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The mystery of Marvin Webster

He flitted around the country -- as much as a 7-foot-1 man can flit -- on his own money and his own time. Marvin Webster did what he wanted, when he wanted. He didn't bring an entourage when he traveled, just his curiosity.

According to those who knew him late in his life, Webster, the one-time basketball wunderkind of Morgan State, loved seeing different parts of the country, living out of hotels, keeping his own countenance.

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We may never know what possessed him to leave an apartment in Owings Mills last summer and head to Tulsa, Okla., the final destination in his 56-year-old life. We know he spent some time in a hospital there for a chronic liver disease brought on by three different hepatitis attacks over a dozen years.  We know he returned to the Hotel Ambassador -- a "luxury boutique hotel," as its managing director told me -- after that short hospital stay. And we know he died in that hotel, in a bathtub. probably from coronary artery disease. He likely died last Saturday, but wasn't found until late Monday morning. His 57th birthday would have been Monday, April 13.

Perhaps we will eventually find out why he was in Tulsa for several months. The truth is, his Morgan teammates knew Webster could be mysterious. Not all of them knew why. Once he contracted hepatitis as a senior at Morgan, he came to know a life filled with medications to combat the toxins that seeped into his brain and his body. It changed his life more than he could tolerate at times.

When Webster took his medication, he was fine. When he didn't, he would have trouble remembering things. Several of his Morgan teammates experienced the "distant" Webster after his basketball career ended. It was sad, because not everyone knew the reason. It created a few hard feelings. Now they all know. They know how he came to rely on medications, and they also know he hated them.

His life had become a series of hardships and tragedies by the time he retired from the Knicks and the NBA in 1985. He lost his first wife to an aneurysm at 39, and his first son to cardiomyopathy at 18. He had battled hepatitis twice in the NBA after leaving Morgan, once as a rookie with the ABA Denver Nuggets and later missing the 1984-85 Knicks' season because of it. He tried to come back yet again in 1986. He followed a strict diet, played in the Continental Basketball Association at Pensacola, married a second time, and signed with the Milwaukee Bucks.

The marriage didn't last and neither did the comeback. Fifteen games in, he just up and left the Bucks, not bothering even to tell coach Don Nelson why.

After that, he lived with his parents for a while, worked a couple odd jobs selling used cars and clothes, and he traveled. He made enough money, signing a then-enormous five-year, $3 million contract with the Knicks in 1978, and invested well over his 10 pro seasons.

Webster came back to Morgan in 1999 to participate in the 25-year anniversary of the school's 1974 NCAA Division II championship, but he didn't show up at the ceremony to retire his jersey five years later. Maybe it was during a time he wasn't taking medication. But he was always grateful whenever the glory days of Morgan were brought up.

"He always liked being remembered for his contributions to the game of basketball," said W. Charles Bennett, who had been Webster's agent, friend and financial advisor. "When Morgan honored him, he was very appreciative. ... Morgan was always big [to him]."

Webster put Morgan on the basketball map in the early 1970s. Ironic, then, isn't it, that he'd leave us at so early an age, just when the school was finding its way back? Whatever Morgan basketball becomes, it's safe to say it all started with him.

Photos: Associated Press

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