The fortune-teller only saw one of the Morris twins when they walked by her shop window near Manhattan's Union Square. Markieff and Marcus, both nearly 7 feet tall and identical in almost every other way, passed by on their way to Flight Club, a sneakerhead mecca on lower Broadway.
They were in town to play the Knicks the next afternoon, a Saturday matinee. Markieff had walked ahead. If she had seen them side by side, simply telling them apart would've been a decent display of her skills.
The fortune-teller, undaunted by Marcus' size, approached and told him what she did. Marcus challenged her to demonstrate.
"You're not happy with the position you're in," she said.
"Damn," Marcus thought. He was thrilled to be on the same Phoenix Suns team as his brother after starting his career with the Houston Rockets, but he yearned for a bigger role than coming off the bench.
Then she added, "But you're not going to be there for long."
Now she had Marcus' full attention. "We?" he asked. "Or just me?"
The woman didn't hesitate. "No, just you."
Neither Marcus nor Markieff, who heard about the encounter later, thought much about the prediction beyond that day. The Suns beat the Knicks and Marcus eventually worked his way into the starting lineup. While the Suns slid, rather than catapulted, off their previous year's 48-win performance, they had no reason to believe they wouldn't get a chance at redemption. The brothers had just negotiated an unusual package deal with team president Lon Babby the previous summer—$52 million over four years for the both of them, to be divvied up however they liked.
Had they negotiated separately and tested the free-agent market, they assuredly could've made another $20 million, easily, but squeezing every dollar out of their basketball careers was not a priority.
Besides, simply sharing a house in the warm Arizona desert and being able to shop for vintage sneakers was mind-blowing enough, having finished high school sleeping on twin beds in the cramped, unheated basement of their grandfather's house in north Philadelphia, the ceiling too low for them to stand up straight. Living in a state slow to honor Dr. Martin Luther King and renowned for a six-time re-elected sheriff charged with racial profiling (see: Arpaio, Joe) wasn't always comfortable, but they had each other and just about everything else was ideal.
"We were living the dream," says Markieff. "Great weather, great house, great relationships with the whole organization. It wasn't about the money. I was just playing basketball, playing with my brother, happy being in the NBA."
Turns out the fortune-teller knew something—just not everything. Marcus, indeed, did not remain in Phoenix for much longer, getting dealt to the Detroit Pistons seven months after the fortune-teller's prophecy.
Where she got it wrong is that Markieff also would get a new home. The Suns dealt him to the Washington Wizards at this month's trade deadline for Kris Humphries, DeJuan Blair and a conditional first-round pick.
How and why their dream shattered is what this story is all about.
Thirteen months after the sidewalk prophecy, the Morris twins' agent parks his car underneath the Suns' Talking Stick Arena in the area reserved for players. Markieff climbs into the backseat to talk about where he and the team stand, but the setting almost says it all: He's holding an interview in the backseat of a car in the team garage.
By appearances, this is a clandestine meeting, a chance for Morris to vent about the franchise without anyone from the team overhearing him. (In truth, practice ran longer than expected and it was the most convenient spot to make good on a promised interview before his visitor left for the airport.)
It's an understandable presumption, though, because the general perception at this point is that Markieff is an angry man, sulking ever since the team traded his twin brother last July. He told Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer in August that he wanted to be traded, and in September, he wrote on his Twitter account that "my future will not be in Phoenix." His outspokenness about his future earned him a $10,000 fine from the NBA for a statement "detrimental to the league," according to ESPN.com's Marc Stein.
Keef Morris @Keefmorris
My future will not be in Phoenix.... #thatisall #backtothegrind #FOE9/4/2015, 1:00:18 AM
The subsequent storyline has gone something like this: Kieff and Mook (their nicknames) are suckers for signing under-market-value contracts with the Suns two summers ago and thinking it would assure them of staying together. They're also naive and immature for reacting as they did—bitterly—to the Suns dealing Marcus, Reggie Bullock and Danny Granger to Detroit for a future second-round pick, essentially a salary dump to create the salary-cap space to chase All-Star free agent LaMarcus Aldridge last summer. Suns owner Robert Sarver even suggested Markieff is part of a generation raised on instant gratification and is therefore incapable of rebounding from adversity.
