Dwayne Morgan's growth into one of the country's top prospects hasn't been easy
By By Seth Boster
The Baltimore Sun|
Dec 04, 2013 | 7:58 AM
Potential is a word Dwayne Morgan has sought to vanquish.
The 15th-ranked basketball prospect in the country according to Rivals.com, Morgan wants to be more than potential during his senior year at No. 3 St. Frances. Potential was the word stickered to him throughout his rise to relevance.
It is a word, to him, used to signify doubt.
"I think he's always given these glimpses in the past and it's always been about potential," says Eric Bossi, a national basketball recruiting analyst at Rivals.com. "Now, it's just kind of all come together for him."
The months leading up to last summer were of sweaty workouts in St. Frances' gym until its closing at 11 p.m.; of a diet that held the 6-foot-8 forward's 4 percent body fat in check; of long runs in the morning and of 200 pushups before bed. The result is the player who showed flashes of brilliance at the NBA Top 100 Camp, the adidas Eurocamp, and the LeBron James Skills Academy, among others.
The player trying to prove he's Baltimore's best basketball prospect since Rudy Gay.
"It's very seldom you find kids that can self-motivate themselves, that just want to be the best on the floor," says Bub Carrington, who coached Morgan with Nike Baltimore Elite. "From the experience I've had with him, he's been that guy. He's been that guy."
Sitting in a chair on his porch, Morgan can summon the vision where he's sitting in the green room for the NBA Draft. He swirls the ball between his fingertips in a way that is delicate, as if what is between his palms is a treasure.
"The only person I have to prove myself to," he says, "is myself."
Potential is a mother, Tabitha Chambers, sitting in the same chair on the same porch that creaks beside the same street, outside the same house her parents moved into before she was born in Sinai Hospital, just outside of Park Heights. Thirty-nine years later, she is still here.
As she grew to 6 feet, 6 inches, she was always told that basketball was a sensible pursuit.
"To be honest," she says, "I didn't like sports at all."
Her parents signed her up when she was 13.
Long-armed and able to shoot over competition as easy as she could swat opposing attempts, she came to understand the natural advantage. She came to understand the possibilities, too, with every coach who visited and with every package of letters waiting for her in the office at Walbrook Senior High School.
"It never dawned on me that I could get a college education out of it," she says.
The plan was to get it at Clemson, the dream world that recruited her away from the house and neighborhood she'd always been pinned to. She redshirted her first year.
"My second year," she says, "I wound up coming back home because I got put on academic probation. Fundamentally, I was not ready. I came from a city school, a city setting. Even though I got my work done [in high school], it still wasn't enough for me when I got out on my own. I wasn't disciplined enough to buckle down and do what I needed to do because I was happy just to be away from home."
She says that things happen for a reason. She says life is comprised of trials and errors.
"I have instilled in my son, from my experience …" she says before the rain picks up, drilling loudly against the awning above and halting her words. When she says that she does not want her son to go down her path, she almost has to shout to be heard.
Potential is a father, Dwayne Morgan Sr., silent for a long time on the other end of the phone, searching for what to say.
"Oh man … oh my God … oh my God," he says from Atlanta, the city he was born near and where he was over the summer, working as a truck driver. "I know he needs me. I know he needs me right now. … I miss him."
Before leaving Clemson, Chambers says she fell in love with Dwayne Morgan Sr., who played on Clemson's offensive line before six seasons in the Canadian Football League, before stints with the Atlanta Falcons and Washington Redskins, before the tendons tore in his knees.
Shortly after their son's birth, they all lived together in Canada.
"Initially," says Chambers, "I tried to make it work."
In November 1996, after four months in Canada, she was back in Park Heights, living in a two-bedroom apartment and sorting mail at the post office to get by. Her boy was going on 1.
As he grew, she says she'd put him on an airplane each summer to Atlanta to be with his father. Whenever the child argued with her, she'd encourage him to call his father. She'd encourage him to call his father whenever, she says.
"As a single mother, when you know you're doing all that you possibly can, when you're trying to keep those lines of communication open, you get tired," Chambers says.
She stops to dab at the tear lining her cheek.
"I've never been one to down my son about his dad," she says. "He loves his dad with all his heart, but I knew that he would see it for himself."
