I'm sure everyone in Chicago around the mid to late 80's remembers the 6'8 Marcus Liberty extremely well. Unfortunately, most NBA fans outside of Denver and Detroit probably do not.
Liberty started getting attention for his game as a junior in high school out in Chicago. People began to notice his talent and perhaps his coach Landon Cox said it best:
"Like Joe Louis, Marcus is a quiet killer. You're already hit and bleeding before you realize he's struck. Marcus goes about his business quietly, but with deadly efficiency."
He was the number 1 recruited high school player and was also rated the number 1 high school playerin the nation by Sports Illustrated and USA Today. He opted to take his game to Illinois but hit a bump in the road when he was declared ineligible because he failed to score high enough on the ACT test under NCAA Proposition 48. He had the option to transfer schools but decided to stay put.
"I'm not going to change because I didn't make the test."
And it was a good thing that he didn't because in 1988-89 he was teamed up with a number of great players like Nick Anderson, Kenny Battle, Kendall Gill, Steve Bardo, Lowell Hamilton, some of whom like Anderson and Gill would go on to have successful NBA careers.
The team was known as the Flying Illini and made it all the way to the Final Four before being eliminated by Rumeal Robinson and the Michigan Wolverines. Liberty remembers how tough the team played despite its lack of size.
"I don't think that 1988-89 team was better than everybody," Liberty recalled recently. "We had the talent, and we also had that heart. We didn't have the typical 6-10, 7-foot center. We were playing on strictly guts and heart."
Liberty stayed at Illinois for another year and was spectacular, averaging 17.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. Coach Lou Henson chose to play Liberty out of position at power forward and it was one of the reasons that Liberty decided to declare himself eligible for the NBA draft after his junior year.
The Nuggets chose Liberty as the 42nd overall pick in the 1990 NBA draft. He found himself playing 15 minutes per game on a team that was number one offensively (119.9 ppg) but last defensively (130.8). A good example was this historical game where the Nuggets and Warriors combined for the most points scored combined in a regulation game:
The following season, Liberty's playing time increased as well as his production as he averaged 9.3 points and 4.1 rebounds per game. The team also slowed its pace and improved its defense considerably with the addition of Dikembe Mutombo but it only translated into 4 more wins from the previous season.
In 1992-93, the Nuggets continued to improve thanks to a coaching change and Liberty's solid play and he was inserted into the starting lineup 32 times that season. The team had made considerable improvements from years prior but unfortunately, Liberty did not fit into the long-term plans and was dealt at the start of the 1993-94 season along with Mark Macon for Alvin Robertson and a 1995 2nd rounder.
The Pistons were in rebuilding mode and Isiah Thomas was playing in final season. Liberty didn't even see much playing time despite being on a struggling team and only averaged 2.9 points per game while shooting 37% from the field. After his 35 appearances in a Pistons uniform, his NBA career came to an end.
He took his game overseas and hated it and looked back at his career with a number of regrets. He wished that he stayed in college in order to get his degree and also wished that he hadn't become complacent once he reached the NBA.
"Just the other day, a kid asked me, 'Why aren't you in the N.B.A. no more?' I have to tell them: Because I didn't work as hard. I figured, I made it now; I made it in the N.B.A. I don't ever have to work as hard. I don't have to practice as hard. I don't have to continue to work on my game. I got in that kind of relaxed mode. That's what I say when I'm talking to these kids: No matter what you want to be in life, you've got to continue to work hard. You got to stay on top of your game."
He also recalls an exchange with his former teammate and mentor Isiah Thomas:
'Marcus, I'm just looking at you, man. You don't even have the love like you used to. I can look at you and tell."
"I didn't get it until now," Liberty said. "He was saying I didn't do the same things that I used to do like I was doing on the playgrounds when I would go play till 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning because that was something I loved to do. I was doing it for free. Now that I'm getting paid, I don't feel I have to work as hard."
Regardless of the outcome, Liberty did achieve his dream of playing in the NBA but now is giving back to the community by running basketball camps and even keeps in touch with the old Illini team:
Liberty is only 42 and still looks like he can play. He definitely still loves the game and it's great to see that he's passing his knowledge onto the next generation of basketball players and hopefully they heed his message.
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