He was known as “The Human Eraser” during an All-America career at Morgan (Md.) State and 11 NBA seasons, most of which were spent with the New York Knicks, but 7-foot shot-blocking center Marvin Webster Sr. surely knows some marks on the slate can’t be wiped clean.
Such as the time he missed spending with his child, the one who wore his size and his name with pride, if a bit of discomfort. There is only so much bonding a father and a son can do when the father isn’t around much.
“We’re not as close as I’d like to be,” Marvin Webster Jr. said last year when asked about his relationship with Marvin Sr., who resides in Irving, N.J. “I want to get closer, to sit down and really talk with him.”
Marvin Jr., the 6-11 sophomore-to-be who figured to be the starting center for the Temple Owls basketball team this season, was laid to rest Monday at Lakeview Memorial Park, four days after he died, six days after he suffered a massive heart attack on Aug. 12. Academically ineligible as a freshman, the 1996 graduate of Greensboro’s Ben L. Smith High School never scored a point, grabbed a rebound or swatted away a shot as a college player.
Which is not to say he didn’t have a profound effect on most of those who came into contact with him. Marvin Jr., affable and courteous, had a way of growing on people.
“Marvin was with us but a short time, but you didn’t need to be around him long to be affected by that smile, by one ‘Yes, sir’ or ‘No, sir,”’ Temple coach John Chaney, still showing the effects of walking pneumonia, said before the memorial service at the Smith auditorium. “If every youngster could learn to create a positive lifestyle for himself, like Marvin was attempting to do, we’d have a better world. I would love to have a team full of Marvin Websters.”
During their one year together, Chaney and Marvin Jr. spoke nearly daily to each other and developed a relationship that seemed more like father and son than coach and player. Perhaps there was a reason for that. Male role models are where you find them, and Marvin Jr. learned action posters of your dad are a poor substitute for the real thing.
Marvin Sr., 46, close to tears and leaning on friends a foot or more shorter than himself, might have traded some of the awards and acclaim he earned during his playing career for one more conversation with Marvin Jr., who was six weeks shy of his 19th birthday when his heart failed him. The older man might have said something about the pressures that come with fame, wealth and privilege, how they can drive a wedge between those who desperately want to care for each other, but don’t know how.
Marvin Jr., for the most part, was raised by his maternal grandparents, Helburn “Bud” and Frances Meadows, after Marvin Sr. and his wife, Mederia Meadows Webster, divorced. By all accounts, the dissolution of the marriage was less than amicable; in trundling off Marvin Jr., then a sixth-grader, to live with her parents, Mederia told them to “raise him like you raised me.”
Bud and Frances tried their best. Bud, a former coach, was the disciplinarian; Frances the loving, nurturing hand. Together, they instilled in Marvin Jr. a respect for all things proper.
“They were hard on me,” Marvin Jr. said in an interview with the Greensboro News & Record. “They had some rules, and they weren’t going to change.
“(Bud) used to tell me about things I’d run into (in life). It wasn’t until later, when we got closer, that I began to understand what he was saying.”
How well did the lessons take? Well, Howard Stewart, who spoke at Monday’s memorial service, took note of a 6-9, 260-pound area teenager, an outstanding athlete, who was arrested with 150 grams of crack cocaine in his possession. That young man, Stewart noted, is looking at a minimum of 10 years in the penitentiary, away from his family.
“As far as we know, (Marvin Jr.) never saw a police station or a courthouse,” Stewart said. “He was a beautiful person.”
Bud Meadows apparently never forgave Marvin Sr. for the divorce or the effect it had on Mederia, who died of a heart attack in 1992. Those close to the family say he did not go out of his way to encourage contact between his estranged former son-in-law and his grandson.
Still, Marvin Jr. wanted to keep alive some semblance of a relationship with his father, even if it was largely an illusion. Among his most prized possessions were the pencils with the oversized erasers Morgan State issued during Marvin Sr.’s collegiate heyday. They are, at least to those interested in such things, collector’s items.
Chaney, who has brought structure to the lives of more than a few kids, understood what Marvin Jr. needed. Whenever Marvin Jr. was having difficulty in class, which was often during his academically challenging freshman year, he would bring him into his office and listen in as he reported the latest transgression to Bud on the telephone.
“One day, Bud just said, ‘That’s it. Send him home. He can become a truck driver or whatever,”’ Chaney recalled. “I could hear Frances in the background saying, ‘Oh, Bud.’
“Marvin left the room, but he stuck his head right back in and said, ‘Coach, you know what? You’re just like my grandpa.”’
Chaney will take that as a compliment, every time. Because life isn’t about statistics, or even grades.
It’s about people. Marvin Nathaniel Webster Jr., whose too-brief life was celebrated here by 450 friends and relatives, is one person who won’t be forgotten soon.