The summer visits ended when he was 14.
"I didn't understand it until this year," Morgan says. "Don't get me wrong — my father is a good guy. But I had this certain image of my father that he could do no wrong. Everyone has their faults, but I guess it took me a minute to realize.
"As I got older, I realized my mother is pretty much the only one that's really been there for me through everything."
She was once there crying with him inside the Arlington Middle School office. Her boy was walking home before he was jumped by a bigger boy for refusing to join a gang.
Some things, she told him, we don't have control over.
Potential is a basketball, a thing that could be controlled. Neighbors would either yell for him to stop that damn dribbling, or, if he was without his ball, ask where it was.
His mother first bought him a little ball when she could see he was athletic, like his parents.
"Something told me early on to get him involved in something because I knew how the streets are around here," Chambers says.
She suspended her pursuit of a college degree for a third and final time at Baltimore City Community College because there were days she would come home from work to find Dwayne hanging around unfamiliar neighborhood kids.
"That's when I had to make a decision to focus on him," Chambers says. "Me growing up around here, knowing what parts to go, where not to go, that's what I had to do as a parent."
When he was 14, rising in stature over his peers and able to dunk on his mother playing 1-on-1, Morgan told her he would someday play in the NBA. As scouts took notice, Chambers looked for support. She knew the landscape her son was stepping into, and she knew it to be treacherous.
"You have a lot of basketball sharks around here," she says. "You have a lot of sharks and weasels and snakes."
She called on Dwayne Wise, director of the AAU program Morgan played for, B'more's Finest. He was a man her son had respected, Chambers says.
Wise sat to Morgan's right when he announced his decision to attend UNLV.
"Being in Baltimore, it's so easy to get off track," Wise says. "It's tough. It's tough here. The pressure of just being cool. The pressure to just fit in. And then a lot of times with players like Dwayne's type of potential, it draws, it's a magnet to everything.
"Over the years, we've seen how it's tough to be a top prospect."
The recruiting process had Morgan changing his cell phone number on three different occasions. He formed a circle he felt he could trust and he hung it over him like an umbrella.
"Once he's had the success that he's had, there's a lot of people that will just want to be around for the ride or around for their own personal motives," says Kevin Bullock, who's helped Morgan train and who frequently drove him to and from the airport over there summer. "He's aware of those things. So he chooses to keep it tight, to keep that circle tight."
He chooses to keep the ball in his hand. He's here on the porch, ignoring the constant iPhone buzz from his pocket as if out of courtesy, dribbling the ball from his grip as if out of necessity.
"There's temptations," Morgan says. "But at the end of the day, I want this for myself. Nobody can take it from me."
He looks out to the neighborhood, the sun dipping under it. Just around the bend, there's a concrete park where he says plumes of weed sometimes fill the night.
"You know," Morgan says, "I can't do the things that other people do. I've noticed that."
Potential is a dimly-lit cafeteria that has a moldy smell, and this is the place where the game starts for many of Baltimore's young and hopeful. Twenty-six years ago, Chambers began playing here. Nine years ago, Morgan did. They weren't unlike the 40 or so children one summer afternoon huddled during basketball camp's lunch break at the Bentalou Recreation Center.
The one coaches started calling "Big Ticket" all those years ago has been dreaming. Morgan wants to be a McDonald's All-American after this season. The dream of being an NBA player is burning fiery as ever.
But he is first eager to make an impact at UNLV.
"I want to take a path that no one ever took before," he says. "I felt as though me going out of state would put me in a situation to have to mature on my own. When I'm there, I'm a thousand miles away from my house. So I have to fend for myself."
By the time her son leaves this porch for college, Chambers admits that she will be "scared." She can only hope he will do so more prepared than she was.
Her pride is in knowing that she might be her son's lesson.
"God does things for a reason, and the toughness that I have comes from my mom," Morgan says. "The aggressiveness that I play with comes from the fact that my mom has had to struggle too much."
As he says it, she looks at him and she puts her hand to her trembling mouth. She looks off at the distance. "I never knew that," she utters softly to herself.
A quiet settles over the porch. Birds chirp somewhere.
"How do you stay so calm?" she asks, and he shrugs, and as he's always done, he looks to his mother beside him.