As is often the case with these sorts of things, Latonia Morris had no idea she was crafting a new identity for her little boy on that day all those years ago.
Then the junior varsity basketball coach at Beecher High School in Flint, Michigan, Morris watched as her 4-year-old son, Monte, tried to execute a left-handed layup.
“He could do the steps, but he couldn’t get the ball up to the basket," Latonia remembered. “I said, ‘Oh, he’s just a little man-man.'"
Go to Flint today and ask for Monte Morris and you might get a raised eyebrow. Correct yourself and request "Man-Man" Morris and folks will nod knowingly.
Soon, the nickname might extend across state lines. Man-Man is now a man, a 19-year-old sophomore at Iowa State and, by the end of this season, he very well could be The Man.
After setting an NCAA record with a 4.79 assist-to-turnover ratio (an eye-popping 6.9 in Big 12 games) in an off-guard/backup role for the Cyclones, Man-Man will be the full-time point guard for Fred Hoiberg’s team, in charge of guiding a squad that is built on Hoiberg’s familiar recipe for success -- combining immediate impact transfers with hard-working recruits.
Man-Man will have at his disposal a healthy and newly slimmed-down Georges Niang, plus senior Dustin Hogue, UNLV transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones and Northern Illinois transfer Abdel Nader. That roster will only spark the expectations of a fervent fan base that has been enjoying the sweet (16) taste of success under Hoiberg, and wishing for more.
“We’ve only had two workouts with the whole team, but in the two practices that we’ve had, his group is so much further ahead and that’s because of him," Hoiberg said. “He puts everybody in the right spot all the time. He’s just so smart, he understands angles and he has such a great feel for making the right play."
He has always been that way, treating the ball like an extension of himself. Latonia remembers cooking in the kitchen while Man-Man hoisted pretend layups over her head, and conversations held while he distractedly dribbled an invisible ball at his hip. In the summer, the staccato drumbeats of a bouncing ball were almost like white noise in the house.
Not that she minded. Latonia, who raised Monte by herself, was an opportunist as a basketball player much like her son. Only 5-foot-2, she played the point and scored when needed, topping 1,000 points in her high school career.
She still has a pretty good shot, but since her son learned how to dunk, she has bagged real games of one-on-one in exchange for Pop-A-Shot throwdowns. There are even his and hers videos of mother and son going at it on Instagram.
Knowing that his size might be a hindrance, Latonia encouraged her son, whose talent was recognized early by area coaches, to play up in order to get better. So for the better part of his life, Man-Man was the youngest and the smallest kid on his team -- a fifth grader among eighth graders, a seventh grader going toe to toe with high schoolers.
“They were always that much faster and stronger than me, so I had to find different ways to protect the ball," Man-Man said. “They would shoot the gaps faster, steal the ball more, so that showed me at a young age what passes not to make. That just stayed with me."
Growing up in Flint, there are, of course, two college options for a basketball-playing kid: Michigan or Michigan State. The Spartans, whose Flintstones -- Mateen Cleaves, Charlie Bell and Morris Peterson -- led MSU to the 2000 championship, were tops in Man-Man’s heart, so much so that he’d visit most weekends and declared at an early age that he, too, would play in East Lansing.
Only trouble, Michigan State never really recruited him eagerly. Man-Man was good in high school -- he’d eventually lead Beecher to back-to-back state titles and three times earn Class C player of the year -- but the 160 pounds stretched across a tiny 6-foot-1 frame didn’t look much like a Big Ten body.
Rejected by Michigan State, he looked across the state toward Ann Arbor, where John Beilein did show interest. By his junior year, Man-Man was ready to become a Wolverine.
And then Derrick Walton beat him to it, pledging to Michigan early.
“That was my only real chance to stay in Michigan," Man-Man said.
Admittedly disappointed, he turned his attention to Iowa State. Hoiberg sold Man-Man on the chance to make an immediate impact and called on the Cyclones' surprisingly successful pipeline from Flint to Ames, dating back to Johnny Orr’s days, when the ex-Michigan head coach brought his recruiting ties to Iowa. Jeff Grayer, Barry Stevens, and Justus Thigpen are all Flint natives and all rank among Iowa State’s top scorers.
Man-Man made a verbal commitment the June before his senior year. That season he would lead Beecher to its second state title, earn Michigan Mr. Basketball honors as well as a Parade All-American nod.
And then along came his breakout freshman season, one that surprised even Hoiberg. Man-Man wasn’t even a starter in Iowa State’s first 19 games, but eventually Hoiberg realized “we couldn’t afford to not have him on the floor," and Man-Man moved into the first five in the final 17 games.
Take that, Michigan and Michigan State.
“For sure," Man-Man admitted. “A lot of people weren’t sure I could play at this level and then I went out there in the Big 12 and held my own. I felt like I showed the country some glimpses of what I can do."
From her vantage point in Flint, Latonia saw the glimpses, too -- the double-digit scoring in the three NCAA tournament games, only 17 turnovers in those 17 games as a starter.
But hers weren’t just a peek into her son’s basketball success.
For the better par of Man-Man’s childhood, Latonia spent every weekend traveling from one AAU tournament to the next. Though she would have liked it if her son had stayed close to home for college, in a way she also was happy. She knew the strings between mother and son were strong and perhaps better sliced, if not altogether severed.
He needed his independence and to find his own footing, so she dialed back her travel in his senior year of high school, preparing Man-Man for the inevitable -- when college came and mom was 600 miles away.
The beginning of his Iowa State career wasn’t easy. DeAndre Kane pulled no punches with the rookie -- “He’d walk in the gym and say, ‘It’s gonna be a long one, freshman," Man-Man remembered -- and even for a guy accustomed to playing up, the adjustment was real.
“He’d bump into me, post me up, elbow me," Man-Man said. “There was nothing I could do about it. He had me by 40 pounds. I wasn’t ready for that."
Man-Man took his lumps stoically and did what he always has done. He kept working, using his brain to make up for his lack of brawn, attacking practice and the weight room, becoming so invaluable to Hoiberg that the coach altered his lineup to get him in the game.
The player who will lead the Cyclones this season is a changed one, not only in body (he’s up to 175 pounds) but also in name.
“I noticed that our conversations started to change maybe in the middle of the school year," Latonia said. “I could tell in his voice and what he was talking about, he had matured. He grew up. He wasn’t really Man-Man anymore. He was Monte."
Or perhaps simply, a man.