Moments after his team had come up short in its bid to repeat its 1986 Class AA state basketball championship last month at the Assembly Hall in Champaign, King senior Marcus Liberty walked slowly through the tunnel that runs between the playing floor and the dressing rooms. He did not smile.
Another man also walked around in that tunnel just after Liberty had scored a Class AA championship-game record 41 points in the Jaguars' 79-62 loss to East St. Louis Lincoln.
And Lou Henson was smiling. Oh boy, was the Illinois coach smiling.
Despite the loss in the title game, the 6-foot-8-inch Liberty had spent state tournament weekend putting on a basketball clinic for Henson and Illini followers, scoring a Class AA tournament record 143 points in four state tournament games (including the Chicago Public League championship game). It was, Henson hoped, a preview of things to come when Liberty dresses in the Illini's orange and blue.
It was also a fitting prep finale for the player most scouting services deemed the No. 1 high school player in the nation heading into the season. Liberty's 27.7 points, 12 rebounds, 5 blocks and 3 steals a game averages did nothing to disappoint the scouts, Henson, King coach Landon Cox or Liberty.
It also impressed coaches and media personnel throughout the state, who overwhelmingly voted Marcus Liberty as Mr. Basketball of Illinois for 1987. In voting conducted by The Chicago Tribune in conjunction with the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association, Liberty received 405 of 459 first-place votes and totaled 1,286 points.
East St. Louis Lincoln's LaPhonso Ellis, a 6-9 1/2 junior center, finished second in the balloting with 374 points. Jesse Hall of Class A state champion Venice, Mark Baugh of Class AA quarterfinalist Elgin and junior Andy Kaufmann of Jacksonville round out the top five.
Liberty is the seventh Mr. Basketball winner since the award's inception in 1981. He joins previous honorees Walter Downing of Providence, Bruce Douglas of Quincy, Marty Simmons of Lawrenceville, Brian Sloan of McLeansboro, Ed Horton of Springfield Lanphier and Nick Anderson of Simeon.
"I think everybody really enjoyed watching him play," said Henson, who enjoyed watching him play more than anyone. "Not only here, but all over the state. I felt Marcus had an excellent state tournament. He did good things on the boards; he handled the ball well. It was an outstanding job. They just didn't win the championship game."
"It was really great, just being down there," said Liberty, an unassuming teenager. "Second of all, I just wanted to show the fans what I can do."
Watching Liberty play is a treat, even for those who must try to figure out a way to slow him down.
"It's easy to see that when a Marcus Liberty is on the floor that he's something special," said St. Joseph coach Gene Pingatore, who watched Liberty score 38 points in King's 60-58 state semifinal victory over his team. "He has all the intangibles. It's more than just shooting a basketball or running and jumping. The things that separate the great players from the very good players are the intangibles--the ability to win, to do things that you can't teach."
About all that stands between Liberty and a significant role in the Illini's 1987-88 season plans is his ACT score. He did not score well when he took the test late last year, but Liberty said he is much more confident heading into his second attempt, scheduled April 9. He refuses to believe he won't make the grade academically.
"I'm just going to imagine that we'll be there playing next year. Nothing else," Liberty said.
Anderson, an Illinois freshman who sat out his first season as a victim of Proposition 48, has offered plenty of advice to his former high school opponent and incoming teammate.
"I talk to him about academics. He's gotta set priorities straight and hit the books. Just get everything settled down. The basketball will take care of itself, the education is what he needs first.
"People just don't know how hard it is sitting out. It's a big step from playing basketball to sitting out a year. You get rusty. We all know he can play basketball good. Now we want to see him get the grades."
"We go out and hang for a while. They tell me things like 'hit the books' because it's way different from high school to college," Liberty said. "They say I've gotta work on my study habits."
Liberty, a three-year starter at King after spending his freshman season at Crane, averaged 24 points and 11 rebounds a game as a junior, helping the senior-dominated Jaguars to their first state championship. With new faces, including a pair of freshmen, surrounding Liberty in the King lineup, Cox expected even more of Liberty.
He got more.
Liberty's 915 points in 32 games was the fourth highest total in Public League history. He averaged over 30 in his last 13 games.
"Marcus is the most versatile player I've ever had," said Cox, who coached former Illini standout Efrem Winters and 1986 all-stater Levertis Robinson at King. "Winters and Robinson were great players, but none could play as many positions as Marcus at such an early age.
"I said early on if I let him shoot all the time, he could score 40, but that's not Marcus. I had him doing a whole lot this year. He could have picked any one facet to work on and he might have been better at it, but overall, he did a good job."
Others do more than merely admire his skills.
"From playing against Marcus, I've picked up some of the things he does real well," said Anderson.
"You look at this guy that's 6-8, he handles the ball, no problem. I try to pick up a little of that from him. I try to mix a little of his game with a little of mine, and I think that makes a fantastic ballplayer."
Now, it's up to Liberty and Anderson, among others, to help rebuild the Illini, who graduated three starters from last season's 23-game winner. That is a task that everyone is eagerly anticipating.
"I think Marcus can come in and really contribute," said Henson. "He works hard, his defense is good. I think he can come in and really help us as a freshman. He'll have as good a chance to start as anybody. Nobody has a starting position locked up.
"What Marcus needs is just more experience, especially defensively, although he already does a very good job. We want him to continue to work on all phases of his game. Even though he does an excellent job, with work he'll get even better."
"People say, 'How's Lou Henson going to play you and Marcus and Kenny Battle and Kendall Gill and keep everybody happy?' " said Anderson. "Well, if we come together as a family, we'll make noise. No matter who gets the publicity or the points, if we come together as a family, we'll be fine."
"I think I'll like playing with some of those guys," said an obviously eager Liberty. "I know I can get better. I'm always going to work hard. I like the competition."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun