The last of the buses whisking the Clippers to Philadelphia’s train station had departed Wells Fargo Center’s loading dock late Friday when their final player emerged from the arena’s lower bowl into a hallway at a slow walk, heading for the exit.
Marcus Morris Sr. was home. The north Philadelphia native had quickly packed in the locker room following a 102-101 Clippers victory, the team stunning the 76ers with a 24-point comeback, then he returned to the court to spend more than half an hour with his friends and family.
Games here always have doubled as reunions. Fewer were in attendance than usual to watch him collect 12 points and nine rebounds on this night, kept away because there were more pressing issues than basketball to handle — issues that led Morris to miss the Clippers’ previous game and rush to his hometown, and that easily could have sidelined him Friday, as well.
Morris had received a call from his twin brother, Markieff, on Tuesday informing him that their mutual childhood friend Alexander Gaddy had been shot and killed in Philadelphia. Morris said he had been speaking with Gaddy, a 30-year-old father of three, only 10 minutes before his killing.
In a voice so low it was nearly drowned out by the sounds of people passing through the hallway, Morris said he barely slept in the following days. And he said it was hardly the first time he had to take a break from basketball to mourn.
“It’s unfortunate to say it but growing up in Philly, you damn near become numb to it,” Morris said. “I feel like that’s not right. But we’re going to figure out a way to cope.”
Morris, 32, stayed after the Clippers left for the next stop on their eight-game road trip to attend Gaddy’s funeral Saturday. He planned to rejoin the team in time for a Sunday matinee against the Knicks in New York.
The Clippers “just gave me my space, allowed me to be me, everybody reached out and gave their condolences and I appreciate that,” he said.
At 6 feet 8, Morris has lasted 11 NBA seasons because of his soft outside shot but also his enforcer’s streak. The toughness is inextricably connected to his upbringing in Philadelphia. The Morris twins already had become coveted recruits when their family’s row house burned during their junior year of high school. They moved with an older brother and their mother into the nearby home of their grandparents, where the brothers slept in the basement. They told Bleacher Report in 2016 that because the home did not have central heating, the twins would alternate days rising early to help their grandfather bring kerosene home to fill the space heaters.
Yet Friday it was Morris’ teammates who said they felt a duty to “protect” their protector, as point guard Reggie Jackson said, and “put our arms around him and let him know that we’re here for him.”
Morris missed Wednesday’s loss in Denver but chose to play against the 76ers knowing it was his only scheduled game in his hometown, and that family and friends would be in the arena.
“We’re just appreciative that he came to play but he didn’t have to, honestly,” Jackson said. “I know we play basketball together and that’s what ties us together but there is so much more time put in off the court, so yeah, we just want him to know that we’re a band of brothers and we got his back.”
Morris made a pair of fourth-quarter three-pointers to accelerate the comeback that made the Clippers the only team this season to win multiple games after trailing by at least 24 points. After Morris missed two free throws with nine seconds remaining and the Clippers leading by one, Philadelphia could not make a go-ahead basket in the final moments.
“That’s things that professional athletes have to do that people don’t understand, coming out and playing when you lose a really good friend, still have to compete and still have to do your job,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “I give him a lot of credit for coming out and playing tonight, especially being at home, this is where it happened, and having to deal with that. Hat’s off to Marcus. We needed every bit of it.”
Morris had been unable to see family members during last year’s visit to Philadelphia because of restrictive NBA protocols that largely kept players out of the public as a precaution against coronavirus exposure. It was why this season’s trip promised a more typical reunion. Yet it arrived under much different, and more painful, circumstances. A 24-point comeback would not be the most trying undertaking of his time back home.
“I haven’t really had a chance to really reflect on it because time has been moving and got games, flying, you know what I mean, family,” Morris said. “I haven’t been to Philadelphia to see my family for a while. So it was just a lot of that. And it’s a tough time.”
AT NEW YORK
When: 10 a.m. PST, Sunday
On the air: TV: Bally Sports SoCal; Radio: 570, 1330
Update: The Knicks are 22-24 amid a three-game losing streak and are 11-14 at home. Last season New York’s turnaround centered on its defensive progress under coach Tom Thibodeau, a mentor of Clippers coach Tyronn Lue during their time on the Boston Celtics’ staff. This season the Knicks rank 14th in defensive rating.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.