How fire, an AAU coach and a game of H-O-R-S-E connected Clippers teammates — 10 years ago

Skip Robinson (left) poses for a photo with Clippers teammates Bones Hyland (center) and Marcus Morris Sr.
Skip Robinson (left) poses for a photo with Clippers teammates Bones Hyland (center) and Marcus Morris Sr.
(Courtesy of Skip Robinson)

Skip Robinson remembers the moment Bones Hyland first met Marcus Morris Sr. with vivid clarity, because seeing a middle-schooler issue a challenge to an NBA player 11 years his senior, before so much as saying hello, is not something that is easily forgotten.

It was nearly a decade ago and Robinson, as the coach of Hyland’s Philadelphia-based Amateur Athletic Union team, asked the guard about his goals. The response was matter-of-fact, and assured: the NBA. Robinson happened to know someone who understood what that would take: A decade before then, Robinson had coached an AAU team featuring Morris and his twin, Markieff. He brokered a meeting.

“We were in the gym getting prepared for a tournament and I had the twins come up and Marcus is like, ‘Who’s the best kid right now?’ I’m like, ‘I think Bones has the most potential.’

“But at the time he might have weighed 115 pounds, was probably like 5-9. Marcus was like, ‘Which one is it?’”


Said Morris: “He like came out from the back and he was like, long, scrawny, like he didn’t say much.”

Said Robinson: “Bones wouldn’t shake his hand until Marcus agreed to play him one-on-one.”

“I wanted to let him know,” Hyland said of the meeting, “I got some tricks up my sleeve.”

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Hyland and Robinson recall settling on the shooting game H-O-R-S-E — an early display of the raw confidence that has never dissipated for Hyland in the near-decade since that eventually led to the two becoming Clippers teammates.

It was self-belief that helped Hyland endure a life-altering fire that left a hole in his family and wrecked his knee to reach the NBA just four years later. It was a quality the Clippers treasured as they learned more about him before the 2022 NBA draft. It drove his quest for a bigger role in Denver, and his trade when it didn’t materialize.

When Hyland arrived in Los Angeles after February’s trade deadline, the Clippers put his locker, at home and on the road, next to the person who knows what drives Hyland so well: Morris. The veteran forward, now 33, likened the full-circle nature of his relationship with the 22-year-old Hyland to that of an older brother.

“It’s a happy time for me because I know what we came from,” Robinson said. “Bones’ first AAU tournament, he might have just had a plastic bag with, like, a change of underwear and socks. The [Morris twins] didn’t come from much either. To see where they are now, it’s a win for me.

“I know he’s going to spend a ton of time around Marcus and that’s something I can sleep at night knowing that he’s going to be around someone who has his best interests at heart. That’s an NBA vet who knows how to be a vet and what you should be doing, and what you shouldn’t be doing.”


Morris and Hyland’s introduction didn’t spark an immediate friendship spanning the Millennial and Gen Z generations. The connection did forge an awareness, Morris keeping watch as Hyland grew into a top-100 recruit, while Hyland knew that, through Robinson, he had an open line to a player who had already trod a path to the NBA through uncertainty and tragedy.

Clippers guard Bones Hyland jokes with former Nuggets teammates during his return to Denver last month.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

Hyland was named Nah’shon at birth, but only his immediate family calls him by what he calls his “government name.” To the rest he is Bones, a nickname bestowed by a childhood friend nicknamed Chicken — truly, he says — who had taken one look at his skinny frame. The stature belies an outsized confidence. Hyland wanted to guard the biggest names on the AAU’s Under Armour circuit, including future top NBA draft pick Anthony Edwards, who was built like a linebacker, relying on energy he said is God-given. He spent team trips singing songs by Anita Baker, Freddie Jackson and Luther Vandross.

The artists are part of the soundtrack of Hyland’s childhood, listening and learning to harmonize as his mother played music while cleaning the family’s Wilmington, Del., home. And it was there, in 2018, where Hyland first smelled the fire’s smoke while watching an NCAA tournament game.

As the fire grew, Hyland recognized his only exit was through his second-floor bedroom window. His right knee hit a brick staircase upon his landing. The rest of his body saved from further damage by bystanders trying to catch his fall. He was taken to a children’s hospital, and later diagnosed with a torn patellar tendon. It was the least of his losses. His grandmother, Fay, and two cousins 3 weeks and 11 months old, were trapped inside, and later died from their injuries.

