After Adolph Rupp's Kentucky Wildcats lost a legendary final to Texas Western in 1966, Cornell's Gregg Morris helped deliver the message back to Lexington that times had definitely changed.
Often times a person's entire career can be personified in one defining moment.
Such is the case of a game that took place on Dec. 28, 1966, before a sellout crowd of 11,500 at the Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Ky. On this night stood the mighty Kentucky Wildcats, the team that went to the National Championship game the year before, with a strong nucleus intact. And although they were still reeling from the loss to Texas Western College in the game that would become the inspiration for the film Glory Road, it was still Kentucky. The Wildcats — ranked third in the preseason — were still as invincible as ever and had a venue as intimidating as ever. As for that championship loss, fans believed it never happened, or at least could not happen again.
The Big Red were not supposed to be there. An integrated school from the Ivy League had no business playing on the Coliseum floor. The Ithacans were not going to win, let alone keep the score close. The game would be a blowout. Even the betting line had the Cornell as a 25-point underdog. The Cincinnati Post even openly questioned why Cornell would want to be subjected to such humiliation.
And after it was all said and done, the masses were right, the game was a blowout. And it was Gregg Morris — the player best remembered for this night because he poured in 37 points — who led the 92-77 rout. But Gregg Morris did not play for Adolph Rupp.
It had happened again... mighty Kentucky had fallen. And once again, it was to a school with black players in the starting rotation.
"If you look at the stat sheet from that game, you might say that I scored a lot of points," Morris said. "But the victory was really the result of a sizzling team effort. Some of my best memories from that day were not the points scored, but racing back on defense with (Blaine) Aston to thwart Kentucky's five-man, human wave of a fast break. He stole the ball several times and just broke the spirit of Kentucky and the crowd."
But that moment does not tell the story of Gregg Morris. It certainly would not do him justice if it did.
Morris' road to the basketball court began in eighth grade when he started playing competitively. However, it was only after he was cut from varsity team at Mount Carmel High in Chicago that he dedicated himself to the game and becoming a better player.
That dedication would pay off handsomely as throngs of colleges began to inquire about his services. Through all of the serenading and courting, however, he leaned on the guiding forces of two people to determine his future plans: his parents.
"I was recruited by colleges all across the country, yet my parents were always big on one school, Cornell, simply because 'it was Cornell' and they were skeptical about me being too wrapped up in basketball. They thought that because Cornell was an Ivy League school, that it 'deemphasized' sports," Morris says with a chuckle.
Cornell had been high on the list for the Morris family for some time before Gregg matriculated there. His dad, however, also took an interest in a coach by the name of Jerry Lace, who was at a small, liberal arts school in the Midwest. The elder Morris' allegiance was torn between the coach that he believed was best for his son and the school that was best. Fate would then cross paths with Gregg's decision as Coach Lace was hired as an assistant at Cornell. Soon after the appointment, he was in contact.
"When he got back in touch with me, my dad went 'ga-ga' because it was an invite to Cornell, which he knew a lot about. I didn't."
Morris thought he would be going to Cornell just to play basketball. Admittedly, he did not have the greatest balancing act between academics and athletics and may have complicated things by living in a fraternity house during his freshman year. When coupled with the normal rigors and strife that are associated with being away at college, it could have been a powder keg of combustible proportion.
"There were times when I wanted to just pack up and leave. I wasn't doing well. I remember the night before a game with Princeton where I had made up my mind to call my parents and tell them that I was coming home. But then I bumped into my coach and didn't," Morris would later recollect. "And I have absolutely no regrets."
Had he left, he would not have been a pioneer of sorts. He became the first African-American to be honored with a First Team All-Ivy selection (1966-67) and also the first African-American from the League to be drafted into the NBA (1968 - Baltimore Bullets).
He didn't make it to the NBA, but after earning his communications degree did spend time playing professionally, both in the United States and abroad. He would return to obtain his Master of Public Administration degree. After several years as a professional journalist for the Democrat & Chronicle, Washington Star, Time Magazine and the New York Post, Morris began to migrate back towards the educational ranks. In 1986, he became an instructor and eventually a non-tenured Assistant Professor (1990) in the Department of Journalism and Mass Media at Rutgers University, where he stayed until 1993. He then became a tenured Assistant Professor in the Department of Film and Media Studies at Hunter College, beginning in 1994, and has been there ever since.
Morris is defender by trade. He took great pride in his ability to defend on the basketball court, and every day he defends the ideals that protect the freedom to deliver the truth — even if it is not what the masses want to see. He believes that changes still need to be made and is outraged by the lack of worthwhile minority representation in mainstream corporate media. He believes that it is a national disgrace that is out in the open for all to see. Always passionate about his beliefs and rarely afraid to stir the pot, he often speaks his mind. He also pulls no punches.
"I was asked a question about my overall impression about the race relations by a reporter during my senior year and I tried to be tactful by saying 'it' was bad. But now after several years of work experience, and issues involving lawsuits, grievances, and confrontations of all sorts of class-action-type-efforts, I can objectively say that 'it' is really awful. However, at Hunter College I can make, or try to make a little difference, working with my students — all colors, of course — who want to be journalists."
You can go as far to say that he is even offensive at times, and that is just fine with him.
After all, sometimes you get noticed for going on the offensive every once in awhile.
— Alex Searle