Liberty goes to head of class; Prep player of year has magic touch
It’s not surprising that Chicago schoolboy Marcus Liberty idolizes Magic Johnson.
Liberty, USA TODAY’s All-USA high school boys basketball player of the year, fits the mold cast by the Los Angeles Lakers superstar: a do-it-all performer with a center’s height (6-7) and a guard’s skills, an impact player capable of taking over any game with a dazzling show of offense.
“I want to be just like Magic,” says Liberty, a University of Illinois recruit. “I watched him when I was little and patterned myself after him, on and off the court. He’s a team leader, a complete player.”
Liberty lived up to his preseason acclaim as USA TODAY’s best high school senior, averaging 27.7 points and 12 rebounds. “I think he could be drafted for the pros right now,” said Landon Cox, Liberty’s coach at Martin Luther King High, which went 28-6 this season and reached the state Class AA final. “He’s a winner.”
Success has focused profuse attention: Liberty’s picture in Sports Illustrated, an appearance on Good Morning America, all-star game appearances and national honors.
And praise of experts such as ESPN and ABC-TV analyst Dick Vitale: “He’s the best player in the nation, flat-out and nobody else even close. I sometimes get carried away, but the comparisons to Magic Johnson aren’t unreasonable. He’s got the great versatility, the ability to play inside or outside.”
But Liberty also is an 18-year-old who loves pizza, listens to rap music at home with his two brothers and sister, wants to study computers in college and stays up late “talking about everything” with his mother.
“If you met Marcus, you’d never guess he was a basketball player from the way he acts … though his height would probably be a tipoff,” Cox said.
“All the attention hasn’t changed him much,” said his mother, Celestine. “If I can see he’s getting off too far, telling me he `knows’ he’s going to make the pros, I just tell him to get his feet back on the ground. There’s more to life than basketball.”
Like academics, the one thing that might keep Liberty out of an Illinois uniform next season. He took the American College Test Saturday in an effort to meet the NCAA’s Proposal 48 requirements. His performance on that test – not on the court – will determine his collegiate eligibility for next season.
“We’re all getting a little tired of talking about that,” Cox said. “I think he will be eligible. He’s been close when he’s taken the test previously. But if he doesn’t make the requirement, he’s still going to Illinois.”
One of Liberty’s former teammates, University of Cincinnati freshman Levertis Robinson, was a Proposal 48 casualty this season. “Marcus won’t suffer if he has to miss a season,” Robinson said. “He’s disciplined and patient. His time will come.”
Success on the court never has been a problem. Liberty’s freshman year, he led Crane to the city freshman-sophomore title. He then transferred to city powerhouse King where, in his junior year, the team was state Class AA champion. This season, with two freshman starters, King reached the state final before losing 79-62 to East St. Louis Lincoln.
Liberty had 41 points in the loss, a tournament record matching his career-high in the 1987 city title game.
“I’ve watched Marcus for several years and he’s improved steadily,” Lincoln coach Bennie Lewis said. “Besides all of his athletic abilities, Marcus is a very nice young man. If you play against him, he plays hard, then when it’s over, he shakes your hand and smiles – win or lose.”
The pursuit of Liberty ended last November when he chose the Illini over Syracuse. “It was one of those situations where we didn’t know what might happen until the last minute,” Illinois coach Lou Henson said. “We had recruited him longer and harder than anybody.”
Liberty said he opted for Illinois “because I wanted to be close to my home. I wanted to make it easier for my mother, two brothers and sister to be able to see me play.”
Said his mother: “Marcus will be fine away from home, as long as he can fine a phone to call me when he needs somebody to talk to.”
Like many Illini fans, Liberty suffered when they lost to Austin Peay 68-67 in the first round of the NCAA tournament. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so shocked,” he said. “I’m going to be additionally motivated at Illinois to get into the NCAA playoffs in my first season.”
Signing Liberty assured Illinois of a successful recruiting season. “He’s got a great range of skills at 6-7. Power forward, small forward, on the perimeter … he can play it all,” said Henson, whose program depends on keeping top players in-state.
Liberty boosted his stock in two recent national all-star games:
-Dapper Dan, Pittsburgh, April 4: Game-high 24 points in West’s 110-99 win. Made 11 of 18 field goal attempts. Added six rebounds and five steals. Named team’s most valuable player.
-McDonald’s All American, Philadelphia, April 12: Team-high 18 points in 118-110 West loss. Made eight of 13 field-goal attempts.
“The all-star games were great, because you get to work with so many good players … you might never see that much talent on the floor at one time in a college game,” Liberty said.
Playing among the best, Liberty firmly established himself as the class of the current senior class.
“After watching those two performances, there was no question in my mind he’s the best,” said Vitale, analyst for Saturday’s replay broadcast of the Dapper Dan game (ESPN, 2:30 p.m. EDT). “He’s got the great skills, the great poise.”
For much of the season, basketball scout Bob Gibbons rated 6-7 Dennis Scott of Oakton (Va.) Flint Hill the USA’s No. 1 player. “But after seeing them both in the all-star environment, I’ve got to say that Liberty is the No. 1 player,” Gibbons said. “I’ve watched him since he was a sophomore. I was one of his critics, but he’s met every challenge.”
Scott, another All-USA performer, is Naismith national player of the year. For much of the McDonald’s game, Scott and Liberty defended each other. Scott scored 10 points.
“Liberty is an extraordinary athlete, maybe the best pure athlete in the country,” said Buzz Peterson, a former University of North Carolina player who scouts for Gibbons.
Said Henson: “The key to how he impacts upon our team will be his progress with defense and rebounding. If he does, he’ll fit in quickly.”
Liberty, too, sees room for improvement. “There’s a lot of finesse to be added to my skills, and I’m convinced coach Henson will provide that with his teaching ability.”
Oddly, Liberty was slow warming to the sport. “He didn’t have much interest in the game until maybe the eighth grade,” said his brother, Edgar, 21. “He would see us playing and he’d just watch. But he learned from us and caught on pretty quick.”
As a freshman, Liberty was looking eye-to-eye with his oldest brother, 6-3. “He wasn’t a big baby, but once he started growing he just kept getting bigger,” his mother said.
Said Robinson, who played with Liberty for two seasons: “From the very start, I could tell he was going to be a great one. When he makes up his mind to do something, that’s it. There’s a lot of talent there.”
The Libertys all still live at home, and still get together for family pick-up games. Brother Darryl, 20, attends Malcolm X Junior College in Chicago. Sister Deanna, 17 this week, graduates with Marcus in June.
If family games were the crucible for Liberty’s development, he polished his game in Chicago’s legendary summer leagues. “A kid like Marcus plays basketball year-round,” Gibbons said. “He probably played 80 games last summer. That experience shows.”
In the summer of 1984, Liberty got to know Ben Wilson, the Chicago Simeon star who was the USA’s best player at that time. “Playing against Ben Wilson was something I’ll never forget,” Liberty said. “Everybody looked up to Ben.”
On Nov. 17, 1984, Wilson was shot to death near Simeon. “It’s a shame he had to be wasted the way he was,” Liberty said. “It’s something you can’t erase from your mind.”
Just like Liberty can’t erase his dreams of success: an NCAA title for Illinois and a pro career, “maybe even in the same backcourt with Magic. That would be the best.”
Contributing: Bob Glass, Chicago
CUTLINE: FANS OF EACH OTHER: Marcus Liberty at home in Chicago with his mother, Celestine.
CUTLINE: STAR OF STARS: All-star games, like the one April 12 at Philadelphia, gave Marcus Liberty the chance to test himself against the best, including All-USA player Dennis Scott.