Markieff Morris slowly climbed the steps into the Capital City Public Charter School. He was spent, or more accurately “tired as hell,” after going through an afternoon practice with the Washington Wizards. The NBA is a grind, Morris would tell the students. It’s not at all what they see on television. Even so, during another day in the NBA spin cycle, Morris returned to the school for an hour of straight talk.
“I try to get here a couple times a year,” Morris said. “Basically went through the same stuff that they’re going through growing up, you know what I mean? I’m trying to let them know that anything is possible. . . . And I just want to be brutally honest with them, no matter how it come out or how it might sound.”
On Tuesday, Morris, in coordination with his twin brother, Boston Celtics forward Marcus, and their Family Over Everything Foundation, launched the UNICEF Kid Power Challenge between the D.C. charter and a Boston-area school. Students on the boys' and girls' basketball teams received “UNICEF Kid Power Bands” that track their movements during the month-long competition — their activity will provide “lifesaving nutrition that UNICEF delivers to severely malnourished children,” according to the organizers.
It was the kind of event common among professional athletes. They will show up, shake hands and get photographed with smiling kids, usually from a disadvantaged background. Morris’s appearance, however, did not follow the usual script.
The 29-year-old shared his background, about growing up in Philadelphia with his brothers and a younger sister, and how a fire destroyed their family home. He loved football, he told the students, but swapped the gridiron for the hardwood once he saw the success Marcus was having. Besides, as he was spouting to 6-foot-8, he had to leave the streets because he was too easily recognizable among his 5-foot-nothing friends.
Morris then invited the students, including many who were already wearing blue and gold Capital City practice uniforms, to ask him questions. Every topic was on the table. Nothing off limits. He wanted to be real.
Did he dream of becoming a basketball player?
“I really didn’t have aspirations. I was just tall,” Morris said.
What do you feel about girls playing basketball?
“I think girls should be paid more . . . they’re just as talented as us,” he told a young lady.
Ever get your shot blocked?
“All the time,” Morris responded without hesitation.
Morris, however, paused when a student asked him something he hadn’t truly considered before: If you didn’t play sports, do you think you would still be in the streets?
“Most likely,” Morris said, nodding and looking the young man in the eyes. “I mean, that’s the easy way. That’s what you grow up seeing. That’s what I grew up seeing.”
Again, Morris gazed down and fiddled with the plastic bracelet around his right wrist when he was asked another personal question. A young boy was listening closely, and maybe even picked up on Morris often rubbing his eyes, so he wondered if he had ever thought of quitting the NBA. Morris answered honestly.
“Actually, every day is an uphill battle,” Morris said. “Like, today I didn’t feel like getting up and going and working out but I know that there’s a draft every year and new players are coming in every single year no matter what.”
The NBA player shrugged.
“And I got to take care of my family. That’s what I got to do,” he said, before concluding, “but I love it. That’s the best thing about it. I get to wake up and do something I love every day.”
Although Morris doesn’t love talking about basketball when he is visiting students, he obliged when asked to regale the crowd with NBA stories. When asked, he revealed the amount of his first paycheck as a professional ($189,000), the toughest player he has ever guarded (LeBron James) and the reason behind the Wizards’ early struggles (“Everybody wants to be a scorer. Everybody can’t be a scorer.”)
In another moment of candor, Morris pledged to a student that he would sponsor their basketball team. The least he could do, Morris later said. By the end of the month-long UNICEF Kid Power Challenge, the most active school will win a prize. If Capital City takes it, Morris promised “something that they’re not going to forget” as a reward to the top five finishers.
As the questions continued, Morris’s mood seemed to lighten. His wife, Thereza, and baby daughter, Jyzelle, also were on hand. Whenever Jyzelle toddled over, Morris would carefully adjust her F.O.E. T-shirt over her belly. When he was asked what he is most grateful for, Morris pointed to his first born. Morris described his family as the daily motivation he needs to survive the rigors of the NBA. These particular students — Morris sees himself in their young faces — also make the grind a little easier.
“The youth is the future, and anything I can do to give to them, I’ll do it,” Morris said. “Tired or not.”