"It was a ritual," says Cherryl. "Marcus would say, ‘Let's go,' and sometimes Morgan would pout and say that she didn't want to go, but they'd go."
They rebounded for each other, pushed each other to strengthen their weaknesses, and sought to perfect the skills their parents had been teaching them. Marcus was the better ball-handler—he helped Morgan with her dribbling. Morgan was 15 months older and a little bigger—she helped Marcus become stronger with the ball. Both natural shooters, they grew competitive with each other from the perimeter, pushing each other to excel.
The support the Paige siblings gave each other—and continue to provide despite the challenges of busy schedules and geography—is paying off. A senior two-guard on the Wisconsin women's basketball team, Morgan is coming off a third-team All-Big 10 season, during which she averaged 15.9 points. Marcus, meanwhile, has entered his sophomore season at Carolina, following a year in which he became increasingly comfortable with the college game, regaining the maturity and confidence that Morgan, Cherryl, and his father, Ellis, were used to seeing in Iowa gyms.
Last year, while some Carolina fans worried about Marcus's slight frame and his inconsistent early-season shooting, the Paiges knew that the youngest of them would eventually find his game, just as his older sister had done after making the adjustment to college. Ellis, in particular, wasn't surprised—nor was he worried—that Morgan and Marcus struggled early in their careers.
"I told them, ‘Dad doesn't know everything, but believe me, freshmen don't make shots like they're used to in high school,'" laughs Ellis when explaining the conversations he had with his kids before they began their college careers. "‘There's so much going on. But you'll get your shot back.'"
Morgan eventually found her shot in Madison, rediscovering her three-point range and hitting her pull-up jumper with consistency. Marcus picked up his scoring as last season developed, and alongside his scoring uptick came improved decision-making.
As Marcus experienced difficulties during the early part of his freshman season, Morgan made sure to share her experiences with him, helping him through the challenges of leading the Carolina offense while only one year removed from high school.
"I kept encouraging him, letting him know that it's a learning process," says Morgan. "He grew so much from the start of the season to the postseason….Any way that I can help him, I will. I'll drop everything to have a conversation with him."
Only 15 months and two school grades apart, Marcus and Morgan remain close and perhaps have become even tighter since each has embarked on college careers.
"In high school and middle school I was kind of stubborn and wouldn't hang out with her as much because I was a teenage boy, and that's how it is sometimes, but ever since she's gone away to college, our relationship has grown a lot," says Marcus. "We talk to each other about pretty much everything."
Sometimes helping Marcus means engaging in the sort of ribbing that one would expect between two siblings who are competing at such high levels. And Marcus appreciates the give and take.
"When we get together as a group of four, as a family, we joke about what the other hasn't done on the basketball floor. Because she's older, she always takes the you-haven't-done-this-yet approach, so I have to try to give it back to keep my ground in the family."
The Paige kids are fortunate to be products of a basketball family. Although Ellis and Cherryl come from very different backgrounds—Ellis is from Chicago and the oldest of 12 kids, while Cherryl grew up in Lamont, Iowa, a farming community north of Cedar Rapids—they share a commitment to working with young people and to sharing their love of basketball with others.
"It's funny because when Ellis first came to our house, he didn't know how a combine or a tractor worked," laughs Cherryl. "But our backgrounds didn't come into play. Our personalities meshed. We were students and basketball players and it went from there."
The collective basketball experience of Ellis and Cherryl is extensive. Ellis grew up playing on his neighborhood courts in Chicago. He went on to play in community college in Colorado before finishing his last two years of eligibility at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids. That's where he met Cherryl, who scored more than 1,000 points at Mount Mercy. The parents went on to coach their kids. Cherryl coached Morgan throughout high school and has 20 years of experience on the bench, while Ellis coached Marcus's AAU team until seventh grade.
"They were gym rats, around us all the time," says Cherryl. "And they were at my heels in the practices, always dribbling, shooting, playing games, and fortunately they picked up the love that my husband and I shared. That's not always the case. There was never any pressure for them to go to the gym. It was always their choice, and they were around it since they were toddlers."
It was clear to Ellis early on that Marcus was a special player. By the end of fifth grade, Marcus was highly skilled and multifaceted offensively—he had become a tremendous shooter, honed his footwork, pivoting fluidly and intelligently, and learned to time his pump fakes precisely. But Ellis couldn't be sure how good his son was until he left the small-town environment for tougher competition. So during the summer between fifth and sixth grade, Ellis took Marcus to Chicago, where they found a bunch of eighth- and ninth-graders playing on Hyde Park courts.
"That's when I knew Marcus was good," says the elder Paige. "Marcus went in, he never said a word, and he held his own. And it was like, ‘Wow, he's not intimidated.' He played his game and passed the test, and at that point I knew he was going to be okay."
While there's much to laud about the Paige siblings' on-court abilities, their off-court success makes the parents equally—if not more—proud. Last season Morgan was named academic all-Big 10 and Marcus academic all-ACC. The guards are quick to point to their mother for stressing the importance of education and to their father, a juvenile probation officer, for the importance of making good decisions.
