As Monte Morris and his mother, Latonia, flew into Ames, Iowa, for the first time, she was skeptical about why he was coming all this way from Flint, Mich.
“‘I mean, there’s absolutely nothing here,’” she remembers telling him. “‘What are we here for?’”
The answer wasn’t just in the obvious scene before her on Saturday evening at the Sprint Center, where her son was named most outstanding player of the Big 12 Tournament after leading Iowa State to an 80-74 victory over West Virginia for its third title in four years.
“He’s the head of the snake, and we’re the body,” teammate and roommate Deonte Burton said amid the celebration on the court. “How he goes is how we go.”
Nor is the answer simply going to be in where the Division I assists-to-turnover ratio leader and the Cyclones (23-10) go from here in the NCAA Tournament after Morris scored 17 points — including the last seven of the first half for his team — to lead the way against the Mountaineers.
What they were there for, it turns out, was for him to grow into a symbol of what’s good about college basketball, a senior whose school records for assists parallel his spirit off the court.
He would give you the last of anything he has, Burton said, so “you can’t do anything but love him.”
Nobody knows that better than the people of Flint, where the intense attention to the contaminated water crisis may have lessened, but the ramifications remain.
“My water tested zero for lead – however, like I tell everybody, the water runs through the same pipes,” his mother said courtside, a few moments after dabbing away tears at the announcement of her son as most outstanding player.
So they’ll shower and bathe in the water, yes.
“But as far as drinking it, no. No,” she said. “I don’t even give it to my dog. No.”
Anguished over what he’d learned about it all, last February Morris shot a video on his cellphone beseeching people to help.
Then he sent it out on Twitter, writing, “Flint’s always on my mind. Anything you can do to help would be great. …”
Next thing you know, the Iowa-based Hy-Vee supermarket headquarters sent 11 semitrailers (in honor of Morris’ jersey number) of gallons and bottles of water to Flint.
When his mother greeted the trucks there, she started crying, Sports Illustrated wrote last year, awed again by what she on Saturday called his “huge” heart.
This, too, was what Morris was at Iowa State for.
Because if he were back home, he’d have been in no position to help as he did.
He thought about all that on the court Saturday a few minutes after he’d gone over to hug his mother, a former basketball player who was one of his first coaches and brought him up by herself.
“I did this for Flint,” he said.
As he sees it, Michigan State’s Miles Bridges of Flint and he “are the only people giving the city hope.”
And the water bottles stacked up in his house “just pushed me to be great” and get his mom to a better place.
Growing up, he had figured his own better place was going to be in East Lansing, playing for Michigan State as so many other Flint natives have.
But Michigan State coach Tom Izzo thought he was undersized at about 6-foot-1, 160 pounds, and only vaguely recruited him.
“He screwed up,” Latonia said, laughing, adding that word had gotten back to her that Izzo had acknowledged that.
Michigan got interested … but not enough.
“No hard feelings to those guys,” Monte Morris said, laughing. “They’re still good friends. Sometimes, you miss out on guys.”
So that left the door open for Iowa State, which had some history of its own with Flint in the form of stars such as Jeff Grayer, Barry Stevens and Justus Thigpen, who played there under former Michigan coach Johnny Orr.
As they arrived that day and Latonia wondered how this would fit, he told her to just “give it a chance.”
And here he was on Saturday, the key to this team and a coach’s dream who sent the Cyclones into the locker room at the end of the first half with a three-pointer that gave them momentum and a 35-29 lead that West Virginia never could overcome.
“He’s meant the world to me,” coach Steve Prohm said.
And here they were on Saturday, with him glancing over to his mother as the game ended and her tapping her heart back at him.
Just what they were here for, it turns out.