LAWRENCE | Marcus and Markieff Morris are about to stage a three-point shooting contest, and Marcus sets the rules.
"H-O-R-S-E from the three-point line," Marcus says. "How's that sound, 'Kieff?"
"I'll beat you in anything," Markieff fires back.
"You think you're a good three-point shooter?" Marcus says.
This is how it begins - although, with Kansas' Morris twins, the competition never really ends. The next 20 minutes will be a blur of free-throw-style threes, out-of-bounds shots, half-court heaves and NBA player imitations (if you ever get the chance, ask them to do the Allen Iverson, where the shooter must push back and fall to the floor after letting go of the ball).
The twins have agreed to a best-of-three format. Markieff, the taller of the two at 6 feet 9, wins the first game thanks to his ability to shoot flat-footed from the top of the key.
"That's not a fair shot," Marcus says, introducing a theme.
"We're playing H-O-R-S-E," Markieff says. "Anything I do, you do."
Marcus and Markieff should be naturals at this. They have been following each other's every move their entire lives, and nothing has changed since they arrived at KU. Around campus, a Morris twin is rarely seen without the other. They share a room just like they did in their grandparents' basement in Philadelphia, and conflicts are settled by basketball video games.
In a few years, the real world will call, and the twins won't be able to live this way. Their years at Kansas, even more so than for most students, are the bridge to adulthood, and what better way to grow up than under the watchful eye of Jayhawk Nation?
As KU basketball players, the Morris twins have made some very public gaffes. They've had to learn from their mistakes while splitting minutes on the court for the first time, which has been a major adjustment. Still, it seems nothing can break them apart.
"These guys are unbelievable," KU coach Bill Self says. "They're totally unselfish about each other and pull for each other hard, even at their own expense."
That may be true in the games that matter, like the one they'll play on Friday against North Dakota State, but neither Marcus nor Markieff wants to go down on record as the worst three-point shooter. Markieff wins the second game and appears to have taken the title.
"We can make it best of five," Markieff says mockingly. "Or accept the fact that I'm a better shooter."
"I'm not accepting nothing," Marcus snaps. "Don't call it a comeback."
The H-O-R-S-E contest is heating up. Marcus has taken the third game with a few of his shots coming from the tail of the Jayhawk logo at half court, and he's hoping to force a fifth and deciding game.
Marcus shows his creativity. He tells Markieff to stand in front of him at the top of the key and then shoots over Markieff's head. Swish. Markieff can feel the momentum changing, so he starts grappling over the score.
"You got R," Marcus says.
"I ain't got R yet," Markieff says.
"You got S," Marcus says, upping the ante.
"It's HOR to HO, man."
"You're a cheater, boy."
"Ball don't lie, that's all I know."
Marcus and Markieff compete as a way of communication. But it never boils over, and there's nothing that can't be fixed with video games or a generous helping of grub.
When the time came to choose a college, there was never any doubt in their minds that they would extend the fun as long as they could and play for the same school.
"Most twins I know are not as close as we are," Marcus says. "Some go to different schools, some can't stand each other and some aren't even roommates. Before we even came here, (Self) said, 'Who do you want to be your roommate?' I said, 'That must be a trick question.' "
The Morris twins' story could have gone another direction, though.
"Twins by nature have a very intense relationship," says Joel Fish, the director of the Center for Sport Psychology in Philadelphia and a father of twins. "That intensity can make twins closer perhaps than just regular siblings, but sometimes that intensity can come out and distance twins."
Listening to the Morris twins talk as youngsters, one had to wonder.
"They have this kind of banter that goes on constantly," says Dan Brinkley, the twins' high-school coach at Prep Charter in Philadelphia. "If you're ever around them, their arguments could last 25 minutes about one small thing, but it never escalates past a whisper. They do that just to entertain each other."
Brinkley remembers only one time that he sensed something off between the twins. Their senior season, Brinkley had promised each of them that he'd give them one game that he wouldn't take them out of even if it was a blowout. When Markieff's game came around, it just so happened that Marcus scored 37 that night and went over 1,000 for his career.
"That was the only time I ever heard him make reference to, 'Well, you let Marcus do X, Y and Z,' " Brinkley says.
When it came down to it, Marcus and Markieff always made up because of their mother, Angel, who has moved to Lawrence from Philadelphia to be close to her sons.
