By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH
The Kansas City Star
LAWRENCE | Brady Morningstar has a gift. Anyone who has seen him play this season for Kansas knows it is not size, hops, speed or any other quality that normally endears college basketball players to fans.
Morningstar's dad, Roger, doesn't understand the gift. But he's accepted that Brady is just wired differently than Roger was when he played ball for Kansas in the 1970s.
"Emotionally," Roger says, "he's really even-keel. You could see me coming a mile away and read me. You could tell exactly what I was thinking just by watching me. With Brady, you have to walk around him about 10 times."
Nobody knows what Brady is thinking, and that's his greatest advantage in any interaction, basketball or life. It's been almost 23 years, and Roger and Linda Morningstar are still guessing.
After a good game, they ask Brady how he feels.
"Good," he'll say. "Everything's good."
After a bad game, they ask Brady why he missed his three-pointers.
"They felt good," he'll say.
Brady has always been that way. As Roger says, "That's his makeup." When Brady lived at home, he'd spend hours in his room with the door closed. These days, he lives with headphones attached to his ears, which makes perfect sense. Only Brady controls what makes it into his head. Not much is coming out.
"I've always just kind of kept a lot of stuff to myself," Brady says. "I can sit in a room and just listen to music and relax. I don't think that's boring at all. I can be thinking about whatever in my head. I don't know I just must be different."
Morningstar is having a dream season for the Jayhawks as a sophomore. He is playing 28 minutes per game, scoring 7.5 points and doing a little bit of everything. Entering this season, nobody expected him to do anything. Halfway through, he is unquestionably KU's most pleasant surprise.
"Let's just call it like it is," KU coach Bill Self says. "When we recruited him, a lot of people said, 'Can he help you guys?' And here he is - where would we be without him?"
Roger doesn't think his son listens to the doubters. Of course, it's Brady, so who really knows? Turns out, behind the blank and expressionless face, Brady is thinking about all those people.
"Oh, he's from Lawrence, his dad played at KU, that's why he's on the team," Brady says, quoting his detractors. "I know there's a lot of people out there that said I couldn't do it, said I wasn't good enough. All the critics, I don't know who they are. Just people. When people say you can't do this, going out and proving them wrong, that's one of the funnest things to do."
Brady Morningstar is having too much fun right now.
"Best time of my life," he says.
Tucked away in a room in Allen Fieldhouse late last week, he talked about his next obstacle: guarding Michigan State's 6-foot-8 small forward, Raymar Morgan. Brady is 6-3, but that hasn't kept him from becoming KU's best perimeter defender, according to Self. Brady, a sophomore who redshirted last season, has held some of the top guards in the country below their scoring average.
"If I'm guarding a guy that's 6-9, 250, that's a big mismatch," Brady says. "But if I'm guarding a guy who's 6-8, 215, I think I can hold my own. It's more heart and toughness and playing hard than physicality."
That's a lesson Brady learned early on. As a kid, he looked about four years younger than he was, and he struggled to put weight on. Roger knew his rail-thin boy was going to have to win with intangibles, so each year, he'd teach Brady and his friends a lesson in resourcefulness.
Roger, who coached Brady from fourth to seventh grade, took his team on a yearly trip to inner-city Chicago to take on kids who were more mature, more gifted athletically and a few years older.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Brady says.
Roger's teams would compete and inevitably get run off the floor. That was fine with him. Those years were about fundamentals. Straight-up, in-your-face, man-to-man defense was all Brady knew.
"The worst thing you can do when you coach a kids' team is play zone," Roger says. "I want to barf when I see it. If you're a youth coach and you even know your record, then you shouldn't be coaching."
Brady became one of the best players in his age group. He began to fashion a goal in his head to play for KU. Brady kept that to himself, like most things.
"I just figured I didn't know how I was gonna grow," Morningstar says. "I didn't know if I was going to be good enough to play here."
Roger knew about Brady's goal to follow in his footsteps. That was about the only insight he got into Brady's world, though.
"It's kind of weird," Brady says. "I'm the youngest child, and I never used to go home and talk to my (two) sisters about what was happening to me at school, if I had a bad day or if there was something with a girl. I never went home and talked to my mom like that because I felt awkward. I've just never been the type to open myself up that much to my family."
But Roger Morningstar did have that one golden nugget. This kid wanted to be a Jayhawk. He knew that for sure during Brady's senior year, when he was being recruited by another school. The school's coach had been working on Brady for a year. But the coach sat with Brady and Roger one day and said, "We just can't pull the trigger. We feel like we need somebody a little bigger." Roger watched Brady closely. He didn't show any emotion.
Roger, trying to get something out of him, asked Brady whether he would have signed a letter of intent that night had the school offered him.
"Nope," Brady said.
"Well, why?" Roger asked.
"Because I want to go to KU," Brady said.
At first, when Bill Self started showing up at Brady's AAU games with the KC Pump 'N Run, Roger figured that Self was watching other players. But Self saw enough of Brady to give him a scholarship offer.
The moment Brady committed, though, Roger felt as if Brady was taking a gamble.
"It takes guts to come to Kansas," Roger says. "And I don't say that because he did that. I say that because, when you come here, they don't stop recruiting when they get you. They certainly don't stop recruiting when they get Brady Morningstar. They sign you, and they try to replace you the next week. There are no guarantees for anybody, especially some hometown kid."
Before Lawrence Free State's own Brady Morningstar could play at KU, he had to follow through on a commitment to play a year of prep-school ball at New Hampton (N.H.) Prep. It was the first time Brady had ever lived outside Lawrence. He improved his game, but the time in the Northeast was about maturing off the court.
"It gives you a chance to get outside your block a little bit," Brady says. "I know I learned a lot about myself."
Brady realized he was simply an inward person. That explained a lot, such as why he always enjoyed mowing the lawn so much. At Roger's sports complex in Lawrence, Sport-2-Sport, there was never a shortage of grass.
"I could be by myself," Brady says. "I could put my earphones in and mow the lawn for 3 1/2 hours, just go out there and relax and look around."
Every once in a while, Brady will go home and mow the backyard. He's so good with a blade that he's also established himself as the team barber for the Jayhawks.
"I'm not going to screw it up that bad," Brady says. "I'm not going to just put it on low guard and see how that is. I'll start long. I think people trust me and know I'm not going to mess up their head."
Brady, above all else, has proved himself trustworthy this season. He is nearly impossible to rattle on the floor - or, at least, that's what he wants you to think.
"You can get mad at yourself," Brady says, "but you can't let other people see that."
People will see what they want in regard to Brady.
"I think they still underestimate him," says Sherron Collins, Brady's roommate. "They'll just keep underestimating him, and he'll just keep surprising them."
Brady has heard the rumor that his scholarship would be the first to go if Self needed some wiggle room in recruiting. That kind of assumption is nothing new.
"I know there's stuff on the Internet," Brady says. "I've had people tell me, 'You know, they don't think you're good enough,' yada yada yada. It goes in one ear and out the other."