What drives Darius Morris? Memories of an important high school friendship inspire the Michigan guard
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Tan
Struggling through pain and anguish of a rare neurological disease, Dan Tan’s voice perked up through his swollen lungs and tight throat. Tubes ran in and out of his body.
James Huggins walked into Room 801 of the UCLA Medical Center. Surrounded by Dan's parents and one of his sisters, Huggins placed the phone on speaker.
Darius Morris was on the other end.
The room was silent as Morris’ voice came through, speaking to his 21-year-old friend.
Dan began the conversation as always, asking the Michigan basketball team’s sophomore point guard whether he made his free throws, whether he was shooting well, how many assists he had.
Huggins, an assistant basketball coach at the Windward School where Darius and Dan first met, had called Darius once earlier. Darius, in Ann Arbor, ignored the call, figuring he’d talk to his old high school coach later.
Huggins then texted him. He was at the hospital with Dan. The prognosis didn’t look good. Dan Tan had been in the hospital before, but this time, five weeks ago, felt different. Ten seconds later, Huggins' phone rang.
Dan and Darius talked. The two friends who bonded and grew close through basketball spoke about the sport that now kept them apart.
“Is everything OK, Dan Tan?’” Huggins said Darius asked. “You know I miss you. I love you.”
Dan’s voice started to strain, the pain and anguish from a disease that took his sight, his ability to walk and the use of his left hand took its toll. He sounded weaker as the conversation went on.
Darius told Dan he’d pray for him. As they hung up, Darius thought the worst. He hoped it wasn’t.
“I was just praying for a miracle,” Darius said. “That’s what he told me. I told him I’d be praying for him.
“He said, ‘Yeah, miracles can happen.’”
The start of a friendship
Six years earlier, Darius showed up at Windward as a high school freshman with a SpongeBob SquarePants backpack, boundless energy and a basketball pedigree. Dan Tan was a junior and played on the school’s junior varsity team as a sophomore.
Born healthy, Dan was diagnosed at age 8 with optic neuritis, an inflammation of the optic nerves. Legally blind, the skinny kid with the short black hair still played basketball.
It was his passion. His love. His life. Even though he could only see peripherally, Dan made a buzzer-beater for the Carlthorp School in Santa Monica, Calif., in sixth grade. Teammates carried him off the court.
In June 2005, three months before Darius and Dan met, Dan’s left eye went completely blind overnight. He started getting severe headaches and his limbs weakened.
Doctors diagnosed Dan with neuromyelitis optica, a rare neurological disease.
No cure exists for NMO, which is unpredictable, relapses and affects optic nerves and the spinal cord. Those who suffer from the disease, which mostly affects women, have attack clusters months or years apart. Blindness is common and most with the disease experience some degree of paralysis in their legs and arms.
Dan was 16 when doctors diagnosed the disease. His basketball career was over. The Windward coach, Miguel Villegas, invited Dan to join the team anyway. Dan sat on the bench with the coaches and was part of the locker room scene.
And he met Darius.
“Dan Tan couldn’t help but gravitate to the guy,” Huggins said. “He was always talking, and Darius was playing and doing all these things.
“I think it opened up his eyes and he was like, ‘Who is this? Who is this Darius guy?’ Then it was like, ‘He’s for real. He’s a player.’”
Darius made his ascent as a player. By his sophomore year, he was the basketball team’s unquestioned star. Dan was there nearly every game.
He sat next to Huggins on the sideline and heard plays Villegas called. Sometimes Dan suggested plays, even though he was blind and in a wheelchair by March 2007.
Darius, Huggins or Villegas wheeled Dan to and from the court. At road games, the coaches would occasionally have to carry Dan and his wheelchair up and down stairs to the locker room.
Dan was in every halftime meeting, every postgame conversation. He’d continuously ask Darius’ stat line. Even though he couldn’t see the game, he lived it through Darius and Windward.
