The sisters were doing it for themselves. There were two of them, Tonda and Trina, older and younger, 2 1/2 years apart. They would compete at every little thing, racing, eating, jumping. Tonda vs. Trina.
And then along came baby brother.
“We figured we could double-team him,” Tonda says now, laughing. “It would be the girls against the boy.”
You name it, they competed over it. Who can roll up the car window fastest? Who can finish supper fastest? Who can make it out the door fastest? Of course, being the baby, Morris always lost. There were tears and vows by baby brother to never compete with his sisters again!
And then, the next day, it started all over.
“I remember one time we went down the street to this basketball hoop,” Tonda recalls, “and he was trying as hard as he could, he put his whole heart into it. But we were bigger and he couldn’t stop us. He ran home crying to our mom, saying, ‘It’s no fair! They’re beating me!’
“She said, ‘Just wait until you get older and then you can beat them.’ “
The sisters helped make Morris Peterson the player he is today.
Packing the bags
Mother and father were doing things for themselves. Morris Sr. and Valarie Peterson split up when Morris was 4. This left a dilemma. They were both educators, and knew the crucial need for influence from Mom and Dad.
So they split custody down the middle. The kids would spend three months with one parent in one part of Flint, then three months with the other.
“That was hard,” Trina, the second oldest, admits. “We all moved together, bags and all.”
Four times a year, young Morris packed up his clothes and toys, and put a teddy bear named Sheriff Bow Wow under his arm. Off he went to the other parent. He had two sets of friends. Two sets of geographic boundaries.
And two basketball opponents. He would play his mother, a former college basketball star, in one-on-one, trying desperately to beat her.
And he would play his father, a former collegiate basketball star, trying to do the same.
Back and forth. Two lives. Two houses. He wasn’t crazy about the split and at times wished they were all under one roof again. But if his sisters had taught him that competition isn’t always fair, then divorce was teaching him that life isn’t always fair, either.
“In a certain way, that whole experience prepared me for college,” he now says. “In college, you have to go away and make new friends but still keep a sense of where you come from, right? I had been doing that for years.”
Mom and Dad helped make Peterson the player he is today.
Coming off the bench
And now, finally, Morris — who has more nicknames than a rap group, from Pete
(teammates), Lil’ Pete (sisters), Mo (media) or Man (his mother, who gave him that because he always wanted to be grown up) — is doing it for himself.
After two early years dotted with injuries, redshirting, and a sometimes drifting attitude, he has emerged like the final cast member of a big Broadway show, saved because he is the star and deserves a splashy entrance.
Peterson began this season on the bench. But game after game, he kept scoring, rebounding and defending. When Mateen Cleaves was slumping, Peterson was on fire. When the Spartans needed a player shut down, Peterson came through.
Eventually, he would lead the team in scoring, and be second in field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage and rebounding. He would actually be named to the All-Big Ten first team — as a sixth man — and last week, thanks to his heroics at the close of the Kentucky game, he won MVP of the Midwest Regional in the NCAA tournament.
“People say to me: ‘You’re so good, why aren’t you starting?’ They think only the best players start. It doesn’t always work that way.”
Peterson is 21 years old now. He has a long thin body and a round, unassuming face, almost gentle in countenance, sleepy eyes, an easy smile. You would never guess by his relaxed posture that he could jump out of the gym.
But he can, and he does. So much so, that, when Duke played MSU the first time, in December, coach Mike Krzyzewski turned to his staff after the game and said, “Where the heck did this Peterson kid come from? He’s great.”
Spartans fans are hoping for a similar reaction Saturday. And a similar finish to Sunday’s regional final. Peterson owned that scene. The TV cameras had a love-fest with his mother as he went to the line six times in the closing 29 seconds. And with each free throw, the nation saw Valarie tapping her chest, his heart to her heart.
Peterson knew she was there. But you know what he was thinking? “I was thinking about my teammates, seniors like Antonio (Smith) and Jason (Klein) and TK (Thomas Kelly). I was thinking these guys will never get a chance to go to the Final Four if I blow these shots.”
He didn’t blow them. He made every one. Thinking about others. Doing it by himself.
College basketball loves winners. But the biggest winners are the kids who grow up right. Lil’ Pete has indeed grown into Man. And Saturday, for the first time in this NCAA tournament, his sisters, mother and father — plus his youn
ger brother — will all be in the stands together.
“Do your sisters make you nervous?” he is asked.
“Actually,” he says, “I feel like I have to play even harder when they’re watching, to let them know I’m finally better than they are.”
Have fun, Duke.