"My whole view of the millennial culture is that they have a tough time dealing with setbacks, and Markieff Morris is a perfect example," Sarver told the Arizona Republic's Dan Bickley in January. "He had a setback with his brother in the offseason and he can't seem to recover from it."
Some Suns fans on message boards went even further, tossing around the words "thug" and "classless."
Which is one way to look at it.
Here's another: The Suns, in their attempts to improve that 48-34 team two seasons ago, have swung and missed on several moves, including but not limited to their pursuit of Aldridge. They then compounded the subsequent damage by not anticipating that there might need to be some fence-mending—if not fence-fortifying in advance—with the players stranded by those swings and misses.
No matter whether you see Markieff as a millennial or you subscribe to Sarver's view of them, the Suns owner, after all of the background work that goes into drafting a player and employing him for four-plus seasons, clearly has no idea who Markieff Morris really is.
Either that, or he knew exactly who Markieff is—in that he'd be eager to give up money for the idea of being part of a basketball family—and he exploited it.
The twins are asked the same question now, albeit separately, some 2,000 miles apart: What is the biggest misconception about what has transpired since you've been split up? The answer is the same. "Everybody thinking that we're upset because we don't get to play with each other," says Marcus, legs stretched in front of him after a Pistons practice in late January. "Kieff can't deal with adversity? We're from north Philadelphia. This isn't adversity. This is betrayal."
Teams in every sport, of course, are notorious for preaching loyalty and not practicing it. There is no technical requirement for a team to give any player, star or otherwise, advance notice that they're planning to make a trade. Most teams do, however, solicit the input of their best players on talent they might consider moving or acquiring. Most owners also don't casually invite players to their homes to work out or play cards with them on the plane; Sarver did both, the twins say. If they somehow thought their relationship with the Suns was not strictly business, they might have had reason.
"What bothers me most are two things," says Marcus. "I sat down with the owner and we agreed guys were going to get paid more, but they told us, 'Don't get upset, we're a family, we're helping each other.' Everybody in this league is concerned about money. We were looking for stability and the chance to be part of something."
The second thing: being told about the Pistons trade after it had been consummated with no warning it might be coming. Both brothers say they wouldn't have expected that courtesy if the Suns hadn't been so inclusive previously. The two, along with former Kansas teammate Thomas Robinson, were several days into a vacation together in Turks and Caicos when their agent called Marcus to tell him he was headed to Detroit. Marcus, not knowing exactly where Markieff was, texted him the news, wondering if he already knew.
"If they had told me, 'We might be going after LaMarcus,' I would've understood," Marcus says. "I would trade myself to make that happen. Even if they didn't tell me, not to give Markieff a heads-up or at least say something is brewing…" Marcus shakes his head. "You build a relationship, you expect certain things."
To be clear, the twins would prefer playing together. The statistics say their production is better together. They say they share that innate sense of what the other is thinking, an understandable advantage, particularly under pressure. When the two played Pop Warner football, Marcus played quarterback and Markieff played center because no one could keep his brother from getting sacked, only moving to tight end once the offensive line improved.
What bothers them is being portrayed as if they need each other, that they mentally crumble without the presence of the other. Translation: They're soft. That's a label no athlete considers flattering, but for big men from the same gritty city that spawned Wilt Chamberlain, Rasheed Wallace and Kobe Bryant, it's the ultimate insult. Especially when they proved their toughness simply by escaping their environs in Philly to reach the NBA.
"I'm just blessed to be in this position," Markieff says. "I heard a word, 'disgruntled,' in every report, every interview. It's not like I was in the media talking bad about the team. I've got a great support system. It's something we talked about every day. Am I really that bad or am I just being me?"
