Jason Guarente (@JasonGuarente)
None of it came easily for Mahki Morris. Not the Division I scholarship. Not the starting role. There was a detour every step of the way.
It started with a trip 2,000 miles from his Philadelphia home to the southeast corner of Arizona. Morris chose Cochise College as the improbable launching pad to his dream.
The Delaware Valley Charter grad received an offer from D-II Lincoln and interest from places like D-III Salisbury (Md.) and D-II Holy Family, but he wanted to play at college basketball’s highest level. That meant following the JUCO route.
Mahki Morris (above) went from Philly to Arizona before landing at Abilene Christian. (Photo courtesy Myra McCaskill/ CU Athletic)
Not long after Morris helped power Del-Val to its first Public League championship, he found himself in an unfamiliar world.
“It was new; it was different,” Morris said. “I really wasn’t too scared. I kind of felt like I was going to be in a safer environment going out to Arizona. It wasn’t too bad.”
It was the right move. Morris’ instincts were proven correct. The interest that wasn’t there when he was a high school senior found him after two college seasons.
Morris picked Abilene Christian (Tex.) from his new list of suitors, and his Division I dream was realized. He gambled on himself and won.
“I believe that toughness is a talent,” Abilene coach Brette Tanner said. “One thing about Mahki is he had a toughness factor to him. That was my personal read on it.
“The rest of our staff liked the fact that he could score the ball a little bit and do some things. I liked his toughness factor.”
It took some time for Morris to establish himself at Abilene. The 6-foot-3, 184-pound guard averaged 11 minutes in his first 19 games with the Wildcats. When they traveled back to Morris’ hometown to face Drexel, he didn’t score a basket.
That was a difficult adjustment for a player accustomed to having an impact at every stop.
“It used to take over me every day,” Morris said. “I really wanted to play. I wanted to be out there. I wanted to be involved. When I couldn’t, my shoulders went down a lot. Then as I thought about it and talked to people about it, I just felt I had to stay ready. Just keep working and stay ready.”
(Photo courtesy Brandon McKinney/ACU Athletics)
Then came another one of those detours.
Before a road game against Sam Houston State about two years ago, Morris told his coaches he wasn’t feeling well. Although he promised to power through the discomfort, then-head coach Joe Golding insisted Morris see a doctor.
Morris was taken to a nearby hospital. He had a stomach ailment that later required two surgeries, caused him to lose 25 pounds, kept him out of classes for a semester and put his career in jeopardy.
Tanner, the associate head coach at the time, said Morris was starting to blossom when he became ill. Everyone wondered if he’d ever get the chance to follow through on his goals.
Morris believed in himself again. He expected to make it back.
“Even when all that was going on, that never was a thought in my head,” he said. “I would hear it. ‘Man, we don’t know if you’ll play basketball again.’ It never really registered. It was never something I dwelled on. All I was worrying about was getting out of the hospital, getting my weight and everything back and getting back on the court.’”
Morris played 14 minutes in Abilene’s 2020-21 season opener against East Tennessee State and appeared in all 29 games last season. His playing time increased to 18 minutes per game and he even started seven. He wasn’t just back. He had improved.
By the time Abilene’s season ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament following a stunning upset of Texas, Morris was an indispensable part of one of the Wildcats’ greatest teams. The player no Division I college wanted years earlier dropped in a team-high 14 points against UCLA.
“That’s typical Mahki,” Tanner said. “He’s not scared of anything. That’s what I love about him. He’s fearless. The nights he’s not playing well offensively he’s still really special defensively. That’s why I play him.”
Morris (above) and Abilene Christian made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in March 2021. (Photo courtesy Jeremy Enlow/ACU Athletics)
Morris was granted a fifth year of eligibility because of COVID, which was perfect for him. It allowed him to make up the classes he missed when he was sick and gave him one more season of college hoops.
Abilene Christian moved from the Southland Conference to the WAC and Morris finally moved into a full-time starting role. He’s averaging a career-high 10 points, is shooting 46.8% from the floor and 84.4% at the line; the Wildcats are 11-6 (2-4 WAC).
Some encouraged Morris to transfer when he didn’t get much playing time at Abilene at first. Some told him to enter the portal when his stock was at its highest after the NCAA Tournament performance.
Morris ignored that advice. He made a commitment. To him, leaving meant quitting. He refused to quit.
“Most guys blame it on the coaches,” Morris said. “Everybody is pointing fingers. I could have easily done that. The coach doesn’t like me. Why am I here? But I started something so I felt like I needed to finish it. I couldn’t go anywhere else. That’s like starting over. I could end up in the same position. Here I already have a relationship with the coaches. I can talk to them about it. I felt like I could get a chance. All I’ve got to do is work.”
Tanner was ready to give Morris that chance when he took over prior to this season. Now he uses Morris as an example to players who might be unhappy with their situations. Things can get better if you stick it out.
Morris has become a centerpiece of the program. Someone Tanner said he’ll keep in touch with long after graduation.
“As good a player as Mahki is, he’s a better person,” Tanner said. “He always has a smile on his face. He’s the one guy who grabs me and tells me to keep my head up. He’s a special kid. We’re proud of him. We’re excited to see how he finishes out.”
From Philadelphia to Sierra Vista, Arizona to Abilene, Texas. Morris definitely took the road less traveled.
“For five years I’ve been away from home,” he said. “I’ve got family that I barely see. I could have easily given up and gone home. It’s a mental thing. If you just put your mind to it and believe, you can get anything done.”