VOICES: Marcus Liberty aimed for the hoop, and found a purpose


Posted Jul 28, 2013 at 12:09 AM

Former NBA star Marcus Liberty mentors YMCA campers in Sarasota.

The bearded man in a tucked-out shirt, jeans and white sneakers gripped a basketball in one hand and walked to center court.

Sitting in a semi-circle before him at the Bari Brooks gym were 20 children from the YMCA summer basketball camp.

“Wow, you’re really tall,” said one boy.

“Are you Lebron James?” asked another.

Marcus Liberty smiled.

Before the world had ever heard of Lebron, the 6-foot-8 Liberty was one of the most celebrated basketball players in the nation.

Coming out of the housing projects of west Chicago with a rare blend of size, ball skills and a deadly shooting stroke, Liberty was selected as the 1987 high school player of the year by Sports Illustrated and Parade Magazine and coveted by colleges across the land. He could not walk down a street in Chicago without being asked for his autograph.

Now he’s 44, and the flames have flickered out on a career that never reached the heights so many had predicted. Where once he guarded Michael Jordan in the NBA, Liberty now competes in a rec league at the Sarasota YMCA.

But Liberty, who moved here a few months ago, said he is at peace. The pressure of being a basketball prodigy is lifted from his shoulders, and he is doing what he likes best, working with youngsters.

“I want to give back,” he said. “I want to help kids understand what it takes to achieve what I did and to also not make some of the same mistakes I did.”

The Sarasota YMCA has embraced his efforts, forming a new basketball league for children 8 through high school-age.

Called “The Liberty Edge,” it begins next month, and Liberty is the director.

He also gives individual basketball lessons, including instructing three of Dick Vitale’s grandchildren. Vitale, who was a college and NBA coach before becoming an ESPN broadcaster, said he sets a high bar for those who work with his family.

“Marcus is great,” said Vitale, a Lakewood Ranch resident.

“He comes every day with a plan, a purpose. A lot of people know the game, and he certainly does, but he is also really able to communicate.”

Everybody wants him

Marcus Liberty knew his life would never be the same after he scored 51 points in an eighth-grade game. By the time he returned to the projects, the neighborhood was abuzz.

The adulation grew after Liberty led King High School to the state title in 1986. In 1987, King finished second in the state, but Liberty was in a class by himself after he scored a state-record 143 points in four tournament games.

Universities around the country sought him, but Liberty was convinced Syracuse had the best plan to develop his skills. The day before he was to sign with the Orange, his high school coach, a legendary powerbroker named Landon “Sonny” Cox, told Liberty he would be going instead to home-state University of Illinois.

Years later, a rival coach, Bruce Pearl, reportedly told investigators from the NCAA that the last-minute deal came after Illinois gave Liberty $75,000 and a car.

Liberty came from a two-parent family, but his family was poor and influenced by coaches and others who swarmed around their son.

Asked about Pearl’s allegation, Liberty did not deny that money might have changed hands, but he said none of the cash came to him.

“Decisions were being made for me,” he said.

Liberty had a stellar career at Illinois, leading the Illini to the Final Four, but he looks back with regret. He was at the time an uncommon player — at 6-foot-8, he moved, passed and dribbled like a smaller man. Syracuse promised to exploit his unconventional skills.

But Illinois put him “in the post” — the traditional position for a player of Liberty’s size, anchored near the basket.

“I never developed the way I could have,” he said.

Liberty went on to play for the Denver Nuggets and Detroit Pistons in the NBA for four seasons, until 1994, then for eight more seasons after that in Turkey, Sweden, Greece, Chile and other places where his jump shot could generate a paycheck.

Speaking to young campers at the YMCA, Liberty explained why his NBA career did not last longer.

“When I made it to the NBA, I stopped working hard,” he said. “All my life I worked with this goal in mind and when I achieved it, I stopped giving it everything I had. That’s crazy, isn’t it?”

In an interview, he elaborated, saying he got swept up in the “clubbing” life of being an NBA player, waiting for practice to end so he could go out and have fun.

“Hey, he still had a career that most people can only dream about,” Vitale said. “Do you know how hard it is to make it to the NBA?”

In the time since his retirement, Liberty has found that being a former star — even being a former No. 1 high school player in the nation — guarantees very little. Illinois, he said, has not invited him back once.

Several months ago, while living in Orlando, Liberty met Christine Page, a longtime Sarasota resident. He moved here and has been working hard to build his business of public speaking and training.

When he talks to youngsters, the message is as much about life as it is about basketball. Liberty tells the story of a childhood friend, half his size, who knew him long before he was a star and has remained his closest friend.

“If I ever needed it, he would give me his right arm,” Liberty said of his friend.

“Developing those kind of relationships, that’s what’s important in life.”

Liberty brings much the same approach to the YMCA rec league on Wednesday nights. He could assume the role of the former star, taking all the shots. But he said he doesn’t care how many points he scores, preferring to set up his teammates.

“I still love the game,” he said. “And that’s how the game is supposed to be played.”

As he ended his talk to the YMCA campers, several children urged him to dunk the ball. Liberty waved them off, but said he would shoot a three-pointer instead. His shot fell short and the campers looked let down.

“Hold on,” Liberty implored. “That was just a warm-up. This is the one that counts.”

The next shot went up, rotating high and true, until it swished through the basket. Liberty turned and smiled at the campers.

“Now, it’s your turn,” he said. “Let’s see what you got to show me.”