When the world stopped trying to squeeze Chris Marcus into the box he would never fit in, the gentle giant finally wrote his own story.
He never asked for the spotlight at Western Kentucky. He never asked to be 7-foot-1. He never accepted basketball as his definition. And yet, if it weren’t for all of those elements leading to his darkest days and the constant questions that will never be answered, Chris Marcus might never have truly found Chris Marcus.
Go ahead, Google him.
What you’ll find now is that Chris Marcus died Thursday at the age of 40 at home in Charlotte, N.C. Just before watching the NFL draft and talking with his brother, Michael, about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ newly assumed contention in the NFC South, Chris Marcus had trouble breathing. He passed away hours later from a pulmonary embolism.
The family will have a private memorial for him soon with a public service planned for December, his birth month.
As far as what’s known about Marcus from the time injury and alcohol ended his basketball career to his death last week, that much was mostly unknown, just like Marcus.
For the last 15 years, virtually any knowledge about Marcus came from archived information about a man who became mythical. One of the last stories written documents how the sure-fire NBA lottery pick had his career derailed by a foot injury that led to an alcohol addiction from which he quickly recovered.
So, what ever happened to Chris Marcus? Did he find fulfillment beyond what others were writing for him? That remained unknown. WKU teammates from 1999-2003 like Mike Wells and David Boyden hadn’t heard from him in years. Coaches during his career had no idea either.
Once they found out, it all made sense. They received closure on the one who was closed.
“I could see that,” Wells said.
“I think it was the perfect profession for his mentality,” Boyden said.
“I’m really happy to hear that,” former assistant Bert Tucker said. “It sounds like he was able to find peace within his process.”
“That makes me feel a lot better about the whole scene, the whole life of Chris,” former assistant Pete Herrmann said.
And then there’s Dennis Felton, who discovered him: “Not many people know, just because he didn’t broadcast it and he’s not very accessible. He had built a life for himself.”
This is what happened to Chris Marcus.
If you were to ever find Chris Marcus outside of work, he was probably watching Marvel movies, playing video games, embracing hot takes on sports or schooling his nieces and nephews in a driveway hoops session. He became the caretaker for his mother when his father died in 2008. That alone helped Marcus, who never married or had children, become the man of a house and continue his fight to remain sober.
He was a residential counselor for children with disabilities or behavioral issues. In between two counseling jobs since he went off the grid 15 years ago, he took a stab at cabinetry work before realizing, once again, his mind was stronger than his body.
Marcus was the giant who children looked up to in every sense. Nearly two decades after this giant was crushing college basketball powerhouses like Kentucky and Louisville and was featured on the cover of national magazines, Marcus’ biggest strength was connecting with minds like his own.
“Chris could just meet them at a certain level,” his brother Michael said. “From video games to the debating of all kinds, he always took the route against the masses. Everyone would go left and Chris was trying to go right.”
Boyden wasn’t at all surprised Marcus found his calling working with children. The mind of a child doesn’t care that Marcus was one decision away from cashing in on millions in professional basketball. It matters not one bit that he led the NCAA in rebounding in a former life.
“I remember having this conversation,” recalled Boyden, now an assistant coach at Radford. “He said, ‘When I talk to adults, they only talk to me because I’m Chris Marcus the player and they want something. They want an autograph and want to ask how tall I am. When I talk to kids, they don’t want anything but to talk and it could be about basketball or something silly kids talk about.’
“He could identify and help mold, and I think being helpful to those kids and try to better their situations with at-risk or what have you, it makes beautifully perfect sense.”
The tallest man in the arena identified most with the smallest. Measuring at 7-feet is a mental mile from 6-foot-11, and Marcus battled insecurities of that 7-foot-1 status. It served more as a curse than the path to fame he never wanted. There’s no normal social acceptance for humans of that size. It mostly comes with assumptions of basketball excellence or circus routines. The height never matched what was inside Marcus, ever the introvert, but also the kindest of souls, according to those he allowed into his insecure mind.
That’s why his interactions with the youth felt natural.
“When we had camps at Western, he always interacted with the kids,” Wells said. “We’d do demonstrations and he was good with kids. He liked playing with kids and he had fun with them. He knew how to interact with them.”
Even when Marcus was demanding attention by blocking shots, soaking in rebounds and draining impossible-to-guard turnaround jumpers, his internal satisfaction came when the arenas were empty. The smaller his circle, the better.
When Marcus was offered a promotion to a directorial position with the consulting firm, he declined. Why oversee a staff of adults and programs when he finally had found his calling to work directly with kids?
One-on-one with children or small settings with his teammates is where Marcus peaked. Parties and large social gatherings were never a consideration for him at WKU – he’d rather watch a movie with his roommate Wells in their dorm room in Pearce Ford Tower. He fulfilled media obligations and presented thoughtful, well-spoken responses, but if it wasn’t required after a game, Marcus much preferred to slip out a back door instead of mingling with hundreds of fans.
