that sent the Wolverines to the title game. Then, after the highs and the lows, he had an opportunity to finish strong with a fifth and final year.
“I felt called — honestly, I tell you — I felt called to stay,” Morgan said. “There’s something more than what you can see on the surface. Something was telling me I needed to stay.”
He would not regret that decision. Morgan not only maintained his starting role during his final season, but Michigan wouldn’t have made the Elite Eight without him. He scored 15 points and collected seven rebounds in the Wolverines’ Sweet 16 victory against Tennessee, a game in which he was supposed to be outmatched in the post.
Horford faced a similar decision that offseason, one year after Morgan had decided to stay. Even with McGary out for much of the 2013-14 season, he had still taken a backseat to Morgan. He wanted to go somewhere he knew he’d play, somewhere he could have a new experience. He transferred to Florida for one final season, where he received the minutes increase he desired. Horford played 20 minutes per game, averaging 6.5 points and 4.8 rebounds.
Morgan says he never gave Horford a hard time for this decision. He understood where his roommate was coming from and never even asked him exactly why he decided to leave.
“It was a great experience in terms of personal growth because it took me out of my comfort zone,” Horford said. “I had to play with all new teammates, I had to learn a new system, I had to learn the tendencies of other coaches and what they needed and what they liked to see.”
In some ways, Morgan and Horford are still chasing playing time, chasing new and better opportunities. Horford has played 32 games with the Charge, averaging 18.6 minutes, 4.3 points and 7.0 rebounds. Morgan has played just three games in the D-League, averaging 15 minutes, 2.3 points and 4.7 rebounds.
The fact that they’re playing together now is almost mere coincidence. Just like they did for their final college seasons, Morgan and Horford have actively chosen different paths in terms of going about their professional careers.
Horford opted to play in the D-League instead of going to Europe, where he could have made more money. Morgan went to the D-League mainly because his other option, after his contract ran out in France, would have been to sit around and wait for summer league.
“It’s a chance to get experience, to get exposure, all of that,” Horford said of playing in the D-League. “And I’m young, I don’t have a family or anything, so money isn’t too big of a concern for me right now.”
In many ways, Horford said, playing at Michigan was more glamorous than playing in the D-League. The Wolverines travelled on charter flights, received constant access to a gym and a weight room, ate catered meals and had better tools for recovery after games and practices. The players on the Charge do not receive those perks.
The difficulty of pursuing a professional basketball career in leagues other than the NBA requires mental discipline, too. Horford estimates he has read a book given to him by Greg Harden, the director of athletic counseling at Michigan, called “As a Man Thinketh,” more than 100 times to stay upbeat.
“It’s literally about how your thoughts create, your thoughts literally create your reality,” Horford said. “No matter what your circumstances, your situation is, if you can change your thoughts to more positive thoughts, then you can’t help but get positive outcomes. Like one of the lines is like, ‘Nothing can come from corn but corn, nothing can come from metals but metals.’ So if you think of your mind as a garden, whatever you plant in the garden is what you get.”
Morgan, similarly, has started meditating to keep focused and stay positive.
“Your experiences in your life, they program your self-conscious,” he said. “And you don’t really have a lot of control over that unless you take the time to sit with your mind and plant positivity in your self consciousness.”
Neither Morgan nor Horford knows where his basketball career will take him. Horford views the NBA as his eventual destination, which is why he came to the D-League in the first place. Morgan holds a similar goal, but appreciates the way his basketball career has served as a vehicle for seeing the world.
He will suit up for the Cavs in summer league and will see his opportunities from there. There is a chance, albeit a small one, that he won’t play basketball next year. He feels as if he’s actively seeking out the right opportunities, not the first thing that comes his way.
If it doesn’t work out, he knows he will have plenty to fall back on: His two engineering degrees; the vast network that comes with being an elite student and an elite athlete at Michigan; and his charitable foundation, which serves underprivileged children in Detroit, which he started last summer.
“Because of the foundation I’ve laid for myself with my education and my network, really tried to build up who I am off the court, because of that, I don’t necessarily have to rely on basketball to define me,” Morgan said. “If I don’t like the options I have as far as basketball goes, I can do something else and still be happy with that.”
But for now, his focus is basketball. After his physical and first shootaround with the Charge, he stayed on the court to get acquainted with the team’s coaching staff. The rest of the players had disappeared into the locker room, except for one.
With almost nobody else watching, Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford did drills all over the court. That night, before the team’s final home game of the regular season, the old-new teammates were inseparable during warmups. Morgan didn’t play in the game so he could get a little bit of rest, but he sat by the baseline with Horford anyway, chatting away.
When the game started, they retreated to the bench, teammates once again.
Cohen can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @MaxACohen.