Best Virginia has earned notoriety around the Mountain State as a collection of some of WVU’s top alumni basketball talent — but in 2021, an unlikely star emerged on short notice.
In July, just a day before the start of the 2021 edition of The Basketball Tournament, Jamel Morris joined the WVU alumni squad in its time of need. There was one caveat: Morris never attended West Virginia University, and he never played hoops for the Old Gold and Blue.
He was officially the first player for Best Virginia who was not an alumnus of WVU.
“I guess when one player dropped last year and couldn’t make it, I guess I was the first person John [Flowers] reached out to when he was talking to the other guys about who they should bring,” Morris recalled. “…I think it was Jaysean [Paige] that couldn’t play last year, and I think [Kevin Jones] mentioned my name, and John said, ‘Well I just played against him.’ So John reached out, then James [Long] reached out…and it kind of just went about that way.”
Morris was an obvious choice for the squad. The son of two former WVU student-athletes, Morris had spent his post-graduate summers working alongside WVU’s top alumni, getting pointers from current Celtics assistant Joe Mazzulla and working out with stars like Jones and Alex Ruoff. Like many WVU alumni, the 29-year-old guard has put together a successful professional career overseas which has taken him all over Europe.
Just two months before getting the call, Morris scored 15 points as his Orléans Loiret Basket took down Flowers’ Boulazac Basket Dordogne 91-68 in the top flight of French basketball. The duo caught up after the game, not knowing that they would soon be TBT teammates.
That experience made it easy for Morris to blend in with the team despite the short timetable to assimilate.
“Playing at Glenville then playing at Fairmont, to have the opportunity to be asked to play with the guys…that you watch on TV and you watch up the street in Morgantown, and the fact that they want you on their team now, and the role they gave me, it just came from them respecting me, respecting the way I play,” Morris said.
He does admit that he was hesitant to play that year due to his schedule. Morris had just returned to the United States from France after 11 months in late June and was shortly after asked to join Best Virginia.
Still, he played in all three games for Best Virginia and averaged 10 points, taking advantage of his 18.3 minutes per game on the court. He credits that success with the freedom his teammates afforded him, letting him just play his game.
“I just didn’t want to go there and mess things up,” Morris said.
Morris has honed his game over the course of his six-year professional career, which began in Italy and has since taken him to the NBA G League, Croatia, Poland, France and Germany. He just wrapped up the 2021-22 campaign with Mitteldeuscher BC of Germany’s Basketball Bundesliga, finishing sixth in the league in scoring but missing out on a playoff spot.
An overseas career can be tough on American players. When Morris goes to play in Europe, he leaves behind his wife of four years and his two-year-old son, which he says brings out a certain “mental toughness.” At first, he says the lifestyle was especially difficult on his wife, but their young son gives her comfort at home and now she does really well — but it’s still “never easy.”
The experience, however, is something he can’t pass up.
“I have been all over the place, being in Italy, being in Poland, being in France, being in Croatia and Germany,” Morris said. “I love it. I love seeing different cultures, seeing what it’s like, seeing how the people live, seeing a different type of basketball. It’s actually an amazing experience.”
Now that he’s back stateside, he has his focus on Best Virginia, and the decision to join the squad was much easier this time around.
“This year was almost a no-brainer to me, because I got home May 3, and that’s the earliest I’ve been home. I have enough time to rest my body and get back to playing form by the time the TBT comes, because there’s enough time between spending time with my family and getting ready for that, so I think for me, it was a no-brainer this year,” he said.