Pitt products have parallel careers

| Wednesday, July 4, 2007

No one will ever confuse Darren Morningstar with the NBA greats of the game, but some might compare him to another former Pitt big man, center Aaron Gray.

At times, both would confound Pitt coaches and fans with their inconsistent play.

Morningstar was a 6-foot-10, 235-pound center who parlayed his size into becoming a second-round draft pick of the Boston Celtics in 1992. He would not play in the league until two years later.

Some labeled Gray, a 7-foot, 270-pound center who averaged a double-double during his final two college years and was a first-team all-Big East Conference selection, as an underachiever for playing poorly in big games. He wound up as a second-round pick last week of the Chicago Bulls.

Morningstar became the 47th overall selection in 1992, and Gray was chosen 49th on Thursday night, yet Gray's final college statistics far outshone Morningstar's.

"Really, our careers were quite a bit different," said Morningstar, a high-scoring high school big man from Stevenson, Wash., whose NBA career lasted 23 games - none with the Celtics.

So was the level of media attention.

Playing for Pitt in an era when the Panthers were routinely on national TV, Gray's name became known in college basketball circles. The explosion of the Internet age also provided exposure.

Morningstar was a bit of an unknown coming out of college more than a decade ago, perhaps because he wasn't being scrutinized in chat rooms from Pittsburgh to Pullman. He finished his career with meager averages of 8.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game and received only a fraction of the attention received by Gray, who averaged 13.9 points and 10.0 rebounds as a junior and senior combined.

"It was kind of ironic how I got picked in the draft with all the guys I had around me at Pitt. I was the forgotten man," said Morningstar, a financial planner who returned to Allegheny County following his professional playing days, which included a stint in Europe.

While playing at Pitt, he performed alongside Charles Smith, Jason Matthews, Eric Mobley and Sean Miller.

Gray might have to work extra hard to avoid Morningstar's fate, which resulted in being released by the Utah Jazz in 1994 after playing one game while on a 10-day contract. Earlier that season, Morningstar had been signed as a free agent by the Dallas Mavericks, for whom he played 22 games and averaged 4.3 points and 3.6 rebounds in 16.5 minutes per game before being waived.

Morningstar likes Gray's chances to make the undersized Chicago roster, but he also has some words of advice: "Work hard no matter what!"

"We're both finesse players," Morningstar said, "but when I played, my versatility gave me an edge. I had that killer instinct. When I went to the (postseason) camps, I wasn't supposed to get very far, but I was an all-star coming out of Orlando and nobody expected that."

After a stellar high school career that included the most points (47) in a Washington Class 1A playoff game and the highest scoring average (35.0 ppg.) for a tournament, Morningstar found himself across the country for his freshman season at Navy. He scored 20 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in his third game with the Midshipmen against Iowa.

"I couldn't stay there," Morningstar said. "I just felt like a fish out of water. The Navy just wasn't my thing."

Morningstar eventually followed his coach, Paul Evans, to Pitt.

"I had a dream to win a national championship and play in the NBA," he said. "I thought that if I played for Paul Evans at Pitt, we could accomplish that."

One of Morningstar's most notable performances occurred as a senior in the 1991 Preseason NIT, when he scored 27 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in an 85-67 upset of Jamal Mashburn and No. 13 Kentucky.

There were, of course, many notable performances over the past two years by Gray, voted the Big East's most improved player as a junior in 2006.

"His numbers certainly back up what he has meant to the Pitt program," Morningstar said. "Aaron has the size to play in the NBA, that's for sure."

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