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Before reaching the Final Four, the Shockers’ coach played on the Bent Tree apartments’ court.
Sunday, April 7, 2013
When Wichita State beat Ohio State to earn a Final Four berth last weekend, Billy Hicks sent a congratulatory text message to fellow Cave Spring High School graduate Gregg Marshall.
"Not bad for a skinny little guy from Pebble Creek," Marshall replied in a late-night text.
Marshall is the coach of Wichita State, so he lives in Kansas now. But he used to call the Roanoke area home.
Marshall, 50, moved from Greenwood, S.C., to Roanoke with his mother, stepfather and younger brother when he was 12. They lived at the Bent Tree apartment complex.
He played basketball at that complex and at the nearby Pebble Creek apartment complex.
"I used to play out on the concrete court there at Pebble Creek Apartments - had the chain net," said Marshall, whose team will play Louisville in the Final Four tonight. "Bent Tree Apartments had the full court that had a chain link around it - I felt like I was at Rucker Park [in New York]."
At Cave Spring High School, he was a 6-foot-2, 145-pound point guard.
"If I turned sideways, you couldn't see me," Marshall said.
But the passion he now exhibits on the sideline was a trait of his then too.
"Every day he was just full of enthusiasm and optimism," former Cave Spring coach Rudy Lacy said. "I'd be worried about a game and he'd get on the bus and be like a ball of fire about how well we were going to do. It was contagious."
To motivate his charges in the NCAA tournament, Marshall has been telling them to "play angry."
Did he play angry at Cave Spring?
"That's the only way I knew how to play," said Marshall, who graduated from Cave Spring in 1981. "That's the only way I could get anything done. I wasn't very skilled or very talented. And at that size, you had to give great effort and have great passion and energy and toughness."
Hicks, now the Cave Spring boys basketball coach, is three years younger than Marshall, so they did not attend high school at the same time. But Hicks lived at the Pebble Creek Apartments and was a friend of Marshall's younger brother, so he played a lot of basketball with Marshall in their neighborhood.
"He let me tag along and got me in some pickup games," Hicks said.
"He recruits the kind of kid he was - tough, maybe overlooked a little."
When Marshall and Hicks both got into coaching, they kept in touch and became friends.
"He's insanely intelligent," Hicks said. "If Gregg wasn't a coach, he'd be running a business."
Marshall attended Cave Spring Junior High School and Hidden Valley Junior High School before his years at Cave Spring High School.
As a sophomore, he played for the high school's junior varsity team. Garland Berry, who was the JV coach, did not initially make him a starter.
"I had him on the second team and we were running our offense [in practice] and every time we tried to do something, he'd mess it up," said Berry, 73, who lives in Roanoke. "So I said, 'OK, Gregg, come on over,' and he'd go to the first team."
Marshall spent his junior and senior years on the varsity. Lacy was the coach, with Berry his assistant.
"He was so smart - a lot of basketball savvy," said Lacy, 80, who lives in Roanoke. "He wasn't particularly interested in scoring points. His job was to win the game - that's the way he looked at it."
"He did everything well, but he wasn't a superstar," Berry said. "We put him on the [opponent's] best scorer usually. He was very coachable - you didn't have to tell him anything but once."
Was Marshall the type of point guard that Marshall the Wichita State coach would recruit?
"I'd want him on my team. I'm not sure I'd want him in the game," Marshall said. "I'd want him in the locker room. I'd want him to help recruit when we have recruits coming on campus. I would want him working hard at practice every day, finding ways to win.
"But I'm not sure that same guy would play too much on this particular team."
Marshall's high school teammates included Andy Agee, who graduated the year before Marshall did and became the 1984 ODAC player of the year at Bridgewater College; Paul Lester, who went on to play for Ferrum; and Randy Lower, who once knocked out a few of Marshall's teeth during a game.
"I got a rebound, was fighting with somebody [for it], and of course he's there around the ball," said Lower, who lives in Roanoke. "My elbow just drilled him right in the mouth.
"I found one of his teeth out there at midcourt in the center jump circle."
Marshall didn't miss a game, although he did don a face mask.
"We dug out an old mask from the wrestling room," Lower said.
'Dream come true'
Only one college coach was interested in Marshall, who earned All-Timesland honorable mention as a senior.
Marshall reaped a partial scholarship offer from Randolph-Macon, which was then an NCAA Division II team. The late Hal Nunnally, who was Randolph-Macon's coach, had come to a Cave Spring game to eye one of Marshall's teammates and left impressed with the Knights' point guard.
Marshall played for Randolph-Macon from 1981-85, before the Yellow Jackets dropped down to Division III. His parents moved to New Mexico while Marshall was in college.
Nunnally "developed discipline and toughness in a young, skinny kid from Roanoke," Marshall said.
During the course of his prep and college playing career, Marshall twice had teeth knocked out and twice had his nose broken.
According to Marshall, his wife considers this year's Wichita State team to be the one that most embodies him - because of its toughness.
Nunnally approached Marshall when he was a college junior and suggested Marshall join the staff when he graduated. Marshall took him up on the offer, serving as his assistant from 1985-87.
He then worked as an assistant at Belmont Abbey, College of Charleston and Marshall. He got his first head coaching job in 1998 at Big South member Winthrop.
He is in his sixth season with the Shockers, who were seeded only ninth in this year's NCAA field. But they have made the Final Four.
"It's just a dream come true for anyone who has come through the ranks of college basketball the way I have," Marshall said.
Marshall's old friends and former coaches will be pulling for him tonight.
Lower and Marshall have stayed in touch over the years, and attended each other's wedding. Before the NCAA tournament began, Lower emailed Marshall to let him know he was picking Wichita State to beat Pittsburgh in his bracket.
This week, Berry and Marshall emailed each other.
"He'd have been successful at anything he tried," Berry said. "He was a smart kid."
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