The red facade of the Morris row house on Erie Avenue, just off Philadelphia's main artery, Broad Street, remains, as does the rust-stained gutter and screen door. The windows are all covered from the inside by weather-beaten plywood. A sliver of sky peeks through between the plywood and window frame on the second floor, suggesting at least part of the roof is missing. Seemingly every third house in the neighborhood is like this one: boarded up and unoccupied.
This is the house the twins lived in until 11th grade, when a fire burned out the insides along with all of their worldly possessions. (They were in school when they got word; they would, nevertheless, play in a game later that day.)
Both of them, along with their mom, Angel, and an older brother, Blake, moved into their maternal grandparents' row house a couple of blocks away. The three boys slept in the basement, moving around bent over to avoid bumping their heads on the 6-and-a-half-foot-high ceiling. The house also had no central heating, so every morning at 6 a.m., one of them would accompany their grandfather, Thomas—now 85 and known as G-Pop—to the local gas station to tote back several gallons of kerosene to fill their space heaters.
They credit Thomas, 6'6", for their height and work ethic. Both say they still check in with him two or three times a week. "He was really old school," Marcus says. "If you got out of line, he made it known it wasn't OK."
Thomas says his twin grandsons were inherently well-mannered, especially compared to their peers, not only in the neighborhood, but even within the family. He'd prefer they draw fewer technical fouls, Marcus says, but that's about it.
"They've grown up to be great young men," Thomas says by phone. "They weren't hard to raise. I don't know if they were afraid of me or what, but I had to do three times more to keep their other brother in line than I had to do with the two of them combined.
"I don't know the ins and outs of what happened in Phoenix, I wasn't there, so I can't comment on that. I know it was kind of hard for them. But it's almost a dream come true to see your grandsons in the NBA. It's like a movie. You can't always believe it really happened."
About four years before the fire, a man driving down Broad Street saw the twins, seventh graders but already 6'5", headed toward Erie on the opposite sidewalk. He whipped a U-turn, parked the car, and followed them home. When they arrived, Angel saw the man through the screen door following her sons.
The man handed Angel his phone and told her to call anybody she liked and ask them about Dan Brinkley. She did and after several calls said, "OK, what do you want?"
Brinkley, who had been tipped off about the Twins' size by a friend who coached them in football, said if she entrusted her sons to him, he would get them college scholarships. Angel, who supported the family on her own, working at the Temple University hospital, liked the sound of that. The twins preferred football. Brinkley told them if they played basketball, they could one day afford to buy a football field and play to their hearts' content.
Brinkley has been with them ever since, developing them in private workouts while they played for Philly's Hunting Park Warriors AAU team and then serving as their head coach at Prep Charter High School.
When the promise of receiving college scholarships became a reality, he helped them with their decision to go to Kansas, again as a package deal. Now, he is their agent at CAA.
Early on, he sat them down and told them not to move; he studied them until he could tell them apart by just looking at them. (Markieff has the stockier trunk and legs, Marcus is more thickly built from the waist up.) Another time he drove them past a set of row houses and said if they stuck with basketball, they could own the entire block. The twins laughed. Brinkley made a point of not cracking a smile. Another time he took them to an exotic car dealership to check out a Ferrari and told them that some day they could have one—but they needed to buy a house first.
"After my grandfather, Dan has been the most influential man in my life," Marcus says.
Brinkley was about to put Marcus and Markieff through an offseason workout at Prep Charter early last September when Kieff, frustrated the Suns had yet to deal him, composed the fateful tweet. "Dan tried to stop me," Kieff says.
But in the backseat of Brinkley's BMW this past January, it's clear from Markieff's words that if he and Marcus believed an authority figure in basketball would look out for them, well, that had been their experience, both with Brinkley and Bill Self at Kansas. When Babby and Sarver suggested they were embarking on a journey together, it was not the first time they'd heard—and trusted—that suggestion.
"For me to sign that contract, I was saying it was about being a part of something," Markieff says. "A team is more like a family; that's how I grew up. They're not just my teammates."
