Like every player in The Basketball Tournament, Shaquille Morris is after a share of the $2 million grand prize that comes with winning the 64-team, single-elimination tournament starting in Wichita at Koch Arena on Thursday.
But Morris, a 2018 graduate playing on the Wichita State alumni team, is playing for much more than just money when the Aftershocks play Iowa United at 8 p.m. Thursday on ESPN.
Ten days ago, Morris lost his mother, Tonya Taylor, to bone cancer after she had battled against the disease since 2012. This past weekend, Morris had to bury not only his mother, but his first fan, his foundation and his role model.
Yet when the ball is tipped off Thursday night, Morris will be on the court.
“She wanted me to be here so bad,” Morris said. “Before she passed, she was on me every day, ‘You better have those tickets for me. I’m coming up there to see you, I don’t care if I have to come in a walker or a stroller, I’m going to watch you play.’”
When the Aftershocks began practice last week, Morris was back home in Oklahoma City tending to his mother. When she died, Aftershocks coach Karon Bradley and general manager Tien Huynh sent their sympathies to Morris and let him know the team was praying for him and his family.
The outpouring of support overwhelmed Morris. He texted them back soon after and let them know he would still honor his commitment with the Aftershocks. It’s what his mother would have wanted, he said.
“From just a person standpoint, Shaq is one of the greatest people I know,” Bradley said. “His energy, it spreads throughout the whole team. That’s why I enjoy coaching him because he brings such a positive energy to everyone.
“We know he’s going through a difficult time and he’s pushing through it. I think coming back and being with his family, because we are all one big family, has meant a lot to him.”
Morris said that being back on the court practicing with former teammates like Conner Frankamp, Rashard Kelly and Zach Brown has helped him through his grief.
Having two hours every night where he can clear his mind, step out and drain outside shots, throw down thunderous dunks and snare rebounds is invaluable during this time.
“Being back around basketball, I can smile a little bit,” Morris said. “I love this game so much and being around here with my basketball family and knowing everyone here supports me means a lot.
“I know my mom would want me to be here and I know how hard she would want me to play.”
His teammates know the internal battle he’s facing this week, which is why Morris’ presence at practice has been an inspiration to other Shockers.
“We know he’s battling a tough time, but he’s not letting that faze him,” Kelly said. “After a tragic moment he went through, that really shows his character. He’s still out here being strong, the same old Shaq that is making people laugh.
“I don’t think he’s ever going to change that. He’s always going to be that joking kind of guy who is going to make the best out of every situation.”
On the court, Morris could be one of the Aftershocks’ biggest matchup problems for opponents. At 6-foot-8 and 270 pounds, Morris has the size to bang inside with the bigger players, but he also has a soft shooting touch that will make teams pay if they leave him open on the perimeter.
Morris is also motivated to play his best in front of Wichita State fans, who created a GoFundMe last week to help raise money to offset the expenses for Morris and his family because Taylor was not covered by insurance. The GoFundMe has raised more than $7,000 in a little more than a week.
“I’m so appreciative of that,” Morris said. “It was incredible to see so many people in this community that wanted to support me and my family. That’s a testament to the kind of people Wichita State fans are. It’s just one big family everywhere you go. I love every single one of them.”
He hopes to repay them with three wins at Koch Arena this week to send the Aftershocks through to the quarterfinals in Chicago.
Morris has just one wish.
“I would love to see Koch Arena sold out one more time,” Morris said. “It would be super fun to see all of that black and yellow through the arena and help push us to win the regional. We’ve got the best fans in the country, so I don’t doubt Wichita State fans can do it.”