BY NEIL HAYES
Marcus Liberty is not bitter. He wants to make that clear. The former King and Illinois star is living in Sarasota, Florida, near best friend and former Illini teammate Nick Anderson, and the temperature was a balmy 65 degrees earlier this week when folks in Chicago were still digging out from the fifth-worst snowstorm in city history.
Did I mention he’s engaged?
He does think his alma mater is missing an opportunity, however. He doesn’t understand why homegrown stars such as Derrick Rose, Anthony Davis, Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor give so little consideration to Illinois before deciding to go elsewhere.
He believes that if former players such as himself, Anderson, Kenny Battle, Derek Harper, Eddie Johnson, Ken Norman and Kendall Gill, just to name a few, felt more welcome in Champaign, it could make a big difference.
“I’ve been invited back but only recently,” Liberty said. “My point is that so many great athletes helped make that university great that kids need to understand who went there. I just don’t think they’re reaching out as much as they should. A lot of the parents from Chicago who are now older and have kids remember us. We all came up in the same era. When you got to North Carolina or Kentucky, you see a slew of former players. Where’s the family, the togetherness?”
Liberty remains close to former Illini and current Kansas coach Bill Self. He spoke with current Illini coach John Groce about life and basketball before the season began.
“I know John Groce has reached out to a lot of us, and he’s trying to do the best he can, but it falls to the people that are over him,” Liberty said.
It’s not as if Battle and other former players don’t visit Assembly Hall, and it’s not as if Anderson and Liberty would be frequent guests with their lives unfolding in Florida, where Anderson is a community ambassador for the Orlando Magic. Anderson was that franchise’s inaugural draft pick and remains its all-time leading scorer.
Illinois spokesman Kent Brown said a former player has never been declined an opportunity to attend a game, home or away.
“Guys from that era include some of the greatest players and most popular and successful teams, and we’d love to have them back at our games and around our players,” Brown said.
Liberty is coaching basketball at a private school in Sarasota. His pupils include three of ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale’s grandchildren and Chicago phenom Jaylin Fleming.
He also hosts camps and offers private lessons.
“Dick Vitale has been a good friend of mine since high school,” Liberty said. “He has opened a lot of doors for me here in Sarasota.”
It’s not as if Liberty’s college career had a fairy-tale ending, with then-Iowa assistant Bruce Pearl reporting recruiting violations to the NCAA, including his claim that Liberty received $75,000 and a car from Illinois and that fellow recruit Deon Thomas had a similar deal.
Both denied the allegations and played for then-coach Lou Henson. Liberty was a member of the 1988-89 “Flyin’ Illini” team that lost to Michigan in the Final Four. He played for the Denver Nuggets and Detroit Pistons in four NBA seasons.
The NCAA later penalized Illinois with recruiting sanctions and an NCAA ban in 1991.
“Iowa wasn’t even on my radar, so I don’t know why my name was mentioned because I was already committed to the University of Illinois,” Liberty said. “It’s mind-boggling to me that a coach would throw that out there to get a recruit like Deon Thomas, who is from Chicago and wanted to play in his hometown. I wound up leaving early because of the investigations and all that. I wanted to enjoy my senior year, but I couldn’t do that because everybody was asking questions about the investigations.”
Liberty said the talent in Florida doesn’t compare to the talent in Chicago, which he still considers a basketball hotbed. He just wishes more Chicago kids stayed home.
“It’s sad,’’ he said. ‘‘They don’t even think about the university anymore. [Out-of-state] colleges come in and tell the kids they need to get away from the crime and violence. A lot of kids buy into it and go elsewhere because they don’t want to be involved with the crime.”
Contact Neil Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org or at neilhayeswriter.com.