They've been on the giving end of taking that concept literally as well. When Robinson, a Jayhawks teammate, lost his mother to a heart attack, Angel looked out for Robinson almost in the same way she did her other three sons. At Thanksgiving last season, former Suns teammate Gerald Green says the Morrises fed the entire team. If Green avoided the kind of off-court incident in Phoenix that earned him a two-game suspension in Miami earlier this season, Markieff is credited with keeping him out of trouble. Marcus followed suit when he joined the Pistons, taking fellow Philadelphian and second-round pick Darrun Hilliard under his wing to the point Hilliard is now known as Little Mook.
"Our intel on Marcus as a person and a player was very good," says Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy. "Our guys really liked him. He's been a really good worker and highly professional."
Van Gundy, of course, also has a brother in the business, Jeff, a former head coach and now TV analyst for ESPN and ABC.
"We never worked together and got split up and we're not twins," Stan says. "That's a totally different deal. Being twins goes way beyond my relationship with my brother. That's a lot deeper bond. But, yeah, if we had signed contracts under the premise that it would keep us together, I'd be really upset.
Suns general manager Ryan McDonough, 36, has family throughout sports. The son of the late legendary Boston sportswriter, Will McDonough, Ryan is brother to both ESPN sportscaster Sean McDonough and Arizona Cardinals vice president of player personnel Terry McDonough. Seemingly as important, Ryan spent his first 10 years in the Boston Celtics' front office under Danny Ainge, who earned the nickname Trader Dan even before he created the league's first modern-day Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. Within the course of a 45-minute interview about the current Suns, McDonough says, "when I was in Boston with the Celtics" more than a half-dozen times.
McDonough is proud of the fact that LeBron James, before deciding to return to Cleveland, chose the Suns as one of five teams (Dallas, Houston, Miami and Cleveland were the others) given a chance to pitch themselves as his next ideal stop. "We saw that as tremendous progress," McDonough says.
But he was not satisfied merely to sit back and watch a young 48-win team evolve, especially after it back-slid to 39-43 last season, losing 10 of its final 11 games. Undaunted by initial indications that the Suns were not high on Aldridge's list, McDonough hired Aldridge's former teammate, Earl Watson, as an assistant coach and signed free-agent center Tyson Chandler after Aldridge confided to Watson he'd always dreamed of playing alongside him.
"They made a strong case," Aldridge says. "I'm really close with Earl and they knew who I wanted to play with. It came down to neck and neck with San Antonio."
The Spurs won out, however, and the Suns were left with a shot-blocker in Chandler, who is not much of an offensive threat away from the basket and not a threat of any kind without a point guard adept at playing pick-and-roll and finding him rolling to the rim. He also is not as good of a fit with Markieff as he would've been with Aldridge, who offensively prefers to operate away from the basket. Markieff, a career 32.2 percent three-point shooter, is capable of stepping out beyond the arc, but he is most effective as a scorer and playmaker from the mid-post area. Having him strictly on the perimeter, where he started the season, was almost certain to limit his effectiveness. The fact that he's also strictly a catch-and-shoot threat from long range meant that the loss of Suns star point guard Eric Bledsoe the day after Christmas to a knee injury would hamper both him and Chandler.
The biggest issue, though, has been a lack of communication. As a lottery pick, Markieff viewed himself as part of a new core that would lead the Suns back to respectability. When Babby heeded his pleas to acquire Marcus from the Rockets at the 2013 February trade deadline, he believed his opinion on team decisions mattered, especially after it nearly led to a playoff berth. The twins bought a house not far from Sarver's, and whether it was the owner joining their card games on the team plane or routinely inviting them over to work out on his indoor basketball court—complete with a piece of the Suns' All-Star Game floor—the twins came to believe Sarver and Babby saw them as the team's leaders and would afford them commensurate respect.
That, in part, is why Markieff and Marcus refused to let Brinkley be anything more than an adviser in their contract negotiations with Babby two summers ago. They cherished the fact that somehow, some way, they had been allowed to recreate the same situation they'd had at Prep Charter and again at Kansas.
"They made a decision that Phoenix was going to be home," Brinkley says. "They had no interest in going into free agency."
