Markieff and Marcus Morris were born seven minutes apart on September 2, 1989. They’ve been inseparable ever since.
They are identical twins. They have the same friends. The same tattoos. The same agent. They live together in the same house, drive to games together in the same car. And they both play the same position for the same team, the Phoenix Suns, making them the NBA’s first set of twin teammates since Tom and Dick Van Arsdale in 1977.
Off the court, they spend even more time together – if that’s possible – settling disputes with games of Madden and enjoying a brotherly bond that, to an outsider, might seem a tad excessive. But to hear Marcus, the younger of the two, explain it, their relationship is essential to remaining focused. It’s a link to their past, and a blueprint for their future.
“We’ve been like this since we were young. We’ve always been doing everything together,” he says. “Whether it’s kickball, baseball, whatever – we’ve always been together.”
It’s also a connection they’ve gone to incredible lengths to maintain over the years. The twins have spent almost their entire basketball lives playing together, beginning in junior high, continuing through high school and college, and now the NBA – a stretch that encompasses nearly half of their time on planet Earth.
“A couple colleges tried recruiting me without Marcus and I just shut it down right away,” Markieff (nickname: “Keef”) states proudly. “That was clear from the beginning. It was always a package deal.”
Thankfully for the twins, Kansas coach Bill Self had no qualms about recruiting the brothers in tandem, and the duo thrived together in Jayhawk blue. The squad won the Big 12 Championship in each of their final two years at KU and Marcus was named conference’s Player of the Year in 2011. Off the court, they both chose American Studies as a major and had quite literally every single class together, with no exceptions.
But through it all, there was a lingering shadow on the horizon: the likely prospect of being split apart for the first time when they entered the NBA. In early 2011, just a few months before the draft, both Markieff and Marcus were asked separately which NBA team they’d most like to play for. Not surprisingly, they gave remarkably similar answers.
“I would pick any team if I could go with my brother,” Markieff said. “Whoever would pick me and my brother, that’d be my vote.”
Minutes later, Marcus added: “Whatever team Keef is with.”
When the 2011 NBA Draft finally arrived, Markieff was taken 13th by the Phoenix Suns. Marcus was drafted 14th by the Houston Rockets, in fitting parallel to their birth order. But there was little joy that night; after years spent competing on the same team, the twins would have to adjust to the concept of playing against each other.
“When we’d play against each other, even though I was with the Rockets and he was with Phoenix, I was still rooting for him, you know?” Marcus says. “It was just an awkward situation ’cause you know you want your team to win, but you also know you want your brother to do well at the same time.”
To maintain their connection, the brothers texted or spoke on the phone every day during the season. Markieff thrived as a rookie, getting significantly more playing time than Marcus – and he spent no shortage of time lobbying Suns management to try to arrange a deal to bring his brother over, even if he knew the odds of it happening were long.
Then, one day after a game in February 2013 – 19 months after their initial separation – Markieff happened to check his Twitter account on his way to a game and found a deluge of comments about his brother. Marcus was on the trading block, as Houston’s ever-hyperactive GM Daryl Morey shopped him to multiple teams.
“I couldn’t believe it, man,” Markieff says. “I had just talked to him the day before and he didn’t know anything about it. I was hearing it was between Phoenix and Boston, and it was actually his choice. That was crazy.”
“They were dumping me for a second round pick,” Marcus adds. “They knew I wanted to be in Phoenix with my brother. So they kinda did me a favor and let me pick which team.”
Naturally, Marcus chose the Suns and a reunion with his brother. And this being 2013, the twins took to social media to share their excitement.
Can’t explain this feeling!!!
— Keef Morris (@Keefmorris) February 21, 2013
Blessed !!! Teamfoe
— Marcus Morris (@MookMorris2) February 21, 2013
For those wondering, “Teamfoe” is the brothers’ personal mantra; it stands for “Family Over Everything.”
Compounding the joy of their reunion was a dramatic reversal in the Suns’ fortunes. The 2013-2014 season – Marcus and Markieff’s first full campaign in Phoenix – saw the team pull off a stunning improvement, catapulting from only 25 wins to 48, the biggest jump of any team in the league. The Morris twins were an integral part of that quantum leap, as was the infusion of Eric Bledsoe to the backcourt and Jeff Hornacek to the sideline. But despite the massive lift in performance, the Suns fell just short of a playoff berth in the brutal Western Conference, even though their record was better than, or equal to, six of the eight playoff teams in the Miller 64-weak Eastern Conference.
“It was tough for our team to be so far over .500 and still not make it,” Marcus says. “It was hard for me and Keef to even watch the playoffs ’cause of how upset we were.”
Despite falling just short of the postseason, Marcus and Markieff felt incredibly lucky to be back playing together as they concluded the 2014 season. In September, they took extraordinary steps to ensure they’d stay that way, when they signed simultaneous contract extensions with the Suns.
And much like everything involving the Morris twins, their deal was unique. Rather than being worked out individually for each player, the Suns effectively approached the brothers in tandem, placed $52 million dollars on the table and politely asked them to divvy it up however they saw fit.
“I did something I’ve never done before,” Suns President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby said. “Once we agreed on the amount of money, I gave them first crack at how to divide it up.”
With no apparent ill will, Marcus and Markieff came to a brotherly agreement. Markieff would get $8 million per year for four years, while Marcus would get $5 million per year for four years. This leads to a rather obvious question: If they didn’t split it evenly, how did they come to an agreement to give more to Markieff?
“Keef played really well last year. Coming off the bench he was a potential Sixth Man of the Year candidate. So I think he deserved for his number to be higher than mine,” Marcus says. “He’s one of the great power forwards in the league. If he was by himself he would’ve gotten way more than that. I just wanted personally for his number to be higher.
“We look at it as a number for the household, you know?” he continues. “$13 million a year for our family. Whatever it broke it down to, we didn’t really care.”
The twins’ contract extension was also unique for another reason: its length. The NBA recently secured a gargantuan increase to its yearly take for television rights. Beginning in 2016, TNT and other networks will begin paying the league $2.7 billion per year for the right to broadcast games. That’s almost three-times the current rate, and the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement ensures that player contracts will see a corresponding bump.
That’s why recent free agents have elected to take shorter deals. Most famously, LeBron James only signed a two-year contract this summer when committing to the Cleveland Cavaliers, secure in the knowledge that he can ink a longer contract with an absurdly large annual salary in the summer of 2016. Marcus and Markieff Morris did the opposite. They signed a four-year extension that will keep them locked in at a total of $13 million per year until 2018, when they will be 30 and likely approaching the twilight of their prime earning years.
The reason they made this decision – one that could very possibly end up costing them tens of millions of dollars – is the same reason they make many of their decisions: they believed it gave them the best chance of staying together for as long as possible.
It’s a gamble. Neither brother holds a no-trade clause in their contract. The Suns retain the right to move either man at any time, in which case they’d be back to square one, adrift on separate teams, with the added insult of dampened career financial earnings. But it’s a risk they’re willing to take. The bond between brothers can’t be measured in dollars alone.
“We know the cap goes up in two years, but at this point in our career it’s so early we want to continue to play with each other,” Marcus explains. “We want to stay together as long as possible – It’d be a blessing to retire together. If we continue to win and have success, things will work out for the best.”