For twins Markieff and Marcus Morris, tattoos represent an indelible story of faith and resilience
On their right arm, the Morris twins have the exact same tattoo. In fact, most of their ink is the same. In this case, it’s a mural of the Philadelphia skyline with the city’s area code (215). Growing up in north Philly, the twins quickly learned to value family – and each other – in the midst of adversity.
In many ways, Markieff and Marcus’ unique story mirrors a tattoo – full of pain and sacrifice but the end product is, ultimately, worth the discomfort. Raised by their single mother, Angel, on Erie Avenue in north Philadelphia, the Morris twins were inseparable, best friends from the start.
“We were together on everything,” Markieff said about growing up with Marcus. “We had the same taste in video games, clothes, shoes, everything.”
“Grandma used to get us different colored robes, socks, slippers,” Marcus added, cracking a smile.
In north Philly, situations can go from bad to worse in an instant – something the twins experienced first-hand many times. Throughout their childhood, they saw countless acts of brutal street violence including the unforgettable sound of gunfire just outside their window.
Basketball was always a way out – for the brothers and their family.
Tattooed on their left arm is a beautiful image of two praying hands lifting up a basketball to the heavens. Surrounding the tattoo are the words, “A Gift From God.” The artwork is pleasant to look at, and the shading of the tattoo’s gritty, weathered hands is a representation of their fighting spirit on and off the court.
It’s one of the twins’ largest tattoos, and perhaps the most significant. The game of basketball has given them everything – a positive outlet in a world filled with turmoil growing up on the streets of Philadelphia. The image is vivid for a reason; it’s a permanent badge of honor, one that the twins proudly display.
After remarkable high school careers, the twins received scholarships to the University of Kansas where they excelled in three standout seasons for the Jayhawks. The Suns would go on to select Markieff 13th overall in the 2011 NBA Draft while the Houston Rockets took Marcus with the very next pick at No. 14. Understandably, it was a bitter-sweet time for the fraternal twins who from the moment they were born (just seven minutes apart, mind you) had spent virtually every waking minute together.
“We always had the hope of playing together in the NBA,” Markieff reflected. “Our first thought growing up was that we want to be together always so we didn’t want to play the same position. You see a lot of twins play the same position because they are so alike. That was a big thing for us that we taught ourselves, and luckily it ended up paying off.”
Their philosophy was spot on; Marcus plays more small forward while Markieff typically spends more time at the power forward position. Even better, their dream of reuniting in the NBA would come true in February of 2013 when the Suns acquired Marcus via a trade with the Rockets.
“I got the call right before a game and he told me he was coming [to Phoenix] and I couldn’t believe it,” Markieff said, dead serious, with a smile. “Even when he came here I still couldn’t believe it.”
Their happiness translated into collective synergy which ended up paying off in droves. Marcus and Markieff each had the best seasons of their careers in 2013-14, posting personal-bests in virtually every statistical category in their first full season as teammates in the NBA. Additionally, the twins were two of the league's most effective players off the bench for a surprising Suns team that won 48 games and barely missed out on a playoff spot. Knowing how much Markieff and Marcus mean to each other, the Suns rewarded the forwards with multi-year contract extensions over the summer, coming up with a total number for the deals and letting the twins determine how to split the money up.
But staying humble and unaffected by fame is easier said than done. For Markieff and Marcus, it was due to their upbringing and staying faithful through challenging times.
Also on their left arm – and scattered several other places on their torso – is the acronym F.O.E. which stands for “Family Over Everything.” It’s not just a phrase Markieff and Marcus live by; it’s a code. A way of life permanently engraved both in their souls and on their bodies.
“We were in [high] school one day and I got a call from our neighbor,” Marcus Morris said with a somber tone. “They said our house was on fire. When we got there everything was gone – clothes, trophies. All we had was what we had on our backs.”
The fire ended up destroying everything their family owned, and Angel – the mother of Markieff and Marcus – decided it was best to move in with the twins’ grandparents under the unfathomably difficult circumstances. They slept on twin mattresses slid together on the floor, used kerosene lamps to stay warm, and had to duck down as they moved throughout the house (the ceiling was only 6’5” tall). As it turns out, the twins grew even closer to their grandmother, Shirley, throughout that difficult time. That is to say, it molded them into the selfless men they are today.
“She was everything,” Markieff said about Shirley who passed away from cancer last year. “She took everybody in, kept the family together. She was the nicest person you’ll ever meet. She drove us to get better. She had cancer for a long time when we were in college but we didn’t find out until later on because she didn’t want us to worry. The three of us were very close. Game in and game out we do it for her; we know she’s watching over us.”
The brothers also credit their mother for being there whenever they needed her. Ever since they can remember, Angel instilled in them the enduring importance of honor, integrity, family and loyalty. As a single parent, she taught the twins to value each other and stick together rather than focus on competing with one another.
To this day, Markieff and Marcus are avid volunteers with the Valley-based non-profit Helping Hands for Single Moms, and provide over 25 families with pre-cooked Thanksgiving dinners every year. Not surprisingly, the love and appreciation they have for their mother and grandmother is reflected forever in their tattoos; “Shirley” is inked across one shoulder and “Angel” along the other.
“We never get anything [tattooed] that doesn’t mean something to us,” Marcus said about their ink. “I see a lot of guys around the league get money signs tattooed on them. Money doesn’t mean anything to us. If we can stay together, that means more than anything. Our family means more than anything. For us, it’s God, family and basketball.”