"Every day my dad sees kids who don't get enough support from their families and end up making mistakes or hanging with the wrong crowd," says Marcus. "I think he uses that experience to make sure my sister and I are never in that situation. He's from Chicago, a pretty rough area, so he understands how important it is to have family support and people who can guide you down the right path. And my mom is a teacher and she stresses education. I think they've done a great job keeping Morgan and me goal-oriented and focused on being successful."
Now that his children are older, the respect Ellis has for them plays itself out in new ways. Today he uses Marcus and Morgan as examples for the young people he works with.
"I talk about Marcus and Morgan and I tell kids that a lot of the great basketball players aren't just basketball players," says Ellis. "I push kids to at least finish high school, to be more involved in academics, and to hang around with positive people so that they don't make bad choices. Marcus and Morgan are always focused and leading and they always have their own goals, and I believe that if you set goals, you'll be successful. Most of the kids I work with don't set goals. But once they see what others have done and work to do the same, then they can be successful."
Cherryl, who teaches high school English, takes pride knowing that her kids listened to her at an early age and prioritized their education. In particular, she stressed the importance of reading, asking her kids to read Twain, Fitzgerald, Hawthorne, Harper Lee, and many others. And they did.
"It was always academics first," says Cherryl. "They had to do their homework and study because my philosophy in life is that academics will take you a lot farther than anything else that you can possibly have, and it will open the doors to anything they want to pursue. So they took a lot of pride in their academics and they worked hard to get the highest grades."
Having been both a student and an athlete herself, Cherryl believes that reading books can actually provide mental support to athletes.
"Whether you read fiction or nonfiction, the act of reading can be a nice stress release, an escape mentally," says Cherryl when stressing how reading has helped her kids. "It makes you use a part of your brain other than what you use during the physical aspect of the game. And sometimes you need that break."
Although she has full confidence in her kids' abilities on the basketball court, Cherryl is still a mother, and there was nothing that could make watching Marcus's freshman year easier for her. Unlike Ellis, who's the sober realist pushing the kids to move on after each performance, Cherryl admits that she was anxious each time Marcus took the floor.
"Last year I was really nervous," she says. "Marcus was so far away. It was sometimes painful to watch. I didn't want him to get hurt, miss a shot, miss a layup, turn it over. I was wishing all the time for him to do well. As his game developed, I relaxed a little bit more."
Although they have only a few days a year to spend together as a family, the Paiges make the most of it. They often enjoy their time together over home-cooked meals, which Cherryl knows is especially good for Marcus as he continues to try to put on weight and build his frame. The Paige kids eat all kinds of meat when home, and they love their mother's lasagna. Morgan, in particular, enjoys it when the four of them get quality time together.
"It's great when Marcus is home," laughs Morgan. "My mom knows she has to make even more food, for more meals, because Marcus needs calories. So I'm always excited when he's home. I'm like, ‘Don't leave me,' because as soon as you leave, she's going to stop cooking like this!"
Since the end of his freshman season, the weight that Paige has put on is noticeable to those who know him best.
"He called me and I remember him saying, ‘Morgan, I put on 15 pounds,'" says Morgan. "I refused to believe it. Marcus eats so much and for whatever reason he hasn't been able to put on weight. But when I saw him in the offseason, I said, ‘Oh my gosh, you don't even look the same anymore.' He's still little, don't get me wrong, but it's crazy to see what a year can do in a strength and conditioning program, and that's a credit to him being disciplined and to the staff down there working with him….That's a positive for Carolina people. He won't get bumped around as much."
With Marcus's additional weight and strength and the year of experience to draw from, Ellis Paige believes that Carolina fans will start to see the skills Marcus brings to the court on a more consistent basis. When Paige was growing up, the number of drills and the amount of repetition with which he did them to enhance his skills was significant by any mark. Spot drills were routine. Every time Paige got on the court to practice his game, he picked six spots on the floor and stayed on those spots until he hit 10 shots. Shooting is one area that Ellis thinks will be significantly improved during Marcus's sophomore year, and the rest will follow.
"Whenever his shooting is on point, the rest of his game really picks up," says Ellis.
With the strength of his family and the values that have been handed down to him, Paige isn't likely to take the responsibility of leading the Tar Heels from the point guard position for granted. It helps that he has others in Chapel Hill looking out for him, including former Tar Heels. Paige recalls a memorable conversation he and other current Heels had with David Noel over the summer.
"When he was here, he told us that he and other former players would give up a lot of the stuff they have today to be able to come back here and play," says Paige. "And when he said that, with all the things he has and the places he's been able to go, it meant a lot—it means that players really care about this place. And that's part of what helps me stay motivated to be successful here."
Such conversations reinforce for Paige something that his parents have always told him and Morgan: no matter what happens, whether you win or lose or play well or play poorly, you have to continue to work hard to make the most of the opportunities you have in front of you.
"The main thing that drives me is the opportunity that I have," says Paige. "There are millions of kids who would die to be where I am, so I have to take advantage of this every day, because once it's gone, you never get it back—you never get to play here again. So that's a big motivating factor. And trying to have success here and maybe being part of a banner, that's what really drives me."