Wednesday, April 8

Marvin Webster Dies at Age 56

Marvin Webster, RIPMarvin Webster - whose marvelous shot-blocking skills earned him the 70's-tastic nickname "The Human Eraser" - has passed away at age 56. (Reports here and here).

Webster, the uncle of Portland's Martell Webster (turns out that information, despite being reported in multiple locations is untrue), was found dead in his Tulsa hotel room early Saturday morning. Police said that foul play is not suspected, and that Webster's passing was likely health related.

Though the 7'1" center was an overlooked part of Sonics history, his lone season in Seattle was an exceptional one, especially when one considers his playoff numbers. Webster averaged 16 points, 13 rebounds and nearly 3 blocks a game over the course of 22 playoff contests, leading the Sonics to their inaugural appearance in the NBA Finals. While that series ended in a Game 7 loss to the Washington Bullets, it appeared as though the rain clouds hovering over the franchise were a thing of the past. Unfortunately, at the end of the season, Webster and Sonics owner Sam Schulman failed to reach a consensus on his contract demands, and the budding young star bid Seattle farewell and signed a lucrative (well, lucrative in 1978 NBA dollars) deal with the Knicks.

For a variety of reasons, Marvin Webster faded from the memory of Sonic fans, but for one brief season, he was an essential part of a fantastic team. How instrumental? Well, an article from the Wages of Wins Journal estimates that Webster contributed 15.7 win shares to the Sonics in 1977-78, nearly twice as many as the closest Sonic (that would be Gus Williams).

In a very sad way, though, Webster's career - and life - seems to have peaked at that moment in 1978, a fact he reflected upon later.

"I remember the locker room after the final game—how the champagne was on ice, guys with tears in their eyes," Webster told Sports Illustrated. "I loved being on that team. I had no idea I'd be gone so shortly."

As a young man who had led a team nearly single-handedly to the NBA Finals, and one of the top centers in the league, Webster had no trouble finding suitors, and he inked a five-year deal with the Knicks, seemingly poised for superstardom. The son of a Baptist preacher, Webster surely must have thought his prayers had been answered.

Instead, tendinitis and hepatitis (the latter an affliction he had suffered as a standout player in college) struck Webster down, and he never fully recovered. With health issues dogging him at every turn, the big man's life spiraled downward, resulting in bouts with depression and eventual departure from the league.

Divorce eventually followed, forcing Webster's son, Marvin Jr., to be raised by his maternal grandparents. But that wouldn't be the end of Marvin Sr.'s disappointments, as his son - a 6'11" center - enrolled as a prize recruit at Temple University, then died of a heart attack as a sophomore before ever playing a game.

It was a crippling blow to the now-retired Webster. Beset by all of this pain, and his failing health now further complicated by diabetes, you have to imagine that in the last decade of his life, Webster must have endlessly wondered how it all went wrong. It's an achingly painful story, one which ends with a former basketball star dying, alone, in the bathtub of a Tulsa hotel.

There are dozens of beautiful basketball stories, of players who overcame adversity to achieve greatness, of coaches and parents who give selflessly to help young men and women. It is those stories which draw us into the comforting life of a sports fan, and they sustain us when people such as David Stern and Clay Bennett stick their noses into our entertainment.

But the lying in wait on the flip side of those heartwarming stories are the stories of such men as Marvin Webster. Webster watched his career disappear, watched his marriage evaporate, watched his son die as a college sophomore, and then watched his health deteriorate to the point he died before reaching the age of 60.

In that same SI article, Webster mentioned Marvin Jr., who at that point was about to enroll at Temple. "They call him Eraser Jr.," Webster said. "One day he calls me up, says, 'Dad, everybody here knows who you are.' I smiled. Not all former athletes admit it, but I will. It's nice to be remembered."

Rest in peace, Marvin.


Andrew Small Jr said...

i remember Marvin and i went to school with Marvin Jr here in North Carolina. I still miss Marvin Jr. i will miss you both. when i saw this report last night it brought back so many memories that i had forgotten over the last decade. raising my own family and work, but i still remember the morning i found out Marvin Jr died, i cried like it was my own brother. at least they can be together now.

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