“I can sleep at night knowing that he’s going to be around someone who has his best interests at heart. That’s an NBA vet who knows ... what you should be doing, and what you shouldn’t be doing.”

— Skip Robinson on his former AAU player, Bones Hyland, joining NBA veteran Marcus Morris Sr. on the Clippers


The Morris twins were high-school juniors when they learned that the North Philadelphia home in which they lived with their mother, Angel, and a brother, Blake, had burned. A high school game was only hours away. They played anyway, and won, then moved into the home of their maternal grandparents a few blocks away. As the family said in a 2016 Bleacher Report story, with nearly all their possessions lost, the boys slept in the basement and took turns bringing cans of kerosene purchased from a nearby gas station back to the home for space heaters.

“For Bones I think the fire — and the twins as well, especially [Marcus], it pushed them into a different space — that they’ve seen everything taken away from them and there was nothing they could do about it,” Robinson said. “So they want to put that much heart and effort into making the league.”

When Hyland did make the NBA, and Denver played last season in Philadelphia, less than an hour’s drive from Wilmington, he met before tipoff with 40 Wilmington firefighters who helped put out the blaze at his family’s home. They presented him with a custom station jacket, “Bones” written over the left side of its chest.

“We never really talked about it, I think it’s so far removed,” Morris said. “We just talk about the future and just being proud of him and anything else right now that he needs.

Marcus Morris Sr. (far right) poses for a photo with an AAU team that featured Bones Hyland (fourth from left).
(Courtesy of Skip Robinson)

“Naturally where we’re from … there’s tragedy that a lot of people go through. Never really felt sorry for ourselves. Just kept going.”


Hyland said his connection with Morris “goes deeper than that” shared experience of loss.

“That is a deep, deep sequence for us to go through that,” he said, “but I just feel like we both clicked from the first time we met.”

Hyland recently learned both are Virgos. Both, Robinson added, hated the conditioning workouts he put them through on local tracks, with Hyland even hiding in a bathroom to avoid the three-mile warmup followed by 100- and 200-meter sprints. Their connection made Hyland something of an exception for Morris, who said he does not often cultivate relationships with younger players.

The night before Hyland was scheduled to work out for the Clippers before the 2022 NBA draft, he called Robinson and asked whether “big bro” was in Los Angeles. Morris was, and took Hyland to lunch afterward.

“That’s really like a big brother to me, really close family,” Hyland said.

Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. grabs the basketball with both hands during a break in play.
Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. said he doesn’t often take young players under his wing but made an exception with a youthful Bones Hyland nearly a decade ago.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

When the Nuggets and Clippers played, Hyland and Morris would chat postgame about Morris’ children, or Hyland’s season. As Hyland and Denver headed toward a breakup before last month’s trade deadline, a gap widening between how the team and player viewed his role coming off an All-Rookie season, Morris remained a sounding board. In January, after Denver blasted the Clippers in a rout, the players met with Robinson in the Denver stands to catch up and there were rumblings of a potential move, with each player saying how excited they would be to play together.

“Just because you got to play a lot last year because guys were injured, doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s going to be a role for you to play a lot this year,” Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth said last month in explaining the trade. “I think that was always going to be a point of friction.”


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Hyland told ESPN last month he felt he was playing better in his second season but treated worse by the organization, citing a lack of communication. Hyland had also left the bench in the middle of a game, prompting discipline from the team.

Hyland’s role with the Clippers is smaller than with Denver, the addition of veteran guard Russell Westbrook pushing Hyland from a fringe rotation candidate amid a backcourt logjam into a scoring option used only on short-handed nights. Coach Tyronn Lue has worked to keep Hyland engaged through “constant communication from the coaches.”

“And I think Marcus is helping along, as well,” Lue added.

“I’m good with reading energy and what a lot of guys are going through,” Morris said. “This league is unforgiving so, man, you need to be damn near on point, mentally, physically, everything needs to be in line. And a lot of young guys I think it don’t be [about] the talent, it just be the longevity and the business aspect and the other things you go through with other organizations and the day-to-day stuff. I think that they don’t realize that.

“I try to use my purpose a little more than talking about basketball because basketball is not even a quarter of the situation going on.”

Yet sometimes, it is just basketball. Two players and a ball. Who won that first game of H-O-R-S-E?

“I don’t remember,” Hyland said, his answer revealing less than his smile.