OMAHA, Neb. — Something was bothering Marcus Garrett. Jerrance Howard just knew it.
As qualified as anyone in the Kansas basketball program to spot an off day from the freshman guard, Howard has known Garrett for more than four years, dating back to his days recruiting the eventual four-star prospect out of Skyline High School in Dallas. All players have bad days, the assistant coach noted, but typically never in a setting this innocuous — the pair were heading to an area barber shop two weeks ago when Howard sensed something was wrong.
“He was kind of in daze,” Howard recalled Thursday ahead of the top-seeded Jayhawks’ Sweet 16 contest against No. 5 seed Clemson at 6:07 p.m. Friday at CenturyLink Center.
Never one to ignore a player’s body language, Howard confronted Garrett.
“You straight?” he asked.
Never one to give an inauthentic response, Garrett answered.
“Yeah, Coach,” the freshman guard said. “I’m still thinking about that loss.”
On the surface, a defeat sticking in the craw of a player isn’t a surprising occurrence. It’s an ideal response to adversity, really. What makes this particular story fascinating, though, is Garrett wasn’t talking about the Jayhawks’ 18-point defeat at Oklahoma State in the team’s regular-season finale, nor was he referring to a 16-point loss the month prior at Baylor, a program once neck-and-neck with KU in Garrett’s recruitment.
Both of those setbacks bothered the uber-competitive Garrett, sure, but neither was on his mind on that afternoon. In fact, the defeat he couldn’t stop thinking about didn’t even take place at KU.
No, the loss bothering Garrett was actually the final game of his high school career, a devastating 46-43 triple-overtime defeat to Cypress Falls (Houston) High School in the Texas Class 6A state semifinals at the Alamodome in San Antonio, nearly a year to the day of the recent barbershop visit. Down two in the final seconds, Garrett missed a pair of free-throw attempts and an ensuing putback try, a sequence that haunts him to this day.
“It was the worst loss I’ve ever had,” Garrett recently told The Capital-Journal. “Me and my friends, we waited our whole four years to win a state championship. Come to our senior year, we get to the state semis, we’re going triple overtime and lose by three. Just a heartbreaker.
“I think that one will stick with me forever.”
It was a bitter end to an otherwise sterling four years at Skyline, a memory in a journey full of life- and career-altering moments that made Garrett into the player KU fans see today. He’s a throwback of sorts, Howard said, and one of the most college-ready players in 15th-year coach Bill Self’s tenure when it comes to defense, activity level, fundamentals and doing “the little things.”
“When I say throwback, he’s all about winning. He doesn’t care about scoring,” Howard said. “With this team, I think he’s a perfect blend, because we’ve got older guys who can shoot and score the basketball. He comes in to find guys and just make it easy on everybody else.”
To understand Garrett’s road at Skyline, one must recognize two key figures in his development both as a player and as a man — a father figure from the same coaching tree as Self, and a no-nonsense geometry teacher.
• • •
Marcus Garrett knew he had something special at a young age — just not on the hardwood.
Coming of age in the Dallas area, Garrett wasn’t unlike many of his peers in that he tried his hand in a number of sports. Basketball, soccer and baseball all commanded his attention, but as so often is the case in The Lone Star State, the gridiron became king.
“What people don’t know is I was way better at football than I was at basketball,” Garrett said, “but in sixth grade I broke my right leg and I had surgery. My mind wasn’t there no more in football. I couldn’t be as aggressive as I wanted to be, because I was scared something might happen to my leg.”
Somewhat rudderless after his injury, Garrett received direction from a most trusted party.
Garrett’s uncle, Matt Watts, played two seasons at the collegiate level with San Diego State, averaging 13.7 points across 53 career games from 1997-99. Watts’ journey took him overseas before he returned to the Dallas area, where he became a mentor of sorts for Garrett. Around the time of Garrett’s football injury, Watts asked his nephew if he wanted to take basketball to the next level, and when Garrett affirmed, the two started working out every day.
Something clicked the summer before Garrett’s freshman year at Skyline. Playing for Watts’ AAU program SwagHouse, Garrett found himself rebounding over much bigger, older opponents.
“I just knew that if I grew,” Garrett said, “I’d have something special.”
Garrett’s summer exploits piqued the interest of Skyline’s Paul Graham, a head coach with a pedigree that included an early-’90s assistant coaching stint at Oklahoma State alongside Self and under legendary coach Eddie Sutton and a head coaching gig at Washington State (1999-2003).
Garrett and Graham, though, weren’t always on the same page, a fact evident from the outset.
“When I first came in as a freshman it was funny, because coach Graham told me I was going to play varsity, and I didn’t want to play varsity at all,” Garrett said. “I wanted to play freshman with all my friends. ... He was like, ‘No chance.’ There’s no chance I could play freshman.”