“If he wasn’t with the players in his comfort zone, he’d rather be off talking to a 10-year-old,” Tucker said. “That’s absolutely Chris. For many people out there, their therapy is finding ways you can exorcise your personal and internal demons to help others. You have to love the process. For Chris, I’m really glad to hear that. It sounds like he was able to find peace within his process. Being in charge isn’t what he wanted. He wanted to stay in his lane.”
What Marcus internally wanted and what Marcus was given externally never truly matched. Tucker recalled one emotional night of Marcus questioning his own purpose.
Basketball wasn’t the goal, but it was the means to his end. It provided the scholarship for the sociology degree his parents, who had seven children, otherwise couldn’t afford. It gave him camaraderie with players like Wells, Boyden, Nashon McPherson and Nate Williams. Those are things he cared about. But shocking crowds at Freedom Hall and Rupp Arena, winning consecutive Sun Belt Conference Tournament championships? Those things meant very little.
Why would God give him, of all people, the 7-foot-1, 300-pound frame? An unrealistic expectation of basketball success comes for anyone of that ridiculous stature. Rather than Marcus living with the freedom of his own decisions, he felt everyone else making it for him. It was never his dream. He never asked for that.
“The Book of Chris has 40 chapters in it,” Michael Marcus said. “Basketball was only a portion of those chapters. Granted, it was a great portion of that and did develop a lot of who he is and who he was. … The turnaround came when he had something to offer to a younger generation. The change for him was when he saw he had something to offer to the younger kids. It couldn’t be pushed.”
To a new generation of Bowling Green natives with the label of “WKU graduate” who are now purchasing tickets to E.A. Diddle Arena, Chris Marcus is the jewel at the root of their Hilltopper fandom.
He’s the prize Felton drew out of a hat recruiting the halls of Olympic High School in Charlotte. Felton was an assistant at Clemson, there to recruit Calvin Clemmons and George Leach. He instead was prompted by coach David Davis to make a pitch to Marcus to even play organized basketball. True to his own beat, Marcus didn’t originally play simply because he just didn’t want to.
Marcus was at practice just days later and played for Davis as a senior. He followed Felton to WKU and redshirted his freshman season while Herrmann took his raw athletic talents and helped form a beast.
“He’s a guy if you were coaching in 10 minutes, you’d see improvement in 10 minutes,” Felton said. “He had so little experience playing the game that he was a blank slate. He didn’t have years of bad habits or preconceived notions on how to play the game built up in him. He was very open and trusting in that regard to try to do exactly what you were asking him to do as well as he could. He had innate talent at that size and incredible hands and touch.
“When you put that all together, he would improve faster than any player I had the chance to coach.”
His lack of ego made it even easier for Herrmann, who carried a resume of working with centers like David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal.
On his first day of practice in the fall of 1998, Herrmann put Marcus in the middle of the key with his left shoulder facing the rim, threw a ball too high to his right and made him push off his right foot for a jumper.
Marcus redshirted and then blew onto the scene in the 1999-2000 season, averaging 11.9 points and becoming the team’s leading rebounder of 9.5 points per game.
The he took off.
Felton recalls that December night against Denny Crum’s Cardinals at Freedom Hall as the game that changed everything for Marcus. Trailing at the half, WKU’s superstar exploded with emotion and energy with 20 points and 13 rebounds for his fifth double-double of the year and the win.
“That was a level of emotions from Chris he had never let loose before,” Felton said. “It was a turning point for him, a turning point for our team and we went on from there knowing we could eat and play with anybody in the country. Everybody on the team knew that big fella was a different guy that night.”
The profile of Marcus took off as he led WKU with 16.7 points per game and the entire country with 12.1 rebounds per contest. He was the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year in 2001 and the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, which came from a school-record 97 blocked shots that season.
“The ball went down there through Chris,” Wells said. “If you had a chance to throw there and you didn’t throw there, you’re coming out. I threw it in there.”
That carried over with offseason publicity that Felton strongly sought when rebuilding WKU’s program, and Marcus was the centerpiece of it all.
Yet, Marcus still maintained his identity. He was a figure in local elementary schools as kids’ first hint at the celebrity status of basketball. Children’s events at Diddle Arena featured cardboard cutouts and cemented handprints to maximize the larger-than-life image to a generation. The noise never altered Marcus’ actions. Even as much as asking for a ride from Wells, the roommate with a car, felt like a power move he wasn’t capable or worthy of requesting. So it wasn’t new for teammates to hear that Marcus walked to certain places in Bowling Green for a meal, even once as far as the Cracker Barrel six miles from campus.
The national attention led into WKU’s season opener against No. 4 Kentucky. Against Felton’s intentions, the narrative became not what the Hilltoppers could do against the Wildcats, but how Chris Marcus would perform in Rupp Arena. And this was a loaded Hilltoppers roster with Felton finally crafted of Marcus, Boyden, Wells, newcomer Patrick Sparks and captain Derek Robinson.
“I didn’t like it for Chris, in terms of the focus being what Chris could do at Rupp Arena,” Felton said. Marcus was central to WKU’s win in Lexington, despite dealing with the first stages of the foot injury from which he never truly recovered.
