Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Personal Account of Marvin Webster, Always Remembered as a Hero

I'm stunned and saddened. One of my all-time heroes has passed.

I just found out today that former Sonic Marvin Webster died this last Monday. You can find details
here, and here's a second article that expands on his illnesses that most likely contributed to his early passing here. Here's another article from the Baltimore Sun, the newspaper of Marvin's hometown, but I'd advise you to read that after this post if you want to hear good news first.

This is really upsetting.

For those who kept track of the Lenny Wilkens-led Sonics teams of the 1970s, you will know who Marvin "The Human Eraser" Webster is. While the best year of his career was with Seattle (1977-78), it was short-lived and only for one season. Ironically, his departure to New York in 1978 brought power forward Lonnie Shelton to the Sonics, who won the NBA title that following year.

But that's a little history that only a few in the general public are barely aware of, at best.

It really hurts to read the insensitive AP headlines (not surprisingly) that describe how he was found "in a hotel bathtub." Sure, it's true, but it's not like this guy died in the manner of Kurt Cobain...he actually struggled with health issues for most of his life (Hep A and B, I believe), including during his time as a basketball player. He also struggled, appears, with some unimaginable heartache.

Those at the AP show us once again how they have no soul and are interested in selling only newspapers. They'll never understand that these stories involve real people with meaningful lives and admirers who respect them.

I have a different story to tell about Marvin...something a bit more personal. Marvin Webster's one of my all-time heroes and one of the few people in this life that I've ever looked up to.

Uh, literally. As an eight year old kid I looked up to him...and up...and up...as he stood tall at 7'1"...

...but his character stood much taller. In an industry peppered with attitudes, infidelity, and domestic troubles, he was THE diamond in the rough.

Needless to say, they don't make them like Marvin anymore.

Marvin Webster was one of the good guys, and the consummate teammate. Totally selfless and kind. He gave to people, on and off the court, without any expectation of receiving. Putting aside what he accomplished as a pro hoops player, he represented the best of what society has to offer in terms of his off-the-court selflessness and citizenry.

In 1977 my family moved from Oregon back to their native Seattle when Dad switched jobs...and it just so happens that Marvin Webster and his lovely wife were our next door neighbors. It was a difficult year of adjustment for me, as I'd left behind some buddies in Oregon I had built some connections and rapport with, even at the ages of seven and eight. I didn't have any siblings, so I had to go out and seek companionship.

When my Dad figured out who was next door, he introduced himself. The families warmed up to each other and started spending time together.

It's hard to describe what it was like having Marvin next door...the only way I can describe it was that IT WAS LIKE HAVING SUPERMAN NEXT DOOR, LITERALLY...with a uniform and all. Except this Superman didn't wear a cape and tights, he wore a MUCH cooler uniform...and proudly wore #40.

In my world, #40 belongs to Marvin...the way #42 belongs to Jackie Robinson and #3 belongs to the Babe.

We got to know t
he Websters; Marvin, Maderia, and Marvin Jr. while in utero (she carried him for most of her term in Seattle)...they were very approachable, gentle, and kind. Our two families spent time together and went out to dinner. It was a relaxed hang...nothing was ever forced. We were brought into the Sonics community and spent many days at basketball games sitting with the player's wives under one end of the court.

I developed a personal relationship with Marvin, and his presence served as a guiding light through the difficult adjustments I was making from being the new kid on the block. He wasn't a father yet, so he was able to spend some time and gave me attention. I even opened a Christmas gift from him; an illuminated tracing table is what I recall. I'd stop by their house and visit him on his off days, when he was usually lying diagnolly in their king-size bed resting watching television ~ because that's the only way his long frame would fit on it.

My most memorable moment with Marvin occurred once when he was hosting a Sonics gathering at his home, and my folks were over there as part of it. It's come to be known as the "cherry Coke incident."

During the gathering, which took place one evening, Marvin offered to come next door and check in on me. In an effort to replicate what was known at the time as a "Roy Roger" (not sure if they're called that anymore), I had decided that I was going to attempt to make a cherry coke by melting a cherry life saver in the microwave oven in a bowl...I figured it would melt and I could just pour the contents into a glass full of Coke, right?

Sure...there's the developed and imaginative brain of a kid who's just turning nine.

Needless to say, the experiment failed. The bowl cracked in the microwave just as Marvin came by to see what was going on.

Welcom
e to signs of fatherhood, Marvin!

He helped me clean up the mess, and I had to settle for a Coke without the cherry in it. My folk's stories have echoed that Marvin went back to the party and entered the room full of Sonics and partygoers, shaking his head. When he explained what had just happened next door, apparently everyone was in stitches and kid antics were one of the focal points of discussions the rest of the night.

The Cinderella story of that year, Marvin and his teammates came within one game of the NBA championship in 1978, when they lost at home in Game 7 to Washington's team, which was then called the Bullets.

Later that same year, we had a heartbreaking day when Marvin and his wife packed their things and left for New York. I remember it vividly; waving goodbye to my hero. I quickly learned one of the ugly sides of the sports business ~ that being traded and moving onto other teams is no fun for some of us ~ notably a young nine year old fan.

