Makhi Mitchell found himself sitting on the hardwood with his back against the basket stanchion and the basketball tightly guarded in his arms. The 6-foot-9 senior center for Wilson High had just ripped the ball away from a smaller defender and tumbled to the court, only to have a crowd of players quickly surround him.
In a split second, onlookers at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Southeast Washington stood up to watch the expected scuffle. But as Makhi’s 6-foot-9 identical twin, Makhel, helped him up and away from the tense situation during the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association championship game in mid-February, Makhi couldn’t help but crack a smile.
The 19-year-old brothers are used to this routine. On the basketball court, their intimidating stature and at times emotional demeanor make them easy targets for opponents looking to antagonize them and for referees eager to dish out fouls. But ever since they started playing basketball at 7 years old, the twins have been there to lift each other up.
“They are best friends to each other when it comes down to it, because they are their brother’s keepers at the end of the day,” said longtime coach and mentor John Perry. “That is the driving force that makes them want to play for each other.”
For the Mitchell brothers, who have committed to play at the University of Maryland next season, being twins provides a natural connection and a special bond both on and off the court. But it also creates some challenges: That same bond has been known to hold them back in their ambition to be the best together, not always as individuals. Those difficulties extend to the court, where an evolving game doesn’t always have a place for two big men at the same time.
But for better or worse, whatever they do, they want to do together. And the DCIAA championship game was no different. Both tallied 13 points, with Makhi grabbing 15 rebounds and Makhel 13, in a 92-48 blowout win over Theodore Roosevelt.
“Sometimes they do think they are the same person, for real,” Perry said. “They could be still sleeping in the same bed together because that is how close they are.”
On Wednesday, the twins will lead Wilson into the D.C. State Athletic Association championship tournament, which the school won last season. It marks the final goal of the twins’ long high school basketball careers. It started at Bishop McNamara in the competitive Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, continued with top-ranked Montverde Academy in Florida and is ending at Wilson in Northwest Washington, the city where the twins were raised.
“It’s like having another one of you out there,” Makhel said of his twin connection. “Just seeing the same things on the court, it’s just a lot of chemistry we got. We know how to play with each other, and it just makes the game easier.”
‘I didn’t think we were going to get this tall’
More times than not, telling the twins apart is a game within itself. It’s an activity the twins say they don’t enjoy participating in.
“Yeah, I don’t really like giving up differences between me and my brother,” said Makhi, who is the older of the two by two minutes. “That’s for you to find out. Like you got to be around us to [tell us apart].”
Perry, who coached the twins since they were 7 years old on a Maryland youth AAU team, recalled times he would pull one of the twins aside on the court, scolding him for an error, before one would say in protest, “No, that was my brother!” Soon Perry developed a system: Makhi would always sit on Perry’s right knee and Makhel on his left. Over the years, their subtle differences started to take shape.
Now, a keen eye can tell Makhi is a tad taller than Makhel, who has about 10 to 15 pounds on Makhi. When Makhel smiles, he reveals his braces, giving the younger twin away. The same is true of his hair, which is a smidgen longer than Makhi’s. The two have the same tattoos — the word “blessed” and their mother’s name — but they are inked on different parts of their bodies. Makhel has both down his right arm, with his mother’s name encircled in a rose. Makhi has the words on each of his biceps.
But no one knows them better than the woman tattooed onto their arms, Maria Mitchell. A single mother who has raised seven kids, ranging in age from 29-year-old D’Marrel to her only daughter, 16-year-old D’Ziah, Mitchell said she was often just trying to “keep her head above water” when Makhi and Makhel were younger. But raising a set of fast-growing twins took a lot more than simply feeding them hearty servings of their favorite meal, chicken and shrimp Alfredo.
When Makhi’s and Makhel’s growth spurts began around age 14, Mitchell had to buy everything in twos, shopping online for clothes that seemed too small by the following week.
“I knew we were going to be tall,” Makhi said. “But if you asked me, I didn’t think we were going to get this tall.”
Now at 19, their clothes haven’t gotten any easier to find: The twins wear size 2XL shirts, 1XL pants and 15 shoes. In their home in Northeast Washington, they have to slightly duck going through doorways. As for cars, Makhel refers to climbing into them as “the worst.”
“They are humble, respectable young men, and everybody loves them,” Maria said. “If you dislike them, you have a problem. They want everybody around them to succeed. They aren’t selfish children at all.”
‘They wanted to always be seen as equals’
As much as the twins don’t want to compare themselves and insist their basketball prowess is equal, coaches and scouts find it easy to differentiate their games. Makhi has long been considered the better prospect of the two because Makhel has been hampered with injuries for most of his time in high school.
But in an effort to reach the same goals together, each twin has tried to make sacrifices for the other. Perry remembers a time when they were 15 years old and Makhi was getting a lot of recognition on the AAU circuit. Makhel, who was just coming back from injury, was struggling. It bothered Makhi so much that he stopped playing as hard, because he wanted his brother to progress with him.
“We struggled with that for almost three years, trying to break that mentality, because they wanted to always be seen as equals,” Perry said.
Another challenge is that basketball is moving toward more of a “positionless” game, where it’s rare to see more than one big man on the court at a time. While Maryland’s style should suit the Mitchells, including the potential for both to play at the same time, it is becoming less common for a college basketball team — and certainly an NBA team — to have significant roles for big men with similar skill sets.
But the twins decided long ago that playing against each other wasn’t a good idea. They’ve completed an estimated two of seven games of one-on-one, and every time it more or less ended in a fight.
“It ain’t never end good,” Makhel said with a laugh. “We are competitive, so we would just get so fed up with each other and foul each other and stuff like that, but it is all love. We are pushing each other and making each other better.”
That same emotion has been known to spill into games, and the twins have gained a reputation for picking up their fair share of technical fouls. It’s a facet of their game both said they need to keep in check headed into their freshman season with Maryland.
But that competitiveness has also suited them well during their high school careers, and as they enter their final days, they’ve had a lot to celebrate. After the DCIAA championship victory, they stood side by side, with their commemorative T-shirts thrown over their jerseys and medals hanging from their necks. They both wore hats, resting backward on the same spot on their heads.