Marcus Denmon - Heartbreak and Hope
The ballgame was tied, the final seconds of overtime ticking down, and Marcus Denmon was trying to make a play with a broken heart. The cousin he loved like a brother had died the day before, a victim of gang crossfire.
The homicide made headlines, it was all over TV, and now he faced the crossfire of anguish and adrenaline, a nightmare pressing in, the will to win pushing out, 11,168 fans filling Mizzou Arena with thunderous sound.
Denmon isn't sure how he played through the pressure. But what happened next tells you something about the inner strength of the Spurs lone 2012 draft pick: He won the game.
On the evening of Dec. 8, 2010, visiting Vanderbilt and 11th-ranked Missouri were knotted at 82. With 8.4 seconds left in overtime, the Commodore's Brad Tinsley threw a pass to Jeffrey Taylor to set up a final shot. Denmon, a 6-3 guard, swooped in and deflected the pass. He secured the ball, made a contested layup, got fouled and converted the free throw.
A year and a half later, Denmon is sitting in the Spurs practice facility, recalling the details of a defining night. The shot, the steal and the celebration remain glimmers in a fog of pain. The lips do not curl into a smile as he explains the final sequence. They move matter-of-factly, as if recounting a play in a pickup game, his voice soft, eyes staring into space.
"I knew they were going to get the ball to one of their better players -- Jeff Taylor -- so I asked coach if I could guard him," Denmon says. "I ended up getting the steal."
The game did not begin well for Denmon. He shot poorly in the first half and scored two points. He lacked intensity. He couldn't focus. "I was trying to get my head in the game," he says. "I tried not to think about it but it was hard not think about it."
Marion and Marcus Denmon were closer than most cousins. They shared a last name, grew up in the same house and were raised by the same grandmother, Bertha Denmon, in Kansas City, Mo. They were born months apart -- Marcus came first -- and shared a love for hoops and a deep admiration for Bertha, an angel with a heart bigger than her house.
Her home was a dropoff for children in need. Marcus says Bertha raised 15, 16 maybe more -- six of her own, plus nephews, nieces, cousins and grandkids -- and three of them became Division I ballplayers. Martane Freeman -- Marcus' older brother -- played at Colorado. Martinez Denmon -- one of Bertha's sons -- played at Iowa State and was drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1973.
Then there was Marcus, the toughest to raise. He struggled academically in high school, was ruled ineligible as a sophomore and transferred. Marcus admits he was the most challenging of the clan, but he could be thoughtful.
On Feb. 14, 2009, as Bertha watched him play against Nebraska on TV, someone came to her door. When she answered, there was a bouquet of roses. While Marcus was dropping 10 points on the Cornhuskers, he had a Valentine's Day gift delivered for Bertha.
"She's the heart and soul of the family," he says. "She took me in when I was 1 and raised me."
Less than two years later, after arriving from a road trip, his cell phone began buzzing with text messages. "It was shocking news," he says. Marion, 20, and a friend were riding in a car that got caught in rolling gunfire between two vehicles. He died from his injuries days later.
The funeral did not bring comfort. As Marcus mourned in the front row of Macedonia Baptist Church, two vehicles screamed around the corner, gunmen inside firing at the church door. People scattered, some scurrying for safety, others giving chase after the cars and returning fire.
Marcus? He didn't move. "You could hear the shots loud and clear," he says. "I saw a lot of people panicking, but I didn't pay it much mind. I was just focused on the service."
The spray of gunfire echoes today. A cousin dead. A funeral disrupted. Police sirens wailing. Teammates and coaches trying to console him in the madness. Marcus remembers it all. He also remembers this: He had to play Vanderbilt, broken heart and all.
"Right before the game," he says, "I figured he would have wanted me to play. So I did."
The decision startled Missouri coach Mike Anderson. "I was surprised that he came back," Anderson told ESPN reporter Andy Katz. "I could tell he had a heavy heart."
The heaviness lifted after the overtime steal and layup. Marcus pumped a fist, chest bumped a teammate and calmly sank his free throw. Then, after Vanderbilt's last second shot hit iron, he walked off the court and back into the horror. The body went through the motions of victory -- hugging teammates, accepting congratulations -- but the mind took flight.
"After the game, it was right back to being my focus," he says. "I was trying not to think about it but continually thinking about it."
The pain lingers but hope rises. After Marion died, Marcus got tougher and improved his game. He averaged 17.7 points as a senior, led Missouri to its second Big 12 Conference Tournament championship and landed with a model NBA franchise.
Tragedy made Marcus grow up. "It was something I had to learn from, move on from and become a stronger, better person," he says.
He rises from his seat in the Spurs practice facility, a media cluster waiting for him in the corner of the gym. He walks into his future, eyes growing wet, Marion's memory all over him. For Marcus, this now inspires as does the tattoo on his wrist.
The marking -- "FBL" -- is a reminder of Bertha, the children she raised and the spirit of her home: "Family by love."