Maybe, just maybe, if Babby were still in charge, the twins' kumbaya belief would've been honored. But league sources noticed last season that McDonough, not Babby, was running point on team business and was aggressively looking to reshape the roster. Although the Suns didn't officially announce Babby had been reduced to senior adviser until last June, McDonough is credited with swinging last February's deadline deals that sent point guards Goran Dragic to Miami and Isaiah Thomas to Boston. P.J. Tucker is the lone player on the roster that precedes McDonough's tenure as GM.
"We weren't going to come back with the same team," McDonough says.
McDonough didn't draft Markieff, acquire Marcus or sit down with them over dinner to negotiate those team-friendly extensions off their rookie deals. Instead, he watched as the twins put themselves among the league leaders in technicals last season, including one in which Marcus got into a heated exchange with his coach, Jeff Hornacek. He heard Markieff complain about fan support after the Suns were trounced at home by the Spurs in front of what seemed a very pro-San Antonio crowd. He saw Markieff have an outstanding game against LeBron James and the Cavaliers and then refuse to talk to the media. He dealt with the public fallout from assault charges last April, stemming from an incident in January that alleged the brothers were part of a group that beat a man outside a Phoenix-area gymnasium. A judge has ordered that the case go to trial before May 31.
Other team officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say that the Morris twins challenged authority—Hornacek's and others—more often and more harshly after they signed their extensions, as if the security empowered them.
"Whenever a relationship breaks down, both sides are at fault," McDonough says. "Both sides have made mistakes. That said, there's a certain standard of behavior we expect our guys to live up to. The technicals, we were uncomfortable with. The comments about the fans and media, I wasn't really comfortable with. And then the charges against them, can't gloss over that. All of that was disappointing."
Although statistics showed how the brothers were mutually beneficial to each other, team sources say there was a growing consensus that it might be time to split them up. Even if the acquisition of Chandler for a shot at Aldridge hadn't necessitated creating more cap space, the Suns indicated they still might have moved Marcus, albeit for more than a 2020 conditional second-round pick and cap space.
Markieff, considering this in the back of his agent's car, strokes the tuft of beard on his chin reflectively as of all this is presented to him. He wonders why the 15 technicals last season were raised as an issue now when nothing was said during or after the 48-win season, when he had a dozen. "I would take back what I said about the fans, but I wasn't beasting; I was asking for their support," he says.
He also questions why he has been branded as a malcontent when he simply said his future was not with the team. Whereas Dragic also demanded to be traded and explained his desire to leave by saying, "I don't trust them anymore."
As for the assault charges, sources close to both the brothers and the team believe they will not hold up. In the meantime, Markieff questions why the team hasn't given him and his brother the benefit of the doubt publicly until the case is settled. "When things like that happen with other teams, the owner and GM stand by [their players]," Markieff says. "[In Phoenix] it wasn't about figuring out what happened, it was assuming we did something wrong."
Green, a friend and former teammate now playing with the Heat, is a firsthand example. He was charged with assault in November after showing up at the front door of his condominium complex with bloody hands and requesting paramedic help before passing out. When he woke up, the police report indicates he punched a man who attempted to restrain him from going to his condo, according to Manny Navarro and Charles Rabin of the Miami Herald.
The Heat suspended Green two games for conduct detrimental to the club but team president Pat Riley issued a statement extolling his belief in Green's character. The Suns' statement simply said they were disappointed in the Morris brothers.
"I was just lucky to be with this organization," Green says of his time with Miami. "Everybody makes mistakes. It's what you do after that matters. If any team had a reason to f--k me over, it's this one, because I f--ked up. But then you have the Miami Heat and Pat Riley here [raises his hand toward the ceiling] and the Phoenix Suns and, you know, here [drops his hand below his waist]."
Green is disappointed the Suns didn't give the 39-win team a chance to redeem itself, especially considering the turmoil created when Dragic, a presumptive free agent frustrated by being placed in an off-ball role, demanded a trade. Even with Dragic and Thomas leaving, Green hoped to be back.