Garrett was varsity-bound, but Graham appreciated his player’s fierce loyalty to his friends, a trait that continued when the guard spurred more high-profile AAU teams to stick with SwagHouse. He did so in an attempt to get his teammates looks from the Division I coaches that were there solely to scout him. Loyalty also led to Garrett sticking with Skyline, a program that had never made a state basketball tournament but one that finally had “a drum major,” as Graham recalled.
“Marcus has been blessed. He has a really high basketball I.Q.,” Graham told The Capital-Journal. “He understands the game, and the more you understand the game, the slower the game becomes. He’s really smart. He knows how to take shortcuts. And he’s tough enough, he anticipates a lot, and he reads a lot. He’s great at studying scouting reports and opponents.
“He finds out your shortcomings and then he exploits you.”
That high basketball I.Q., though, produced a big head — and one of the most formative moments of the young Garrett’s basketball career and life.
Skyline reached the district championship in Garrett’s freshman season, a big step forward for the program. By that point in the season, though, Garrett was on thin ice — he was a good kid, Graham said, but the team’s success and his status as a budding collegiate prospect had given the guard a bulletproof mentality.
“Freshman year, I’m on varsity. I just got my letterman jacket. Everyone’s just in my ear telling me how good I am. I’m just believing all the hype, all that,” Garrett said. “So I’m figuring when I go to class I won’t have to do no work, I won’t have to listen to nobody. I’m basically thinking I’m the man at this point.”
It all came to a head on the day of the district championship contest.
“Marcus was actin’ a fool up in this lady’s geometry class,” Graham recalled. “I had told him, ‘Marcus, Mrs. Johnson-Nwaorgu, if she tells me one more thing about you, man, I’mma sit your ass.’ So the day of the game, the district championship, this lady came down to my room and she was crying tears. She came to my room and said, ‘Coach, I can’t take Marcus Garrett no more. I can’t take it.’ I said, ‘Mrs. Johnson-Nwaorgu, don’t worry about it.’ ”
Graham had earned the nickname “The Judge” from his players, and it was time for him to announce his verdict. He instructed his assistant coaches to take all of Garrett’s gear out of the team locker room.
“He came down here and he said, ‘Coach, where’s my gear?’ I said, ‘You can’t play here,’ ” Graham continued. “He looked at me and I said, ‘You can’t play here man. You’ve got to go somewhere else.’ He looked at me and I looked at him and I said, ‘I ain’t B.S.ing. You ain’t going to play tonight, man.’ ”
Garrett panicked. Scouts were there specifically to watch him play, but Graham was unfazed. Garrett unsuccessfully petitioned the team’s assistant coaches for a reprieve. He re-entered Graham’s office, but the head coach left the room without acknowledging him. And so it was from the bench he watched as Skyline fought tooth-and-nail to keep its season alive without its best player — and the Raiders narrowly prevailed.
An offseason of guilt was avoided, but the single night of shame nevertheless had a profound effect on Garrett’s maturity.
“I’m walking around the school the whole day telling everyone, ‘Be at the game tonight. We’re about to win the district,’ ” Garrett recalled. “Just for me to walk in there and not see my jersey hurt me, knowing everyone was going to be wondering why I wasn’t playing. My parents ain’t know why I wasn’t playing, and I knew they were all coming to the game.”
The lesson, Garrett said, is no single player is bigger than the team, no one man — or kid, in this case — owned any program. And if we’re being honest, it’s difficult not to see the parallels between the lessons learned that evening and the college freshman playing the role of facilitator in his 19.7 minutes per game of his inaugural season with the Jayhawks.
“Oh, he was big off the court,” Garrett said of Graham. “You walking around school, you’ve got to hold yourself a certain way. You can’t just be walking around with a hoodie when people speak to you. He wants you to look ’em in the eye — ‘Yes sir, no sir, yes ma’am, no ma’am.’ He just wants you to be real respectful, just handle yourself in a certain manner that everyone would like.”
Garrett’s lesson — and Graham’s gamble — paid off.
“After that he understood, and you would hear him tell all the other players, ‘Hey man, The Judge ain’t (B.S.ing), man. He’ll put you on that bench,’ ” Graham said. ”... I’d get mad at him every now and then and throw him out the gym, or I had to sit him a game or two because he did something, but he was never a bad kid and he was never a cocky, conceited kid. He was humble all the time. The only thing Marcus wanted to do was win.”
Garrett did his fair share of winning at Skyline — that is, until the bitter end.
• • •
Graham prides himself on being a master manipulator — sound familiar? — and he loved pushing Garrett’s buttons.
“Marcus is doing a really good job (at KU), but I always tell him, ‘You look like you’re getting your butt kicked out there. I saw you got your shot blocked against Kentucky. You missed some free throws. You need to get your ass in the gym and work on ‘em,’ ” Graham said. “So I’m still coaching him from afar.”
It was no different at Skyline.
For the Pirates, the 6-foot-5 Garrett was a do-everything guard, forward and occasional center. Playing alongside undersized teammates, he often found himself playing the five position defensively only to bring the ball up the court as the team’s one-man on the ensuing offensive possession. Graham appreciated this luxury, but the experience didn’t come without its frustrations.
