DMA 7-22 Sports

April 1, 2010 10:45 AM

Redemption and the Great Marvin Webster

Webster Morgan Sun.jpgThe one-year anniversary of the death of Marvin "The Human Eraser" Webster comes in a few days.

Marvin was a great son of the city Baltimore. Marvin was a 7-foot-1-inch shot-blocking wizard and pro with the Denver Nuggets, Seattle SuperSonics, New York Knicks and Milwaukee Bucks. He was a proud alumnus of Baltimore's remarkable Morgan State University, one of the nation's Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

You grew up in Baltimore dreaming about basketball in the 1970s, and Marvin was one of the standard bearers. You watched him at Edmondson High and then Morgan. The son of a Baltimore preacher, Marvin was a rare gentle giant given the opportunity to reap the fruits of the game.

Marvin tragically was found dead on April 4, 2009, in his Tulsa, OK, hotel room. Nothing suspicious, Tulsa police said. After years of suffering through liver ailments - only to be matched by a series of inconceivable personal tragedies -- coronary artery disease had caught up with him. He was 56.

This is a story about the great Marvin Webster. His story deserves to be known. But it is also a story about redemption - and about why in life we ought to leverage once-in-a-lifetime moments no matter how fleeting and spontaneous. The redemption in this story is not for Marvin, but for me.

About a year before he died -- or maybe it was two years before -- I saw Marvin Webster and locked eyes with him. It was, of all places, in a Giant Food grocery store in Owings Mills, MD. I'm in the aisle at the 10-items-or-less checkout, and Marvin is a couple of customers ahead of me.

There was the great Marvin Webster, but clearly no longer the magnificent athlete of his youth. I thought, wow, how the years had taken its toll on him. He looked drawn, hunched, wearing a long beige trench coat with a handy cap and eyeglasses. His always-thin 7-1 frame looked like it had shrunk to 6-7. There was little spring in his step and a certain sadness about his demeanor. In those brief moments, I sensed an aura of hopelessness about him.

Saying to myself, "That's Marvin Webster," I quickly wondered why Marvin would be at the ordinary Giant store in Owings Mills. He apparently had purchased nothing of consequence at the store that I could see. It was almost as if he was there because he had nowhere else to go.

Webster Getty Images.jpgI had not thought about Marvin Webster in years? Who even knew he would be in Baltimore on that sunny, spring day?

When he turned and we made the eye contact, there was the classic, wry, Marvin Webster smile. Sort of an easy, half smile. Not forced at all. He knew me as I knew him, knowing he saw me somewhere before. Maybe it was at Edmondson back in the day or maybe at Morgan. Maybe it was during my days as a newspaper sportswriter covering the Baltimore Neighborhood Basketball League, where Marvin and all the great ones from Baltimore -- Muggsey Bogues, Skip Wise, Reggie Williams, Larry Gibson, Duane Ferrell, Reggie Lewis, Sam Cassell -- were nurtured. When you both are sons of Baltimore, you know.

Marvin slowly made his way out the Giant that day. I am but a few paces behind him outside the front entrance of the store - close enough for me to say, "Hey, aren't you Marvin Webster." But me, no. Simply, I go about my business. Was I too busy that day for banter? Did I need to meet a writing deadline from my home office? I don't know. I walk away to my vehicle, and Marvin ambles in another direction (I don't even know if he was driving). He just disappeared his way, and I disappeared mine.

Marvin Webster's death was a shocker to Baltimore blue bloods. Everyone knew him as caring, spiritual, humble and selfless. But Marvin's life -- at least from a public perception standpoint -- always seems to be one of falling short.

Marvin gained his Human Eraser nickname when he averaged eight blocked shots a game while taking Morgan to the NCAA's 1974 Division II championship game as a junior. He averaged an astounding 21 points and 22.4 rebounds a game and was named Division II player of the year.

He became a pro in 1975, joining the Denver Nuggets when they played in the old American Basketball Association before moving to the NBA with the merger. Marvin shocked the NBA world when he opted for the ABA instead of the Atlanta Hawks, which had drafted him as the third overall pick that year. But for Marvin, his time in Denver was a wash. He was sick.

NBA Marvin went on to play with the SuperSonics in 1978, his best season as a pro, averaging 14 points and 12.6 rebounds, to help Seattle to the 1978 championship final before Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes and the Washington Bullets over took them in seven games.

Marvin's big-money day came when he signed a five-year contract with the Knicks in 1979, teaming with fellow twin tower Bill Cartwright on a massive front line. But Marvin never fulfilled his destiny with the Knicks. He suffered with the hepatitis he had contracted in college and his right knee was flaring up. Marvin missed the entire 1984-85 season because of the liver ailment and then retired in December 1985. He averaged only 6 points and 6.2 rebounds during his time with the Knicks.

He tried to come back and played a time in the Continental Basketball Association and got a cup of coffee with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1986-87, but he was pretty much done. Illness and injury was too much for him to overcome.

Going into the 1990s, things continue to slide downhill for Marvin. His first wife, Mederia Webster, died of a ruptured aneurysm in 1992 after they had divorced. His son, Marvin Jr. at 6-11, was a top prospect who went to Temple and was slated to be the starting center as a sophomore. But then in August 1997, Marvin Jr. dropped dead from the heart disease cardiomyopathy, just weeks before he was to turn 19.

Friends would say over the years that Marvin never could reconcile his illness. It was debilitating, and he never liked taking the medication.

Marvin drifted through the remainder of his life. He lived out of hotels, including the Ambassador in Tulsa, where he died. He worked occasionally, such as in real estate and sales. Mostly he just moved around the country, often returning to Baltimore to visit his parents.

Webster Seat Times.jpgMarvin's longtime adviser, W. Charles Bennett, an Albuquerque, NM accountant, said in news reports at his death that Marvin's illness "caused him to appear to have mental problems." Bennett told the Baltimore Sun that Marvin's family often had to force him into hospitals in order to get him to take his medication. Marvin "really went into a shell" during the last two years of his life, according to Bennett.

I guess that is the Marvin Webster I saw that day in the Giant.

But why didn't I engage Marvin that day? I still can't answer that to this day. I once had a 10-minute conversation with Cal Ripken Jr. one day in a Baltimore fast-food restaurant. And introduced my daughter once to Cassell during a chance encounter. But with Marvin I stood silent.

The redemption, upon learning of his death a year ago, surely belongs to me, not Marvin. I just wish I would have stopped and talked with him that day at the Giant. Not to be presumptuous, but maybe I could have said something to make him feel better. Clearly, he had the time then. Maybe I could have saved his life. You never know, of course.

But humanity demands that we engage all people when we can - the famous like Marvin Webster or the obscure man on the street. Take nothing for granted. You might not see him again.

  • DMA 7-22 Sports is a blog about sports in the Washington-Baltimore market, covering amateurs, colleges and pros. The title DMA 7-22? Means "Designated Market Area," per use of media rating services, signifying Washington is the 7th largest media market in the United States, and Baltimore is the 22nd. You can reach M.V. Greene at

Photos: Baltimore Sun, NBA/Getty Images, Seattle Times

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