By Ryan Divish
Am I my brother's keeper?
It's a simple question really. For Larry and Lamar Morinia, there is never a doubt about the answer.
"Yes, I am."
With the Frontier Conference season rapidly ending, and the Morinias set to lead the Montana State University-Northern men's basketball team into Saturday night's first-round tournament game in Billings, the duo has cemented themselves as one of the greatest brother combination in school history.
And in their two years at Northern, the Morinias - under the watchful eye of head coach Shawn Huse - have helped build the foundation to the restoration of Northern men's basketball tradition.
It would be an injustice to call Larry and Lamar gym rats. They're much more than just gym rats, they're more like basketball junkies, as Huse says. They simply can't get enough of the game.
Wander into the MSU-Northern gym on any given occasion and you'll find one or the other in there, shooting, dribbling or just hanging out. There is comfort in the gym. The familiar smell of popcorn mixed in with hardwood that seems to linger in every gym in the country.
Some people have living rooms or rec rooms with cushiony couches and Laz-Y-Boy recliners, Larry and Lamar have the hardwood floors, a pair of folding chairs and six baskets at their disposal.
And if they're not in the gym, they're still carrying a basketball, or talking about basketball to others, or playing basketball on their Playstation 2, or watching basketball on television, or reading about basketball in the newspaper.
They can't get enough - NAIA, NCAA, NBA even Montana High School basketball. They can probably name more high school players than the average person who's lived in Montana their entire lives.
It is truly an addiction.
"They're just basketball junkies," Huse says with a chuckle. "They never get enough. You don't want to tell them to leave the gym, but they never seem to leave."
How bad is it? The Morinias don't do their homework in the library, they do it in the gym. It doesn't hurt that they're gym monitors for their work study. Imagine that getting paid to hang out in a gym - that's not work. The only thing better would to play professionally.
Still don't believe their addiction? Here's a simple test. Whenever you see Larry or Lamar, or both, it doesn't matter where, take a basketball place it on the ground 10 feet from them and watch. It will take about 30 seconds for one of them to pick it up and start dribbling.
Like Lamar often tells people, "You can never work on your game enough."
The addiction has paid off. The Morinias are two of the most dangerous players in the Frontier Conference.
They possess blinding speed, explosive quickness, ridiculous jumping ability and unfair athleticism. Add to that mixture enough confidence and competitiveness to fill six football stadiums and you have two players that can simply dominate games.
"That's when we knew we had a couple gems was watching them in pick-up basketball last fall," Huse recalls. "They were finding ways to win when it came down to crunch time. Not just one or two games, but just about every game when they were on the court.
"Eventually, I had to split them up so the other teams could experience some success and (Larry and Lamar) could learn to work with the other players not just each other. They were tearing everybody up just working their little two-man game.
"Once we split them up, it really got competitive because one of them would actually lose and that's when they could see what their character was like after losing. For the first three weeks, we didn't really know because they never seemed to lose."
But the Morinias success isn't just in pick up games. They have carried over that success into game situations. Their numbers don't lie.
Larry, who leads the Frontier Conference in scoring at 21.2 points per game, is making a serious push for conference player-of-the-year honors. In the last two weeks, he has been all but unstoppable, single-handedly leading Northern to wins over Carroll College and Rocky Mountain College. Besides scoring, Larry is shooting 43 percent from three-point range, having sank 32 of 73 triples.
Earlier this season, Larry reached the 1,000 point milestone and will finish this season among the all-time career scoring leaders in just two years.
Lamar could have also probably been a part of that 1,000 point club if not for a mix-up surrounding his eligibility out of junior college. The honest mistake cost him the first semester of his career at Northern.
"It was absolutely terrible having to watch," he says with a touch of regret. "I felt like I was letting the team down and letting Larry down. We wanted to do this together and I was stuck on the sidelines."
Once he was on the floor, he made up for lost time by taking over the Lights' point guard duties and flourishing. This season, Lamar is fourth in the conference in scoring at 16.7 points per game while also averaging 3.4 assists and a conference-best 1.94 steals per game. Lamar is shooting an identical 43 percent from three-point range, also sinking 32 of 73 threes, including a buzzer-beater three-pointer in a win over Carroll.
"These two kids have been here only two years, but this past year they've played like they've been in the program for four years," Huse says. "They've really adapted to our philosophies and have been extremely coachable."
It's that attitude that makes the Morinias, along with fellow senior Travis Moran, the unquestioned leaders of the Lights.
"They have just been tremendous leaders on the floor in practice and in games," Huse says. "Putting their abilities aside, that's something that will be hard to replace. It's not just the points they score or the plays they make, it's the leadership that they bring with them everyday.
NOT just YOUR AVERAGE COLLEGE SENIORS
One of the reasons that leadership and taking charge come so easy to Larry and Lamar is because it doesn't just stop with basketball. Unlike most college kids still intent on hanging onto their childhood, both of them are navigating childhood with children of their own.
Larry, along with wife, Reasha, have a 7-year-old son, Larry III, and an infant daughter, LaRiya.
Lamar and his wife, Jimel, have a baby girl, Jazel, and another child on the way.
When players on their team are worried about basketball and beautiful girls, Larry and Lamar worry about bottles and babysitting. While their teammates watch "The Sopranos," Larry and Lamar are watching "Sponge Bob Squarepants." It's certainly a situation that has changed both of them.
"You don't take anything for granted," Lamar says. "You won't see us out and about partying or anything like that. We've got responsibilities."
