April 9, 2009
Thirty years and six months ago, Marvin Webster was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, in hook-shot pose, wearing the uniform of the NBA team that had signed him to a then-shocking $3 million contract, next to a question asking whether he could "turn the Knicks around."
At the time, it was Morgan State basketball's one shining moment and a gleaming one for Baltimore. The product of Edmondson High, the leader of the 1974 national college division champion Bears, the man immortalized with one of the greatest nicknames ever, "The Human Eraser," was, on Oct. 16, 1978, as big as it got in sports.
Long before Carmelo Anthony and Juan Dixon, before Bob Wade's nationally renowned Dunbar High teams - and five painful years after the Bullets had fled to Landover - Webster was the face of Baltimore basketball for the nation to see.
Last month, Morgan State's next big basketball moment arrived when it reached the Division I tournament for the first time, and to those searching for a thread of hoops history for the newcomers to the big stage, there was only one name that was instantly identifiable, that triggered the "oh, yeah" response.
Who didn't know about The Human Eraser, even if you didn't remember right away that the name took hold at a little black college in Northeast Baltimore way back when?
The problem was, the hurried attempts to track down Webster at the moment of his alma mater's return to glory failed. Morgan State exited in the first round, the NCAA tournament moved on, and so did the Bears program.
Nobody dreamed that the next time Webster's name would surface would be in an obituary, one with sketchy details at that - and, worst of all, one so soon, at age 56.
On the night last month that Morgan appeared in the NCAA bracket for the first time, one could walk through Hill Field House - which opened in Webster's senior year, after the national championship - and see the banner in the gym and the familiar-looking trophy in the case on the concourse. Webster put the banner and the trophy there with one of the stellar careers in college history, regardless of division.
There was more of a chance that such a career would go unrewarded by the pros then, but Webster was too big, too unstoppable, too much of a legend - again, everyone knew the nickname even if he or she had never laid eyes on him - to slip under the radar. And he ended up having a notable career, albeit notable for its ups and its downs.
The highs were in Seattle, in his third pro season, when he helped the Seattle SuperSonics reach Game 7 of the 1978 NBA Finals before losing to the Bullets. The lows came when the injuries and illnesses hit, interrupting two of his Knicks seasons and completely wiping out two later ones. When healthy, he had lived up to the expectations he brought with him from Morgan. When not, he faded into obscurity, subject to the "Whatever happened to … " questions that resurfaced last month.
This was not the answer anyone wanted or was ready for.
The lone, tiny consolation is that while Marvin Webster is gone, his nickname is not. "The Human Eraser," and that glorious Sports Illustrated cover shot, will live forever.
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