THE NIGHT BEFORE the Denver Nuggets faced the LA Clippers in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals, backup guard Monte Morris had another Los Angeles team on his mind. He was on a FaceTime call with childhood friend Kyle Kuzma, whose Los Angeles Lakers had already punched their ticket to the Western Conference finals.
“He was like, ‘Is it gonna be the Nuggets-Lakers matchup?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I feel like we’re going to win,'” Morris, who grew up near Kuzma in Flint, Michigan, told ESPN last week. “And then once it happened, I was like, ‘Yo, this is lit for the city. With the stage we’re going to be on, to put our platform out there and let them know it’s something good that’s happening in the city to give light on Flint.'”
The Nuggets-Lakers series has turned into a moment for Flint, which claims not only Morris and Kuzma, but also Lakers center JaVale McGee and NBA referee Courtney Kirkland, who, in his 20th NBA season, worked his first-ever conference finals game in Game 1.
For the three players, a trip to the NBA Finals is on the line, but so are hometown bragging rights. The winner will play on for a chance to return to Flint this offseason as an NBA champion, but they’ll also get an opportunity to continue to raise awareness about the city’s ongoing water crisis and what it means to be Flint Strong.
MICHIGAN STATE HADN’T been to the Final Four since Magic Johnson led the team to a title in 1979. So when Michigan State All-American Mateen Cleaves returned home to Flint after the Spartans lost to Duke in the Final Four in 1999, he was expecting a celebratory reception.
He was wrong.
“A guy came up to me, and I’m thinking it would be congratulations because [Michigan State] hadn’t been that far since Magic Johnson, and the dude told me, ‘You choked,'” Cleaves said. “Flint wasn’t satisfied with just getting to the Final Four.”
Cleaves used that as motivation to lead the Spartans to a title a year later, teaming up with fellow Flint natives Charlie Bell and Morris Peterson — who were given the nickname “the Flintstones” — to make their city proud.
“In Flint, it takes a lot to gain the respect of the people here,” said Cleaves, who played six seasons in the NBA after being drafted 14th overall in 2000. “Even though you’ve got Monte, Kuz and JaVale, but it’s been pros that have come through here for years, so people have seen you before. In Flint, everybody isn’t going to be like, ‘Oh, man, this is the best thing since sliced bread.’ No. You’re not about to get that, and people are going to hold you highly accountable in Flint.”
That message was echoed by Pamela McGee, the mother of the Lakers’ center and herself a star athlete who won multiple state championships at Flint Northern High School before going on to win NCAA titles at USC, earn a gold medal in the Olympics and play two seasons in the WNBA.
“If you can survive in Flint, you can survive anywhere,” Pamela McGee said. “I always tell people, if they’re coming out of Flint, Detroit, Saginaw, they’re hard workers because it’s a blue-collar town. Just to survive in Flint, you know they’re going to come to work every day and they have another level of resiliency.”
That resiliency has been tested in recent years, as a water crisis has plagued Flint since 2014.
Kuzma, who declined to comment for this story, told ESPN in 2018 that he wants to eventually have the same kind of impact on Flint that LeBron James has had on his hometown of Akron, Ohio. He has reached back to the city through his basketball camps and numerous donations to the downtown YMCA, where he, Morris and Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges all worked on their craft.
“You never know how you can inspire other people,” James said in November. “The fact that I can inspire my teammate, with Kuz doing the things that he’s doing in Flint and the things that he does in the summer when he goes back for his basketball camp and his charity events that he does … I’m not on the ground in Flint, but I definitely always got my thoughts and my prayers to that city on how they can fix it for sure.”
Since Morris has been with Denver, he and his teammates have made multiple visits to Flint to give back to the community, including handing out bottled water to help residents impacted by the water crisis. Nuggets coach Mike Malone said Morris will “run for mayor of Flint” one day.
“They had so many great players that have come out of there,” Malone said last week. “Tough city. I think the one thing about people in Flint is that they use that toughness as a source of pride and a chip on their shoulder.”
That hometown pride runs deep for Flint athletes, including four active NBA players; boxers Claressa Shields, and Anthony and Andre Dirrell; UFC fighter Mike Perry; and NFL players Mark Ingram II (Baltimore Ravens), Brandon Carr (Dallas Cowboys) and Malik Taylor (Green Bay Packers).
“A Flintstone is tough. They’re gritty, they’re passionate about their friends and their loved ones and their city,” Ingram told ESPN. “Nothing’s given, everything is earned.”
Many of those characteristics were instilled in generations of Flint athletes by NBA referee Courtney Kirkland’s father. Grover Kirkland, who died in 2014, coached 28 years at Flint Northwestern High School and won back-to-back state titles in 1984 and 1985. He remains the winningest high school coach in Flint-area history.
“I knew nothing other than basketball coming up. I was born into this,” Courtney Kirkland said. “They went to the state finals the year after I was born. I used to always tell him that I was the key to his success because he was able to turn these programs around after I was around. So I would say, ‘You’ve been successful ever since I’ve been alive, so I’m the key to that.'”
Former All-Pro NFL receiver Andre Rison, who played on those state title teams alongside three-time NBA All-Star Glen Rice and former NBA player Jeff Grayer, said Grover Kirkland “was very integral” in molding the tight bond among athletes in the area.
“We’re all an extension of Grover Kirkland,” Rison said. “We were raised to be professionals.”
MORRIS AND KUZMA have battled for three games so far this series, but have been facing off since they were kids. They first competed on the over-the-door mini hoop at Kuzma’s house, keeping his parents awake with loud thuds.
“That drives you nuts,” Kuzma’s mother, Karri, recalled. “It was so loud. Just playing on that all night long.
“It wasn’t really until they got to college and you could just see it was going to be something more,” she added. “You’ve just always got to support their dreams.”
Morris, 25, told ESPN that he and Kuzma used to talk of eventually reaching the NBA together. Now they’re meeting in a postseason for the first time since 2012, when Morris’ Beecher Buccaneers squad defeated Kuzma’s Burton Bentley team 80-34 in Round 2 of the Michigan Class C boys’ basketball district playoffs. Morris finished with 15 points to Kuzma’s 12.
“Kuz never beat me until we got to the NBA,” Morris said, laughing. “But I never lost to Kuz when we were growing up.”
Since they both entered the league in the 2017 draft — Kuzma the No. 27 pick out of Utah and Morris the No. 51 pick out of Iowa State — Kuzma has a 6-3 edge in their head-to-head meetings, including a 2-1 advantage in the Western Conference Finals.
But it was Morris who earned Michigan’s Mr. Basketball honors over Kuzma when they were both coming out of high school in 2013. He was a big enough star that he nearly lured the Hornets’ Bridges, who ended up earning All-America honors at Michigan State, to join him in Ames at Iowa State.
“For me, when I met Monte, it was kind of like me meeting a LeBron-type, because he was always on the news, winning state championships,” Bridges said. “Monte was big time for me when I met him.”
Now one of the new Flintstones is getting to represent the city on the NBA’s biggest stage. And while Morris will no doubt be upset if the Nuggets’ latest comeback attempt falls short, he would also be happy to see his friend carry on Flint’s legacy.
“We both thank God for this situation to compete, and one of us is going to end up in the Finals,” Morris said, “so we will see.”