On the left arm of Thomas Robinson, stretched along the length of his bulging bicep muscle, vertically written in flowing script font, sits a special tattoo.
The message is simple. It reads “F.O.E.”
It’s an acronym: Family Over Everything.
“That’s my main one,” said Robinson, whose arms are covered in artwork.
Marcus and Markeiff Morris have the same tattoos; theirs are on their left arms too. While the Morris brothers are blood related, Robinson is not. But that doesn’t matter much. They’re family anyway. They’re brothers.
The Morris twins had the letters tattooed onto their bodies while they were still in high school, 10th or 11th grade. That was long before they went to Kansas, long before they met Robinson.
Robinson’s tattoo wasn’t inked onto his arm until after his sophomore season at Kansas. What happened during that season shaped Robinson into the man he is today, it strengthened the bond between the Morris family and Robinson’s and, yeah, it made those tattoos even more meaningful.
It was a Friday, Jan. 21 when Robinson received a phone call from his little sister Jayla.
Robinson was with Marcus and Markieff preparing for the next day’s game. Within the few weeks before, Robinson’s grandmother and grandfather had died. More bad news seemed implausible.
He didn’t answer the phone call from his sister on that Friday night. Instead, Robinson let the call hit his voicemail. But once he heard his little sister crying and pleading for a call back, he did.
It was bad news. The worst news. Their mother, Lisa Robinson, was dead at the age of 43.
Robinson was devastated but he still played the next day. The Jayhawks ended up losing a major game to Texas, which snapped a 69-game home winning streak.
The following day Robinson was accompanied by Barry Hinson, who was then the Director of Men's Basketball Operations at Kansas, to Lisa Robinson’s funeral in Washington D.C.
The day after that, Marcus and Markieff’s mother, Angel, flew to D.C. for the funeral. Angel Morris was like a mom away from home for many of the Kansas basketball players. She lived in Lawrence and watched after Thomas even well before his mother died.
But after the funeral, Robinson became a full-fledged member of the Morris family.
“We were all he had at the time,” Marcus Morris said. “We just became closer.”
“That’s exactly how it happened,” Robinson said. “They were there for me and they treated me like their brother.”
Hinson was there too.
Hinson, now the head basketball coach at the University of Southern Illinois, says he’ll never forget the day after Robinson’s mother died. Hinson didn’t know what had happened. He showed up to the locker room like it was any other game day. Only it wasn’t.
“I’ll never forget it as long as I live,” Hinson said in a phone interview this week.
Soon after walking through the locker room doors, he knew something wasn’t right. He noticed bags under the eyes of several players and head coach Bill Self. That’s when then-Kansas assistant Danny Manning asked him, “Do you know what happened last night?”
After the tough loss to Texas, the next day was even tougher. Hinson and Robinson got an early start to board a flight to Washington D.C. for the funeral. After arriving in D.C., the two picked up their car, picked up Jayla and went to Lisa Robinson’s apartment.
“It was unbelievable,” Hinson said. “I had to walk around corner to cry.”
Right from the beginning, Robinson and the Morris twins were great friends. It didn’t take long for them to hit it off, basketball being the obvious common ground.
“Maybe it was just … real recognized real,” Marcus Morris said. “It just happened that way.”
They met during Robinson’s first visit to Kansas. The twins were already in college; Robinson was still in high school. Eventually, the Morris twins became a big reason for Robinson’s wanting to go to Kansas.
He knows how unconventional it was, going to Kansas when he did. When Robinson arrived in Lawrence the Morris twins were ahead of him at his position and so was Cole Aldrich. He went to Kansas even though Marcus and Markieff were already there and the three became the best of friends.
“Once I got there, it wasn’t a competing thing,” Robinson said. “They wanted to get me better.”
A few weeks ago, when the now 21-year-old Robinson found out he had been traded to the Rockets from Sacramento, he didn’t hear about it from the Rockets. He didn’t hear about it from the Kings. He heard it from Marcus Morris.
Robinson didn’t expect to be traded, so the phone call was a surprise. But that was just the first surprise during the conversation. Morris explained to Robinson that the Rockets had traded for him. But in nearly the same breath had to tell Robinson that when he arrived to Houston, he would be gone. See, on that same day, Morris was traded to Phoenix for a draft pick.
“It was something,” Morris said.
Morris was being reunited with his blood brother. But at the same time, he missed out on being reunited with his other brother.
“It was like a sad joy,” Robinson said. “He was mad that he wasn’t going to be able to be here with me but happy that he was going with Markieff. Once I found out that he was going with Markieff, I was happy for him.”
Jayla, Robinson’s sister, is 9 now. She’ll turn 10 early next month. She still lives in Washington but Robinson sees her whenever he can.
“When you’re that much older than them, it’s almost like you’re a second parent,” Robinson said. “Whatever you can do for them, you do.”
As a 9-year-old, she doesn’t really understand the gravity of her brother’s being in the NBA. Robinson is in the process of trying to gain custody of his sister but it hasn’t happened yet. According to Robinson, “outgoing” is the best way to describe Jayla. And “spunky,” too, he said smiling.
“He just loves her. He doesn’t try to act like her dad,” Marcus Morris said. “He just tries to act like her big brother.
“He’d do anything for her.”
In fact, he does everything for her.
Hinson said that after the death of Robinson’s mother, Robinson’s game on the court changed. He had a renewed focus. That focus was Jayla.
And that, Robinson said, is the truth.
“It’s right. I had a lot more to play for,” Robinson said. “I had to. I had to. I had no choice.”
As a junior, Robinson was a different player. He was no longer sitting on the bench behind Marcus and Markieff Morris. Instead, he was a starter and scored 17.7 points per game with 11.9 rebounds per game. He led the Jayhawks all the way to the NCAA championship game before losing to Kentucky. He scored 18 points with 17 rebounds in the championship game.
A couple months later Robinson was selected by the Kings with the fifth overall selection in the draft.
And he did it all for his sister.
“I’m very proud of him for being the person he is and continuing to dream,” Marcus Morris said. “When tragedy struck, he continued to do what he needed to do for Jayla. He did it for her.”
On Wednesday night, the Rockets will host Marcus and Markieff Morris when they take on the Suns at the Toyota Center.
It’s the second meeting between the two teams in a few days. The Suns took the first game 107-105. It was the first time Robinson, Morris and Morris shared a basketball court in a regulation game since Robinson’s sophomore year in college. He said the reunion was “cool” but was disappointed the Rockets lost.
On Wednesday, like they did on Saturday, the three will exchange pleasantries before the game. Kind of like how any friends on opposite teams would. But with them, it just means a little more.
“We’re more than just friends,” Marcus Morris said. “That’s my little brother.”
Of course. Family over everything.