"They told me they were going to re-sign me," Green says. "I had the impression I was coming back. I kept my house there. But they never called my agent back. I had a lot of fans in Phoenix, so I felt bad I didn't get to say goodbye. I wish they had told me from the get-go, 'We're going in a different direction.' I hate the way it ended. It didn't have to be that way."
Green is among the Suns, past and present, who stumped for the twins' character.
"They're team-first guys," Green says. "All they care about is the camaraderie."
Dragic adds, "I had a really good experience with both guys. Everything was fine when I was there. They were professional. Maybe something happened when I left, but I can't comment on that. They're just competitive guys and they want to win."
Even among current Suns, the view of Markieff runs counter to how the top of the organization views him. P.J. Tucker and Chandler look at how, after being a starter last year, Morris fell behind Jon Leuer and Mirza Teletovic in the lineup early this season, played inconsistent minutes and a diminished offensive role, and then fell out of the rotation altogether before more recently being made a starter again.
"He's one of the best teammates I've ever had," says Tucker before Markieff's trade to Washington. "He still talks to guys, he still hangs out. No matter what the media says, he has been as professional as possible."
In an interview conducted before last week's deal, Chandler struggled to contain his own disappointment at how the season has gone. "My grandmother called me and said she can see it in my face," he says. "I've talked to 'Kieff about keeping a level head and he's done an excellent job. He's a lot more mature than he's given credit for. In this locker room, he's been solid."
Tucker and Chandler made their remarks after Morris served a two-game suspension from the team for throwing a towel at Hornacek's feet in December—harkening memories of another Suns forward, Robert Horry, throwing a towel in the face of McDonough's mentor, then-Suns coach Ainge—but before he got into a shoving match with guard Archie Goodwin during a timeout right before the All-Star break. A source says Goodwin, pressed into service at point guard, caught the ire of several players for incorrectly executing a play, but only Morris shoved him.
McDonough doesn't share Tucker and Chandler's view of Morris' behavior or effort. While McDonough acknowledges that a fluctuating role is not easy to handle, he says analytics indicated the team operated more efficiently with Leuer and Teletovic. "We told them it was going to be an open competition," McDonough says. "The team's numbers were good with them; with 'Kieff they weren't. We wanted to be true to our word and those guys deserved to play. And then there were incidents along the way. The towel one was a big one, but it wasn't just the towel. The words that were said were part of it, too. I told 'Kieff, 'No matter what you want to have happen, play 15 years and be in the Ring of Honor or get traded today, you still have to practice and play hard.'"
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While some media outlets portrayed Markieff's market value as low, the Wizards weren't the only team interested in acquiring him. The Orlando Magic, a league source says, attempted to deal for him right after Marcus was dealt, offering former Sun and fan favorite Channing Frye. The Cavaliers and Bulls expressed interest at some point as well, league sources say, along with the Pistons, who at least entertained the idea of reuniting the twins.
Among the reasons the Wizards aren't worried about Markieff's volatility is because they reached out to Hornacek, who was fired Feb. 2 and replaced by Watson. Although Hornacek was publicly critical at times of Markieff's effort, a league source says Hornacek gave his stamp of approval to the Wizards when asked about him. "I think he was just fighting himself for a while there," Hornacek said of Markieff shortly before his firing.
More than two decades ago, Washington also drafted Markieff's Philly predecessor as a stretch power forward, Rasheed Wallace. The Wizards aren't "misled by the packaging," says a team executive from another team who also coveted Markieff, in part because of the passion with which he plays.
That also goes for Goodwin, who didn't sound happy to see Markieff leaving, in spite of how their shoving match was portrayed. "We were really close," Goodwin told reporters after the trade was announced. "To see him leave so fast, I wasn't really ready for it. It's going to hurt the team. I know he's going to do great things in D.C. We're all great friends and that's the way it should be...We all gave him hugs because he's our brother."
Markieff no doubt will develop some new brothers in Washington with an added motivation: to prove he can be everything the Wizards are hoping for, even if his closest real brother isn't among them.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.