“Daniel never wanted to miss any of the games because he felt like one of the team members,” Dan’s mother, Reny, said. “He always told me ‘You don’t know, Mom, but Darius really is a very caring person.’”
She’d learn that herself.
As Darius lifted Windward from a Los Angeles high school basketball afterthought to a state champion, the man who couldn't see and couldn't walk wheeled behind Darius, pushing him every step of the way.
A quick wit
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Tan
Darius had a bad half against rival Campbell Hall. Villegas started ripping into his team, especially Darius. He called him selfish and lazy. Villegas finished his rant, fuming.
Dan sat in the corner of the silent locker room. He supported Darius after every game, yet couldn’t help himself.
“Dan Tan said, ‘Yeah, Darius, even I saw that,’” Villegas said. “Everyone was so serious and when Dan Tan said that, that was it. That was the end of halftime.
“You can’t follow that. We all started to laugh. It was great.”
Dan imitated Allen Iverson’s famous practice rant - “We talkin’ about practice, man, practice,” - after another halftime rant against Campbell Hall.
An eternal optimist, Dan always cracked jokes. He asked Huggins why the referees wouldn’t shake his hand like the coaches before games. The next game, an official stuck his hand out, not knowing Dan was blind.
As the official walked away, Huggins asked Dan what happened.
“Dan just starts busting out laughing,” Huggins said. “We’re like ‘Dan Tan, why are you laughing?’ He was like, ‘I didn’t want to shake that guy’s hand anyway. He gave us bad calls last time.’
“We all started busting out laughing and we’re like, ‘Dan Tan, you can’t do that man, you can’t get into the ref like that.’ The referee is standing right there. It was just, it was amazing.”
Around the state, people started to hear about Dan Tan, the Windward Sixth Man. When the school reached the 2009 state championship game in Sacramento, Dan and his parents drove in his special wheelchair-accessible minivan six hours from Brentwood, Calif., for the game.
Windward beat St. Joseph ND, 69-53. After the game, Dan, Darius and the coaching staff took a picture with the trophy. Windward’s players and coaches chipped in and bought him a ring.
Darius gave Dan his jersey.
“That was so special for Daniel,” Reny said. “He’d say, ‘Make sure you don’t get it dirty, Mom. Make sure you don’t get it dirty.’ He wouldn’t let anyone touch it.”
At the HSAAA Classic later that year, Darius surprised Dan with the ‘Dan Tan Award,’ given to an athlete who has “overcome hardships, lead with their heart and inspired others in doing so.”
One other moment stands out.
Darius started speaking at halftime of a game no one remembers the details of. Emotion poured out of him.
“Whenever we think about quitting, we should think about him,” Darius remembered saying as part of the speech. “And how he always tries to come to our games and he doesn’t have to do none of this. He’s doing rehab, and it’s really tough for him, but he doesn’t quit, so we should never quit.”
It went further, that none of them should take for granted what happens in their lives because they could lose it all in a second. He talked about how important Dan was to him.
Dan listened. After the game he told Reny about how much it meant to him.
Reny always worried whether Dan would be accepted. Yet here was Darius, a kid who had everything going for him and didn’t need to take Dan under his wing and befriend him.
“I always tell people about Darius, about that,” Reny said. “It takes a special person to say something like that, to feel like that. That is really special.
“That’s just like, he’s so mature. How many teenagers can say something like that?“
Rooting for Michigan
Darius chose to play at Michigan. Disappointed he didn’t pick UCLA, Dan bought a Michigan shirt and shorts. The Wolverines inherited a new fan. Dan listened to every televised Wolverines game.
Even though Darius was half a country away, they’d talk by phone, Dan knew all of Darius’ stats and encouraged him to keep going as he struggled to find his role in college.
“But kind of rag on me if I missed free throws,” Darius said. “Like, ‘Come on, man, what’s up? We need those free throws.’”
