How a 1990s rap label helped inspire the Wizards' turnaround

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WASHINGTON – When the Washington Wizards were beginning their record-setting turnaround, gaining confidence in what they could become and still searching for some respect, Markieff Morris sat by himself, rubbing that unruly beard and tried to change the mentality of his team by drawing inspiration from a 1990s hip-hop label that invoked fear throughout the rap world. Morris wanted the rest of the league to take the Wizards seriously, so he came up with a nickname for the squad that John Wall and Bradley Beal were quick to embrace: Death Row D.C.

Morris even assigned nicknames to his teammates to match the superstar personalities of that legendary label, Death Row Records. Wall would be Tupac Shakur “because John is a little crazy,” Beal told The Vertical. Morris, a mild-mannered guy who could snap in an instant, would be Snoop Dogg. Beal would be Dr. Dre “because there is no Death Row without Dr. Dre,” Beal told The Vertical. Suge Knight? That would go to team security guard, David Best, a former college basketball player who sometimes sports a beard and a nearly shaved head.

As the team continued to win, the name started to stick, the hashtag #DeathRowDC gained life on the social-media platforms of Wall, Beal and Morris – and the Wizards slowly started to embrace that edgier side on the floor. No game exemplified the Wizards’ new attitude more than an otherwise meaningless January game against the Boston Celtics in which they showed up wearing all-black funeral attire with the intent of burying a team that was above them in the standings. After that win, the Wizards realized they were onto something that would propel them from a 7-13 start to a 49-win season and home-court advantage in a playoff series for the first time in 38 years.

Markieff Morris throws down a first-half dunk Sunday. (AP)
Markieff Morris throws down a first-half dunk Sunday. (AP)

“It was just the realization that we weren’t the team that we knew we were capable of being,” Beal told The Vertical. “We didn’t give up on it. We stayed with it and we’re confident in who we are.”

The principal members of Death Row D.C. all came through in the first game of a postseason that the Wizards believe could be special. Wall was sublime, with his playmaking, gear-shifting and overall control of the game, scoring a playoff career-high 32 points with 14 assists. Beal overcame a slow start to score 12 of his 22 points in the final period. And making his long-delayed playoff debut, Morris scored 21 points, added four blocked shots and was an irascible foil for Hawks All-Star Paul Millsap. The Wizards rode the trio to a 114-107 victory to take a 1-0 lead in this best-of-seven, first-round series.

“It’s just funny. We have a lot of fun on this team,” Wall told The Vertical about the nickname. “Kieff came up with that and we’re just rolling with it. This is the mob. We got the mob.”

Wall and Beal were eager to return to this stage following an upsetting one-year playoff hiatus that raised questions about their compatibility and long-term fit. They’ve proven that they can elevate their games in the NBA’s second season. Morris joined the Wizards at the trade deadline from Phoenix last year but was unable to spare the organization from a disappointing campaign that turned out to be transitional. Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld sought the steady hand of Scott Brooks to guide the team back on an upward course. Wall had two knee surgeries with the hope of regaining his explosiveness. Beal got a maximum contract and declined an invitation to Team USA so that he could dedicate himself to being healthy and playing a full season for the first time in his career.

The Wizards made some minor moves in free agency, but they have found out over the course of this season that they had a huge piece that could help them bring it all together in Morris. Grunfeld was able to snag Morris last season on the relative cheap, surrendering a first-round pick and reserves for a versatile scorer and scrappy defender. Morris was disgruntled and bitter after believing the Suns had duped him and his twin brother Marcus into signing below-market extensions with the intent of separating them. But when he arrived in Washington, the Wizards found someone whose game was what they expected but whose attitude was consistently upbeat.

“It’s crazy. People always say Kieff had a bad rep, he had a bad name,” Beal told The Vertical. “He was the total opposite when he got here. He was all about the team. He was a real unselfish dude. And still to this day, he is. I think some people misinterpret him but playing with him, he’s a true teammate. There’s always a guy like that that you want on your team. A guy who has your back, speaks up for you and will go to war with you every single night. He’s a real down-to-earth guy and we feed off his leadership.”

Morris said he “jumped in head first” for his playoff debut after watching Marcus experience the postseason without him last season. Marcus was in attendance for Sunday’s game, wearing his twin’s No. 5 uniform and looking so much the spitting image that the Wizards could’ve thrown him in the game without anyone noticing. But this was Markieff’s moment, and he wasn’t going to get too overwhelmed. “They call me ‘Smooth’ because I like to stay real levelheaded, laid-back,” Morris told The Vertical. “I definitely got fire. But you’re only going to see that on the court.”

Before the series, Morris needled Millsap by saying that he’s a “power forward” while Millsap is a “stretch four.” The two were constantly jostling for position and wrestling for possessions. During one bizarre sequence in the first half, Morris fell on top of Millsap and persuaded the referees to call a jump ball. Millsap said afterward that the Wizards “were playing MMA” instead of basketball. And Morris also coerced Millsap into fouling him on a 3-pointer near the end of the first half and repeatedly told Millsap to “shut up” as the All-Star forward approached him. That passion was contagious as the Wizards walloped the Hawks in the third period, outscoring them 38-28 to take control of the game. Morris had an emphatic slam and an alley-oop dunk in the period. He also blocked Ersan Ilyasova and Dwight Howard on the same possession in the second period and flustered Millsap, who finished with four turnovers and two rebounds, with his physical play for the entire game.

“This is what we should expect,” Morris told The Vertical “We should expect everybody to go balls out and be tired after every possession, because every possession counts. We need that every game. We’ve got to give our all.”

Morris has given the Wizards more than “a catchy nickname.” Wall was ecstatic when the Wizards made that deal last season because he knew he had another weapon that he could depend on. But he also loved that Morris played with a decided edge – “that dog,” as Wall likes to say – and wouldn’t back down in difficult situations. Wall compared Morris to former Wizards big man Nene, “but [with] a lot more dirtiness.” Beal told The Vertical that Morris had some of the characteristics of another player who memorably “called game” the last time the Wizards played the Hawks in the playoffs two years ago.

Morris “has that Paul Pierce mentality,” Beal told The Vertical. “A little killer instinct. ‘You’re not about to walk over me.’ He’s a real physical dude. And he’s all about the Wizards. And the team on the other side, you’re the enemy and he’s got no love for you.”

The East Coast, or at least Washington fans, has love for Death Row these days. Instead of platinum records, it wants a shiny, gold trophy. But how did Morris find motivation from a relatively extinct rap label that was at its peak popularity before most members of the team were in kindergarten? “I was looking at Death Row and how everybody was against us when we started off losing. Everybody was against, so now we’re winning,” Morris told The Vertical before pausing to look up at the dry-erase board in the Wizards’ locker room. “We got ‘15’ up here and we’ve got to win 16 games to win it all.”

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