Ironically, the Sonics won the NBA Title the following year...but IMO Marvin deserved a ring as much as some of the other fellas, as his emergence the year before ~ along with the great coaching of Lenny ~ gave the team the confidence and momentum they carried all the way to the '79 title.

The Sonics teams from 1977-80 are mostly forgotten due to the emergence of Bird and Magic, and then Jordan, that came afterward.

Since 1979, the Sonics never won another title, though they came close in the 1990s during the Michael Jordan years and the Bulls' reign. The team has since relocated to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder.

Now Marvin Webster, one of my all-time heroes, has passed...and way too young at 56. How Marvin carried himself outside of the game, his great character, and the impact he had on other lives won't be forgotten...certainly not to this nine year old kid.

The ripple effect of his inspiration and kindness is what helped propel my own involvement as a basketball player. It's part of what inspired my father to coach hoops.

Marvin was a hero in every imaginable way someone can be a hero. He was quiet and humble. He spent time, cared for, and related to the little guy...the little kid next door...and that was only the beginning ~ didn't end there.

He showed up at birthday parties. He freely and gladly gave autographs to my friends. He checked on me as a babysitter would. We laughed together and were silly. I greeted him at the airport when he came back from a road trip, and then drove home with him. I hung out with him on off days. I sometimes wonder if it was real or just a dream.

That was my time with Superman.

The last time we spoke was when he came back into town when he was with the Knicks, 3-4 years later, when I was starting Junior High and entering my teens. He called the house and asked to speak with me on the phone...the conversation went something like this:

Me: "Hey Marvin."

Marvin: "Wow! Listen to you! You're starting to sound like a man!"

Me: (embarrassed) "Oh no, not really. How are things going with the Knicks?"

Marvin: "Well they could be better. It's been a tough season."

Me: "Yeah, it's tough for the team here too...not like the old days. I miss you."

Marvin: "I miss you too."

The conversation from there is spotty, but it continued for a little more.

I just wish I'd had the opportunity to speak with him again...I had thought of trying to reconnect with him online, but didn't know where to start. I wish I could have told him some of these things in person...and reading his comment at the very end of the article this post is linked to only breaks my heart even more.

I have a pair of old John Wooden special edition basketball shoes that he gave me as he was leaving for New York. I wore them for the first two seasons I played basketball...as a shot-blocking center in 4th and 5th grade.

Boy was he a cool fella. Marvin, you are remembered, and cross my mind every other day at the very least. Thank you. You'll be sorely missed.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

As a family member, I really appriciate your story. Thank you so much for your thoughts.

Sweva said...

Great to hear from you...my deepest condolences. I'd really like to know where to send flowers and where any memorial service will be held...feel free to post here or contact me offline at Sweva@inbox.com.

Sweva said...

It's been a really hard week in our camp...we didn't know about Maderia and her passing in 1992 until just this last week when I was looking through various reports on Marvin. My family had operated under the assumption that she was still alive, as we had no reason to think otherwise.

This has been a really sad, horrible week, but I know it will be triumphed by the great memories I have of Marvin, his family, and the great man that he was.

Kim said...

This is such a beautiful tribute. Your happy and real memories of him will live far beyond any negativity that media organizations choose to put out there. My deepest condolences to you, his family, and everyone else his life touched.

Sweva said...

Thanks so much Kimmy...for your support and your kind words.

Alex Benchimol said...

This is a wonderful tribute; really moving and sincere. When I read the NY Times obituary at the time of his death it brought back a flood of memories, as he was a hero of mine as well that great Sonics season of 77-78. I was then an eight year old growing up in Phoenix, Arizona and fan of the Sonics and the gentle giant who led them. When I found out we shard a birthday I was really excited. When he was traded to the Knicks, and they were visting Phoenix, I would come to the Suns game early and remember a kind wink from him. I will never forget him and thanks to your tribute will treasure my own childhood memories of the man. I now live in Glasgow, Scotland half a world away but my childhood image of the Gentle Giant persists.

Sweva said...

Alex! Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving your wonderful comments....wow. A Sonics fan in Phx during the Westphal/Alvin Adams era? You were brave! You also know how to pick 'em well, appreciating Marvin. As you said, he was truly a gentle giant....and knowing him the way I did, that wink he sent your way probably had more thought and intended purpose than you'll ever realize. Marv knew and respected the responsibility he carried with him when it came to how young people looked up to him. Thanks again for stopping by.

Ben Anderson said...

Marvin was an amazing player. I was only 10 years old the year they made it to the World Championship. I remember staying up to watch the replays of the games that were on the weekdays because the NBA in those days wasn't overly popular. My heroes were Dennis Johnson, Gus Williams, and Freddie Brown. I had the privilege to meet many of them the season following their World Championship in 1979 in Spokane,WA in an Exhibition game against Bill Walton and the San Diego Clippers. The Seattle Supersonics have always been my team. I was born in Seattle, but adopted as a child. Thank you for sharing your memories of such a great man. The "Human Eraser" was an amazing man who passed way too early in life.