Dan became part of the Morris family. With Darius at Michigan, Darius’ parents, DeWayne Morris Sr. and Robin Morris, and their older son, DeWayne Morris Jr., drove to Brentwood to pick up Dan. Then they’d take Dan’s van to the Staples Center for Clippers games. Dan loved the Clippers and always wore Clippers apparel.
They wheeled to the handicap-accessible area. Dan listened to the game as they watched, Dan asking questions along the way.
“Daniel would call my dad and be like, ‘Where’s DeWayne Jr.? Where’s he at?” DeWayne Jr. said. “We were all close with Daniel.”
In August 2008, stem cell transplants done in Seattle slowed the NMO’s progress in Dan’s body. While his condition didn’t improve and he was still blind and paralyzed from the waist down, the disease wasn’t doing more damage.
Last year, he sat for five hours with a proctor at Santa Monica College, taking a college entrance exam. Always good at math — he took AP Calculus his junior year at Windward — the proctor read questions aloud and Dan figured the answer out in his head since he couldn’t see his work.
In August 2010, the NMO returned. His left arm and hand stopped functioning.
“You know what he said? Good thing it’s my left arm because I’m right-handed,” Reny said. “In my mind I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, what if the right arm is next?’ He never took it that way.
“Know what his only complaint was? ‘Mom, now I can’t rev up the crowd. I can’t clap. I only have one hand and I can’t clap anymore when I go to basketball games.’ ”
Reny called Dan “the most optimistic person ever.”
Remembering Dan Tan
The disease eventually shook Dan’s unflappable optimism.
When he went into the hospital the final time, Reny said his mind - the one with the quick wit and sharp memory remembering phone numbers and e-mail addresses after hearing them once - started to fail.
“He really panicked,” Reny said. “And said, ‘Mom, I don’t think I’m going to make it. I don’t know, I think I’m going to die.’ I had never seen him so down. He’d never been so discouraged. One time he even told me, ‘Mom, can we go back to last month? How did everything go wrong so quickly? Can we go back to last month?’
“Last month, meaning that he was already disabled, blind, in a wheelchair and his left arm was not functioning. He could find happiness in that.”
On Jan. 12, 2011, one week after Dan’s last phone call with Darius, Dan died. He was 21 years old. Huggins had to make the most difficult phone call he ever made.
He called Darius.
“I remember him saying, ‘Man, are you serious? Man, serious,’” Huggins said. “There was just silence on the phone.”
Darius and Michigan played undefeated Ohio State that night. He scored 18 points, made eight assists and grabbed five rebounds. Before Michigan played at Indiana on Jan. 15, Darius wrote “RIP DanTan” on his left ankle tape.
He’s done so every game since.
“I would follow him in terms of his toughness and his strength and his humility,” Darius said. “I would follow him. We were teaching each other.”
At Dan’s memorial service at St. Monica’s Church in Santa Monica, Calif., more than 400 people showed up. His friends, family and those he touched with his perseverance donated over $20,000 in memory of Dan to the Guthy-Jackson Charitable Foundation, which is funding research to find a cure for NMO. It is the largest donation the foundation has ever received.
“I knew he was special to a lot of people,” Reny said. “I never knew how many people he affected.
“ Despite it all, he got the best out of his life. He did everything he could do and nothing held him back.”
Monsignor Lloyd Torgerson, who had delivered the homily for Sargent Shriver the day before, delivered Dan’s. In his homily, Msgr. Torgerson asked the audience, “What will you do? What will you do with that one wild, precious life that’s yours? What will you do with it? I know what Dan did with it.”
Darius and his father couldn’t be there. They were in Ann Arbor. Michigan lost to Minnesota the day before, the Wolverines’ sixth consecutive loss.
After the game, Michigan had a team meeting. Darius called another one later in the week. He met with his coaches.
The old Darius, the one Dan told him he was so proud of earlier in the year, returned. He left everything else behind. He started to play. For himself. For Dan, etched on his left ankle every time he plays. Even though Dan is gone, Darius knows he is still watching.
Dan and Darius both received their miracles. Each other.