Oftentimes, Garrett played the game too correctly.
“I used to get mad at him because Marcus seems to always make the best or right basketball play,” Graham said. “If you’re open, he’s going to throw it to you. I said, ‘Marcus, don’t throw it to that guy. He can’t shoot.’ And he said, ‘Coach, he’s wide-open.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, but...’
In the right setting, though, Garrett knew how to assume that “drum major” role.
“Don’t let him fool you. He can go get you a bucket,” Graham said. “What he is, he’s a tough hombre, man. He’s tough, and he hates to lose.”
Graham, of course, used that last attribute to his advantage.
Ahead of a marquee matchup against former five-star guard, MacArthur (Irving, Texas) High School standout and eventual Texas signee Andrew Jones, the Skyline coach spent the day poking the proverbial hornet’s nest. Every time he passed Garrett in the hallway, Graham told his guard that Jones said hello, and that he passed along the message he’d score 40 that night.
With Shaka Smart and Larry Brown in the stands, Garrett shut Jones down.
“I used to bait him, I used to say, ‘Boy, Marcus, he’s going to whoop your ass. He’s going to whoop you today,’ ” Graham said. “And the more I would tell him that, the more he would respond, but I knew that. I trusted him and he trusted me.
“The thing about Marcus, he could take an ass chewing because he got a bunch of ’em here.”
Skyline made it to the long-stated goal of state in Garrett’s senior season but suffered the triple-overtime defeat on the cusp of the championship final. Garrett had watched hours upon hours of film on upcoming opponents using the coaching staff’s Hudl.com account and even passed along scouting reports to teammates — “I tell you, he was devastated,” Graham recalled solemnly.
After that contest, Graham gave Garrett this message: Use this as motivation, and every time you feel like you don’t need to put in work, think back to this moment.
So what caused Garrett to think about it on the day he and Howard went to the barbershop? He had just seen a friend suffer a similar fate. Tyrese Maxey, of South Garland High School, scored a state tournament-record 46 points but missed two late free throws in an 80-76 overtime defeat in a Class 6A state semifinal at San Antonio.
“Probably won’t get any sleep tonight,” Maxey told The Houston Chronicle. “May just try to find a basketball court and shoot free throws until my arms fall off.”
Garrett saw the article and the quote, triggering memories of his own crushing defeat. Howard understood and later came to the conclusion that this reaction was a good thing.
“He takes (losing) personal, and I think as a recruiter, something we talk about as a staff is recruiting winning programs and recruiting kids that want to win,” Howard said. “It makes a difference, because that’s all we do here.
“Even him as a person, I call him an old man at times. He’s got old-man tendencies. But what I like about him is he’s never too high, he’s never too low. He’s always kind of even-keeled. He’s just a winner.”
Garrett may get an opportunity to exorcise at least some of the demons from his high school career-ending defeat as early as next week. If the Jayhawks (29-7) advance to the Final Four, they will move on to a national semifinal at the Alamodome in San Antonio, the site of Garrett’s most painful on-court memory.
“I think he has been great. He’s been everything I thought he would be,” Self said of Garrett. “When we had him this summer and we could practice, I thought, ‘You guys watch. He’ll make good players better, because he’s smart — and he’s been well-drilled.’ ”
• • •
Karen Johnson-Nwaorgu heard the familiar name and scrambled for her remote.
Watching a news telecast about a month and a half ago, Johnson-Nwaorgu heard a sportscaster say the familiar name of a player carving out a reputation as a local legend — Marcus Garrett, of course.
“I had to stop and pause it and I had to call my husband and say, ‘I taught him! I taught him!’ ” Johnson-Nwaorgu recalled to The Capital-Journal. “He just started laughin’.”
It was a far cry from the relationship the Skyline A.P. geometry teacher had with the school’s star athlete prior to the pair’s aforementioned clash the day of the district championship game, but right in line with the somewhat surprising mutual respect — admiration, even — that grew following Garrett’s humbling moment.
As soon as the incident blew over, Garrett apologized to Johnson-Nwaorgu and recommitted himself to focusing and being respectful in her classroom.
“What was so amazing, I thought after that happened we wouldn’t get along,” Johnson-Nwaorgu said. “But the very last day of school I remember, the very last day, he walked over and hugged me and said, ‘Thank you for being my teacher. I wish you have a blessed summer.’ I was so shocked.”
The relationship between the two parties continued for Garrett’s remaining three years at Skyline. Though he no longer had any more of Johnson-Nwaorgu’s classes, Garrett dropped in occasionally to make sure she was doing well. Likewise, Johnson-Nwaorgu checked in on Garrett during the former’s cafeteria shifts.
As a senior, Garrett even won the “Raider of the Year” award, an honor voted on by teachers and given to the school’s most outstanding student.
“It showed me that even though he’s younger than I am, he’s still a bigger person, because he didn’t hold that as a grudge and didn’t stop doing what he was supposed to do as a student,” Johnson-Nwaorgu said. “It made me proud.”