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Western Kentucky center now squarely in spotlight
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. -- Chris Marcus had no basketball aspirations when he accepted a scholarship from Western Kentucky.
"I was mainly just looking to maybe grab a rebound here or there, block a shot or something. I was just using it as a tool for an education," said Marcus, a senior sociology major.
But basketball has turned into a lot more than that.
The 7-foot-1, 285-pound Marcus is being touted as one of the top centers in the country after leading the nation in rebounds with 12 per game last season. He started this season with a double-double, scoring 13 points and adding 10 rebounds in Western Kentucky's 64-52 upset victory over No. 4 Kentucky recently. He has led the 4-0 Hilltoppers to a No. 21 national ranking after they began the season unranked.
Marcus' size alone would've probably made him a first-round draft choice in last year's NBA draft, but he decided to come back for his senior season.
An education is still the priority for Marcus, the sixth of seven children. His five older siblings have earned college degrees ahead of him.
"My mom just wanted me to get my degree. All the stuff dealing with basketball has been a blessing," he said.
Marcus stayed in Bowling Green this summer to take a statistics class he needed to graduate on schedule next May. He also worked at a local accounting firm for two hours a day and squeezed in a little training for this basketball season -- lifting weights, improving his footwork and shooting 1,000 jump hooks a day.
He was an honorable mention AP All-American after last season, but staying busy this summer shielded him from the groundswell of media attention, said his coach, Dennis Felton.
"It hasn't overwhelmed him at all, because he doesn't engage in it," said Felton. "He's smart enough to know the hype around him has nothing to do with reality.
"He's become an All-American the old-fashioned way. We didn't kick-start any propaganda machine for him. We don't play on national TV nearly as much as other All-Americans. He's done it purely on performance.
"He might be the only player in the country who's done it that way."
Still, Marcus admits granting about 50 interview requests this summer and hearing his name mentioned with the top college players in the country takes some getting used to.
"If you had asked me when I first got here if I would've known a couple of years from now that I'd be an All-American, I would've said, 'Not in my wildest dreams,"' he said.
Marcus didn't play organized basketball until the summer before his senior year at Olympic High School in Charlotte, N.C. He spurted to 6-11 that summer and was using his height for more practical things while working as a shelver at Wal-Mart.
"They had a lot of high shelves in the pet department. I'd stack dog food between the fish tanks," Marcus said. "People would come into the pet department and bring me to another department and say, 'Hey, can you get that off the shelves for me?"'
Marcus averaged only eight points and nine rebounds in his only season at Olympic, and few schools took notice. Felton, then an assistant at nearby Clemson, did.
The 34-year-old Felton was off to Western Kentucky by the spring of 1998, and Marcus followed him.
"He was one of the college coaches who kept up with my progress," Marcus said. "A lot of coaches will send you a letter, and you won't hear from them for months. He kept calling.
"He wasn't really talking about basketball. He was talking more about what I could get from playing basketball, like an education."
Felton said Marcus' late arrival on the college basketball radar is helping him now.
"Most other players at his level had people giving them reasons to think about NBA dreams years ago," he said. "He's probably still in a little bit of disbelief. That makes it easier for him to be patient, because, until now, he's never had to deal with those kinds of expectations."
Marcus is in no hurry to see it end.
"I like college. I like having fun and I want to get my degree," he said. "(The NBA) was there last year, it will be there this year."