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Local basketball player on "American Idol"

With the crowd on its feet, Markese Morris made all the right moves Thursday night as he sang a stirring rendition of the national anthem.

Burlington City H.S. basketball player Markese Morris, a participant on American Idol, sings the national anthem before a game against Delran. (David M Warren / Staff Photographer)
Burlington City H.S. basketball player Markese Morris, a participant on American Idol, sings the national anthem before a game against Delran. (David M Warren / Staff Photographer)Read more

With the crowd on its feet, Markese Morris made all the right moves Thursday night as he sang a stirring rendition of the national anthem.

Then he went ahead and played a great game, too.

The Burlington City High School senior guard turned in a 27-point performance in a victory over rival Delran, showing the same personal touches and creative bursts that characterized his vocal performance.

"I love basketball," Morris said. "I'd have to say it's my second love, after singing."

Morris is known at home, in the hallways of his high school, and in the team's locker room as the owner of a sweet, soulful voice. He says he sings every day.

But music is more than just a hobby to the 6-foot-2 teenager with the easy smile. He has ridden his talent all the way to Hollywood.

That's where Morris spent a week in November, competing for a spot among the final 32 contestants in a hit television show, American Idol.

"We couldn't be prouder of this young man," Burlington City principal Julian Jenkins Jr. said. "Just to see him on TV the other day, it was exciting for the entire school and for the entire community of Burlington as well."

Morris is prohibited from revealing whether he made it to the semifinal round. But he's proud to note what it took to get to Hollywood, how he made it through auditions last summer in East Rutherford, N.J., and New York, how he keep his cool during a performance in front of American Idol judges Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell and Kara DioGuardi.

"Simon kept saying, 'You're too cool for school. You're too cool for school,' " Morris said of his performance in New York in late August. "I didn't know what that meant. I was just being calm."

Morris was on television briefly during an episode that was aired last week, screaming "I'm going to Hollywood!" and holding up the yellow paper that marked his ticket to the show's next round.

But his performances in New York - which included a segment of the Temptations' classic "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" and a rendition of the Mario song, "Just a Friend" - never made it on air.

That was a disappointment to his supporters in Burlington City. "I can't believe they didn't show him singing," said Jean Morris, Markese's grandmother. "He's such a great singer. They should have shown him."

Morris lives with his grandmother and credits her with his involvement with American Idol. She handled much of the paperwork last summer and also accompanied her grandson to East Rutherford and New York.

"She really pushed me to do it," Morris said. "I was like, 'I don't know, grandmom.' She kept on me because she thinks I'm such a great singer."

Jean Morris has company in that regard. Burlington City basketball coach Jim Flynn, who is an assistant principal at the school, said Morris has a "charisma" as a performer that belies his age or relative lack of experience.

"He just commands attention when he's singing," Flynn said. "He sings in the locker room, on the court. He has real talent."

Morris said he has no formal training. He started singing as a youngster and soon gained notice as a member of the choir at Holy Light Church of Jesus Christ in Burlington.

"That was the thing that I enjoyed the most, the way he sang in church," Jean Morris said.

Markese Morris said he loves gospel music, but that rhythm and blues is his favorite genre.

"I just love singing," Morris said. "I find it inspirational. I sing so much, people tell me to shut up."

His grandmother can confirm that.

"It gets on my nerves sometimes, how much he sings," Jean Morris said. "But I'm proud of him."

Morris also writes songs. He gained notice for singing at the funeral of a former teammate, Julian Corry, last summer, then wrote a song about Corry and performed it at a school assembly.

"It brought tears to everyone's eyes," Flynn said.

Morris said it was a grueling process to advance in the American Idol competition. He said he stood in line for hours just to register in East Rutherford, then went back the next day to compete with thousands of other hopefuls.

He sang John Legend's "Ordinary People" and Sisqo's "Incomplete" in front of producers from the show, earning a trip to New York a few weeks later for another round of auditions.

That time, he performed in front of the show's four famous judges.

"I walked in with my hood and my hat on," Morris said. "Paula was like, 'Take your hat off.' And that new one [DioGuardi] was like, 'Take your hood off.'

"Then Randy was like, 'What else do you want him to take off?' and that set off a whole conversation where they were going back and forth. It was funny."

Morris said he wasn't nervous.

"I'm a silly person, but I wasn't like that," Morris said. "If I got to sing, I got to sing. I'm here to do something."

Because the shows are taped well in advance of airing, contestants are prohibited from revealing the results. Morris can only say that he spent a week in Los Angeles in November, working with American Idol producers on song selection and presentation.

But after a week of rehearsals, he improvised when it came time for his performance, singing the gospel hit, "I Need You Now," by Smokie Norful.

"I don't know why, but I just felt like I had to sing that song," Morris said.

Morris is Burlington City's second-leading scorer, with an 11.5-point average. The Blue Devils have a 12-4 record and are qualified for the South Jersey Group 1 tournament.

Morris plans to attend college next year. Flynn said he's hoping to help Morris land at a school where he can continue playing basketball and also study music.

Ultimately, Morris knows where he'd like to end up.

"I love Hollywood," Morris said. "Hollywood Boulevard. The Renaissance hotel. In-N-Out burgers. I can't wait to get back there."