‘We don’t win the national title without Marvin Webster’
Life and career of Morgan State star will now be immortalized in the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame
When Marvin Webster strolled into Hurt Gymnasium in 1971 to meet the members of the Morgan State basketball team for the first time, his future teammates at the Baltimore school were less than excited.
“He was a nice kid, but he wasn’t that developed,” remembers Joe McIver, a 1974 graduate from Morgan and currently the school’s senior associate athletics director. “I wasn’t very impressed.”
What McIver and his teammates saw in Webster was youth and inexperience.
What Morgan State coach Nat Frazier identified in recruiting Webster, who was 6 feet, 10 inches tall in his senior year at Edmondson High School in West Baltimore, was length and potential.
Coach, of course, was right. Webster, who would grow to 7-foot-1 while on campus, became the centerpiece of the 1973-74 team that won the NCAA Division II championship, the only team to win a national title in school history. He averaged 21 points, 22.4 rebounds and 8 blocks that season on the way to being named the College Division Player of the Year.
“It got to the point where some of us, at times, were in awe,” said Billy Newton, who later roomed with Webster. “We were watching him in games like we were fans, because he did some special things.”
On Sunday, Webster, who played 13 years professionally in both the ABA and the NBA, will be posthumously inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2018. He’ll enter with a group that includes Sam Perkins, Sidney Moncrief, Sean Elliott and Otis Birdsong.
It’s not a shock that Webster, who died in 2009, is being honored by the Hall of Fame: His college basketball credentials are spectacular.
What is amazing is how he arrived at the Hall: A sports analytics club at his high school, now Edmondson-Westside High School, crunched his numbers and made a presentation to the Hall of Fame, which made its decision based on their data.
“For these young kids to even know that Marvin Webster existed, and to put together this research, I’m just floored,” said Garnetta Massey, Webster’s sister. “What they did is truly amazing.”
Here’s what they might not know about Webster as a person and a player: that he played in the streets of the same neighborhood, Edmondson Village, where many of the students from the neighborhood reside. That he was a soft-spoken son of a pastor who only played basketball after his body outgrew the one sport that he loved to play as a child, football.
Webster’s sister had no clue growing up that her younger brother was becoming a basketball star until college letters and offers began filling the family mailbox.
“I was really shocked,” said Massey, who went to a different high school. “He was just my brother, who had to bend down to walk through doors and it was always a problem to find clothes that fit him. I never really saw him play that much in high school.”
Even though he dominated at Edmondson, he was tall, lanky and not completely coordinated. Yet, Frazier saw an unpolished diamond.
“He came here at 6-10 and 196 pounds,” Frazier said. “So when he got here, we had a program where we’d play him five minutes and rest him the next three no matter what the situation was. He just didn’t have the stamina.”
The stamina came, and so did the coordination. And once all those components started to come together, Webster’s teammates at Morgan State began to understand what their coach had seen.
“I came from a high school where my center was 6-2, so to see someone as big as Marvin was shocking,” said Newton, the point guard at Morgan. “In time, he could run up and down the floor quite easily, and he could jump like you wouldn’t believe.”
Like the many times Webster would deter shooters attacking the rim by pinning their layup attempts to the backboard. Or the jump-shooters who had their attempts not simply blocked, but snatched out of the air. That defensive prowess earned Webster the nickname “The Human Eraser.”
“He was very intimidating, and he had great timing,” Frazier said. “A great big man, who was very coachable.”
The once-uncoordinated Webster also became a scorer. He developed a nice midrange jump shot and learned early in his college career to shoot his hook shot with either hand. He averaged 21.4 points in his college career but could have easily been a more dominant offensive player.
“If he wanted to score 40, he could have scored 40,” Newton said. “But he was a team player, and we went as he went. We chipped in to do our jobs because it was understood that there was one star and 14 role players.”
McIver agreed: “Coach Frazier told us he would be the one to carry us to the promised land, and that’s what he did.”
Off the court, he was the quiet son of a preacher who kept a white Bible at the foot of his bed. On the court, he terrorized opponents, especially during that 1973-74 season, when the Bears finished with a 28-5 record.
After losing its conference tournament that season, Morgan State was invited to the NCAA Division II tournament, which it began by beating Potsdam State (54-43), Hartwick (68-64) and Bloomsburg State (71-57) in the first three rounds to reach the Final Four.