Says Larry: "No matter how bad of day you might have, you've got three people waiting at home for you. They don't want to ask you about the shot you missed or the game you had. It doesn't matter to them. It's is just, 'let's forget about basketball and be a family."
Not that they could ever forget about both. Because Lamar and Larry have walked the bouncy tightrope of trying to balance both. They take turns baby-sitting each others kids when one is working, or picking up kids from school or daycare when the other has class. They do whatever to try and keep the entire Morinia clan happy.
"Oh my God, it gets crazy sometimes," Lamar says with a little exasperation. "But when you're with your family, you realize it's still worth it though."
Huse can see the difference in not only their attitudes about school and basketball, but about the teachings of life.
"Being married and having kids is definitely going to make you a little more mature and responsible," Huse says. "But as much as anything, I think Larry and Lamar understand about what it is we're trying to do here in terms of what we teach and the type of people we want our players to be. They understand it because they have to teach the same type of things to their own kids."
Even with all of their life experiences, Huse still admits Larry and Lamar are learning a few things. But in the personality department, he hasn't had to do much teaching, the Morinias have got that figured out.
"Larry and Lamar don't say hello to you when they feel like it," Huse says. "They say hello to you every time they see you like it's the first time they've met you."
It's an attitude and quality that Huse wants all the players in his program to have.
"That's important as far as what we preach to our players," he says. "Larry and Lamar aren't just good people when they feel like it. Whether they are on the court, in the classroom or in the community, they always keep that positive attitude that people gravitate to. I couldn't ask for two better kids who have nothing but a good-natured personality.
WHERE THE HECK IS HAVRE?
Neither Larry or Lamar knew much about Havre, MT when they were coming out of Lamar Community College in Lamar, Colo.
"We thought it was called (HAR-VAE)," Lamar says with a laugh. "We had no idea where it was or what it was like."
What Larry and Lamar did know was that the new coach at MSU-Northern wanted both of them, not just one or the other.
"They were getting some really good offers from some NCAA Division II and even Division I programs separately, but no one really wanted to take them together," Huse says.
That may have had something to do with their small stature, according to Larry.
"There were some size concerns," Larry says. "Not many big schools wanted to take a chance on two 5-10 guards."
But there was the coach up in Montana, who never seem to let up. He called every day, eight in the morning to talk to both of them. If one them tried to call him and he wasn't there, he called back immediately.
"Coach Huse called us all the time," Larry says. "Some of the other coaches weren't good about calling back when we had questions. Coach Huse always called us back. We were obviously No. 1 on his agenda.
Says Huse: "We were watching names of different players when I was an assistant at Nebraska-Kearney, players we thought would help us there. When I got the Northern job, those two guys came to mind. I went after them pretty hard. Fortunately, we had two scholarships and we felt like they could step in and help us out right away."
The Morinias were a package deal. Lamar, the point guard, and Larry, the shooting guard. Not exactly Batman and Robin, but a dynamic duo at least in their own minds.
Their reluctance to play separately was because they had only recently started playing together. Contrary to popular belief, Larry and Lamar are not twins (Larry's 13 months older) and they hadn't always played together. In fact, in high school they played on separate teams.
"It was the whole transferring thing," Lamar says. "I had a good situation where I was at and Larry had a good situation where he was at."
Besides, neither wanted to compete with other for playing time.
"We both played point guard in high school," Larry rationalized. "There was no reason for him to play behind me or me to play behind him."
After Larry spent an unhappy first year at another junior college, the two hooked up at Lamar and have been in the same backcourt ever since.
"Once we got in the same backcourt everything seemed to click," Lamar says with a smile. "I knew what he wanted to do and he knew what I wanted to do. We just wreaked havoc."
A STORYBOOK ENDING
After wreaking havoc on the Frontier Conference the last two seasons, Larry and Lamar have one piece of unfinished business - winning the conference tournament title and advancing to the NAIA national tournament in Kansas City.
"That would be the perfect endings," Lamar says wistfully. "There have been a lot of positives this season like winning 20 games. I've never won 20 games in a season before, but not making it to nationals would be a huge disappointment."
"That's what makes nationals so necessary," adds Larry. "If we don't make it, I'll feel like I missed out on a great opportunity when I left college."
Larry and Lamar leaving college is a prospect that most opposing coaches relish and Huse dreads. He will be losing close to 70 percent of his offensive production and knows replacing them will be difficult.
"I don't think you can completely replace everything they bring to the table with two guys. We have to have guys returning step up while adding some good recruits."
But don't think that the Morinias want to stop playing ball once their eligibility is up and they graduate in June. They want to play professionally. It doesn't matter where or when. They'll go to Europe, South America, Australia, even the North Pole if given the chance to play professionally.
"We'll play anywhere," Lamar says intently. "It doesn't matter where, we just want a chance. Sure, we'd like to stay in the states because of our family, but just want to play."
"I want to play for about 10 years because then my son will be 17," Larry says. "Then I will just work with him."
But that's the far off future, the here and now is Saturday and Rocky. Their tournament dreams can't even begin without a win there.
Win or lose, Larry and Lamar Morinia will still be basketball junkies, husbands, fathers and brothers. The game has drove them apart, brought them together and helped them achieve their dreams. Even if they are split up in the future, basketball will still bring them together in the end.
So if anyone ever asks them, "Am I my brother's keeper?" the answer is simple.
"Yes, I am."