"She's the heartbeat of me and him," Marcus says. "She's why we get up every day and why we go to school and why we try to make basketball work, even though sometimes it gets frustrating. Whenever it gets frustrating, we talk to our mom. Nineteen years, she had to work as a single parent and get up at 7 o'clock in the morning and go to work and work overtime just to give us what we needed."
"We owe her," Markieff says.
"A lot," Marcus adds.
When they talk about Angel, the twins don't seem like kids anymore. But, back in Allen Fieldhouse with their pride on the line, they're just kids playing a kids' game.
The score of the fourth game has evened out to S to S, and Markieff, smelling blood, goes back to the well. As he gets ready to shoot a free throw from the top of the key, Marcus moves so close that Markieff can't extend his left elbow.
"AHHHHHHH!!!" Marcus yells in his ear.
Markieff can't shoot, he's laughing so hard.
"National championship on the line," Markieff says.
He misses. Marcus puts him out soon after, and they're even at two games apiece.
"I played with him the third game," Markieff says, "and now he got hot."
Game five feels like one of those McDonald's commercials from the early 1990s that pitted Jordan vs. Bird in a game of H-O-R-S-E.
The difference is that the Morris twins actually incorporate defense. Bouncing balls, whistling, screaming, it's all fair game. Markieff avoids Marcus' taunts by running out of bounds. He sets and nails a 30-footer.
"I'm a better shooter," Markieff says. "Let's leave it at that."
Watching them go at each other, the question becomes: How do the Morris twins act in a serious basketball setting?
Last week, when the Jayhawks were watching film of the Texas win, Self called out Marcus for going after a rebound with one hand.
"I got my arm grabbed," Marcus explained to Self.
Self rolled the tape back, and it was obvious that Marcus' arm was not grabbed by a Texas player. Self turned to Markieff.
" 'Kieff, did he grab his arm?"
"Nah, he grabbed his jersey."
Laughter filled the room. Self, clearly, had asked the wrong guy. Marcus and Markieff won't even fight over a girl, so good luck getting them to throw each other under the bus in basketball.
"Whoever talks to her first," Marcus says. "You can say you like her, but if you don't talk to her, that's on you."
The twins refuse to leave the other one behind, which is why they are often forced to run for the other one's mistakes at practice. They wouldn't have it any other way.
They have gotten through this year together, and it hasn't been easy. In August, before they were even allowed to play by the NCAA clearinghouse, Markieff was accused of shooting a woman outside Jayhawker Towers from his dorm room window with an Airsoft rifle BB gun. He accepted a diversion agreement for a battery charge and will do 20 hours of community service.
On the court, the twins have been hard to figure out. For much of the season, they struggled with consistency while trying to learn new positions. At times, they seemed to have a temper. Marcus has been called for two technical fouls, both of which contributed to KU losses at Missouri and Texas Tech.
But, the fact remains, the Jayhawks likely couldn't have won the Big 12 regular-season championship without them. Marcus averages 7.7 points and 4.9 rebounds in 18.5 minutes, and Markieff gets 4.9 points and 4.4 rebounds in 15.4 minutes. Entering the NCAA Tournament, they know how important they are to KU's success.
"We know we are role players," Markieff said, "and most of the time when we play our role, we win."
The twins came in expecting that they'd dominate college basketball like they did high school. Angel Morris said that Marcus and Markieff figured they would be heading for the NBA after a few years at Kansas. Now, they realize they may need all four years.
And really, that's just fine. This is their last hurrah, their final chance to live as they always have. After all, the odds they'll be drafted by the same NBA team are pretty slim.
"I don't feel like myself without him," Marcus says. "Once or twice, I went to a party without him, and I felt like something was missing, like I wasn't whole."
Someday, they'll have to learn to be whole without the other - but not before a few more friendly competitions. Game five is winding down, and Marcus is about to feel something even worse - defeat.
Markieff busts out the Allen Iverson shot. He shoots, falls down, swish! Marcus shoots, falls down, clang! The game is over, but Marcus won't get up.
"The oldest always wins," Markieff says. "Come on, get up. Don't worry about it. I'm the oldest. You're the youngest."
Markieff helps Marcus up, puts him in a headlock and administers a noogie.
"No hard feelings?" Markieff says. "No hard feelings?"
Marcus still won't shake his hand.
"You won, man," Marcus says. "You won."
In the world of the Morris twins, that should be more than enough.