In the semifinals, Webster scored 29 points and grabbed 21 rebounds in a win over Assumption, clinching the victory with two clutch free throws in the final seconds.
The title game was anticlimactic, as the Bears were in control from start to finish on their way to a 67-52 win over Southwest Missouri State.
“The greatest sports moment of my life,” said McIver, who was playing his last year at Morgan. “But even as we were running around acting like it was the end of the world, Marvin was Marvin. He was just standing there, taking it all in. That’s the way Marvin was.”
Frazier, who was in his third year coaching at Morgan State at the time of the championship, got emotional as he remembered that night.
“This was a small black school, winning a national championship and getting success through a time that was stressful,” Frazier said. “That was an incredible moment.”
Webster was drafted by both professional basketball leagues in 1975, opting to start his career in the ABA with Denver, where in his first year he helped lead the Nuggets to the 1976 Finals. But the Nuggets lost in six games to a New York Nets team led by Julius Erving.
Two years later, Webster was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, grabbing a rebound as the starting center for the Seattle SuperSonics on their journey to the NBA Finals. The Sonics lost the seven-game series to the Washington Bullets, but Webster enjoyed his best season as a professional, averaging 14 points and 12.6 rebounds in his only year in Seattle.
Webster was on the cover of SI, again, in the fall after signing as a free agent with the New York Knicks, a move that was made to turn around a struggling franchise. But by that time, Webster was already dealing with hepatitis, which affected his play in New York.
Webster would eventually miss two entire seasons (1984-85, 1985-86) as he struggled with his health. An attempted comeback with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1986 failed after 15 games.
“Hepatitis took a toll on him to some degree and really had an impact on his confidence,” Massey said. “He really wanted to excel but could never play to his potential. It was hard on him.”
Newton believes that if Webster had been able to stay healthy, he could have been one of the great centers of his era.
“Basketball fans only saw part of his greatness in the NBA,” Newton said. “Here’s a guy who could shoot, he could rebound and he could run up and down the court. If he hadn’t gotten ill, he would have been an NBA star.”
Webster stayed in Baltimore after his retirement and spent a lot of his life traveling across the country.
But the hepatitis continued to take its toll on Webster, who was also overwhelmed by family tragedies. Both his first wife, Mederia, and his son, Marvin Webster Jr., died of heart attacks five years apart. The younger Webster was 19 and a member of the Temple basketball team when he died in 1997.
Webster didn’t always take his medications for hepatitis, and that at times caused problems too. McIver remembers being called to come get Webster, who would occasionally wander around campus and take a seat in classrooms.
Standing over 7 feet tall, he easily stood out.
“I’d get calls every now and then,” McIver said. “I would go get him and bring him to my office.”
Newton remembers standing in line at a suburban Baltimore supermarket and turning around to see Webster behind him.
“I tapped him on the chest and said, ‘What’s going on?’ ” Newton recalled. “And he said, ‘Go right ahead, sir, I’m in no rush at all.’ He didn’t recognize me. It was sad. His brother told me that he didn’t recognize people when he didn’t take his meds.”
On April 8, 2009, Webster was found dead in the bathtub of a Tulsa, Oklahoma, hotel room. He was 56.
The cause of death was coronary heart disease.
After enduring an adult life full of heartbreak in losing his wife and son, Webster’s heart broke.
“He endured so much,” Massey said. “You never quite understand the challenges that people go through. But even though he struggled, Marvin had a relatively good life.”
Baltimore City Public Schools have produced a long line of successful NBA players, from the group representing The Boys of Dunbar that includes Tyrone Bogues, David Wingate, Reggie Williams, Reggie Lewis and Sam Cassell to the current crop of talent, including Will Barton.
Webster was the first from Baltimore City Public Schools to achieve success in the NBA.
Through the years, his legacy was forgotten.
Credit the group of students from his high school for bringing that back to life and putting some respect on his name.
“I think they put the finishing touches on his legacy,” McIver said. “This would not have happened if these kids hadn’t put this thing together.”
Newton echoed those sentiments. “Thank you for your research,” he said, sending a message to the students. “Thank you for the drive.
“Marvin Webster is going right where he belongs: in the Hall of Fame.”