Labeled by most publications as a top 5 pick, Marcus only played 15 games that season as WKU went on to a 28-4 record and won another Sun Belt Conference Tournament title and finished ranked No. 19 in the AP poll. He played the first five games of that season before sitting out for the next 17. He returned to contribute in the tournament, then put off his plans to enter the NBA draft.
Doing that meant changing the scene, and Bowling Green was his home away from the only other place he knew in North Carolina. He earned his degree and had offseason surgery for a stress fracture, but Marcus was never the same.
“It was scary,” Boyden said. “When we’re all young, you always feel bulletproof to a certain extent. With him, he was our Superman. He was the baddest dude on the planet as far as we were concerned, in college basketball. Then you see him almost crippling himself to a certain extent.”
Having never experienced the pain, Marcus coped with drinking. He withdrew from school in February and moved back home to Charlotte. He played just 19 games in his last two seasons, finishing with 1,113 points, 795 rebounds and 214 blocks. Only Jeremy Evans has more blocks, and his 224 swats came in twice as many games as Marcus ever played. Without a final year to lean on for NBA scouts, Marcus felt the pressure even more. He leaned into a drink to ease the pain.
“It frustrated him and depressed him, without a doubt,” Felton said. “He went from a guy whose performance level and ability had taken off like a rocket. Then all of a sudden, that was taken away.”
The NBA still called even after he moved back home. The Denver Nuggets brought him in for training camp before the 2003 season, but the bottle had consumed him. He missed a team meeting and was back in Charlotte. By 25, the riches of basketball for Marcus were gone.
“We all feel like Chris could’ve been retiring from the NBA in the last five years,” Boyden said. “We all think he could’ve and should’ve had a tremendous NBA career and was a 10-year veteran kind of guy. We all get sad when we think about what could’ve been.”
Chris Marcus disappeared.
When WKU honored him as part of the All-Century team in 2018, it took months, maybe even a year, for the university to find an address to mail him an award honoring him as one of the best to ever wear a Hilltopper uniform.
Felton tried to contact him as best he could. Teammates would call, but there was no answer.
That’s Chris, his brother would say. Michael would call him at times and Chris would be uninterested in talking not because he didn’t love his brother, but he was watching a movie.
“If he didn’t want to talk, he didn’t want to talk,” Michael said. “When he did want to talk, it was a good relationship.”
Tucker, Robinson, Wells and McPherson once had a text thread talking about meeting at Tucker’s home in Atlanta and driving to Charlotte to search for Chris and surprise him. Nothing ever came of it.
Not being able to reestablish that relationship with Marcus still hits an emotional nerve with Herrmann.
“I tried to call him and couldn’t get him,” Herrmann said. “I called Nate Williams, who was near Raleigh. David Boyden was close with him and he couldn’t get a hold of him. We just never got back together again. That will bother me till I go, too. That has always bothered me.”
Boyden wonders if there’s a particular reason Marcus never returned to Bowling Green. Were there demons waiting for him? Did he let the people down? Would they actually throw a parade for the lost son?
Maybe Marcus needed distance from basketball. For a while in Charlotte, Michael said his brother couldn’t even watch it. The game took him to a dark place once, and anything triggering that mental flashback to a time of pain sends him to a coping mechanism he constantly battled.
For well over a decade, Eric Adelson’s piece in ESPN about Marcus’ sad ending to basketball is the only online information about his life after WKU. When it was published in July 2005, Marcus had been sober nearly a year. Just three days after his death, Michael Marcus said his brother remained active with Alcoholics Anonymous and stayed sober.
It was a victory that helped him ease back into basketball, but only as Uncle Chris. He limited his instruction to family, sometimes yelling commands at his nephew’s own practices.
“You play the way you practice,” Michael recalls his brother telling him. Michael’s daughter, Jessica, learned most of her post skills from Uncle Chris in the driveway. She went on to play four seasons at Georgia Southern until 2017.
Still the introvert, Chris Marcus allowed that competitive nature to leak from his brain, behind hair worn low that apparently grayed rather early. His instruction was intense, never letting the kids score easily.
“You know how you’d be in the driveway talking junk,” Michael said. “Chris would say, ‘You must not know who I am. You need to go Google me.’ He still had that there. There were moments of realness.”
Marcus passed up plenty of opportunities to coach in bigger settings. Herrmann started the Division II program Young Harris in north Georgia and asked Marcus to help specifically with his bigger players.
But he never showed up. Seeing Chris was even rarer than hearing from him.
“It’s been a long time,” Boyden said.
“Couple of years ago, maybe,” Wells said.
“I talked to him a few times and then I wouldn’t talk to him for a year,” Herrmann said.
Outside of Herrmann, Felton probably had the best connection to the gentle giant he discovered. Even for him, Marcus wasn’t accessible. Knowing the struggle was the same for everyone confirmed there wasn’t any animosity toward any associations in Bowling Green.
“Chris had built his professional and adult life around that career,” Felton said. “He was doing really, really well. … He had some opportunities to coach in a more formal basis and passed on them. Wanted to keep it close to home. It’s clear the things he was most passionate about and brought him most joy, was the kids he worked with. That’s what he’d been doing with himself since Western Kentucky.”
At last, they knew he wasn’t fighting. He was happy. He was just Chris.