Even in the pitch black night that envelopes the main entrance to Rhodes Arena, University of Akron center Zeke Marshall strikes an imposing figure — all 7 feet of him.
But there’s little imposing about what’s happening to Marshall. Observing from a respectful distance, it’s easy to see that he’s engaged in a heart-to-heart conversation with someone outside of his basketball family who holds an important place in his life.
The conversation is intense between Marshall and his mother, Nicole Bozeman. That is not surprising, given that it comes after the Zips lost 74-70 to Buffalo, a game in which Marshall was out of sync — even on defense, which is his calling card.
Every player has rough games, but this one came on the heels of an embarrassing loss to Ohio several days before. His performance against the Bobcats was worse.
UA coach Keith Dambrot said Marshall has suffered from “mental fatigue” in recent weeks.
Whatever it is, Marshall knows that he’s got to get his head right.
The talk with his mother was warranted. He needed some of that grounding that can only come from someone who has known him all his life, he said.
It had to come from someone who has a hint of what it’s meant to be Zeke Marshall since he arrived at UA as a raw talent with a ton of potential.
Spending a day with Marshall, one thing is quite apparent — it’s not easy to be who he is on the UA campus. He can’t hide. But he tries.
One of the first things teammate Nikola Cvetinovic reveals about Marshall, a junior from McKeesport, Pa., is that the headphones that never seem to leave his ears once he leaves the arena after practice might have music blaring from them, or they might not.
“They make great earmuffs,” Marshall said as he trudges through the 10-minute walk from the arena to Polsky Hall where his first class, a computer lab, is held. “I walk fast. I walk with my headphones on. Head down. I try to communicate as little as possible when I’m on my way to class, so I don’t have to deal with that.”
The headphones are a way for him to enjoy some modicum of privacy when he walks around campus. With his height, there’s no hiding. The “hey Zekes” along with “you’ll get Kent” come more than a few times during the brisk stroll, along with more than a few stares because of his height.
“It’s a lot of attention. It’s a lot of stereotyping,” Marshall said. “I had a conversation the other day about whether athletes work for their scholarships and do they really deserve it.”
Does he deserve it? The simple answer is yes. The Zips practice six days a week, two hours at a clip. The day after the loss to Buffalo, Marshall’s day began with a trudge to the arena for a 9 a.m. practice. It ended at 9:30 that night after his final class. That’s the schedule for a home game.
Things get more intense when the Zips travel.
That’s usually two days away from campus and classes. That’s schoolwork to be made up in addition to going back to the daily grind. But that doesn’t factor in the mental toll that juggling academics, practice and travel can take.
In addition, some might think he earns it in other ways like the toll it takes on someone in his position.
It’s the stereotyping that bothers him. It bothers him a great deal. It’s the stereotypes of athletes in general and the black athlete in particular that bother him.
Yes, the dumb jock myth still exists.
Marshall, a computer information science major, is no dummy. He keeps his grade-point average north of 3.0, and he’s mapped a trajectory beyond basketball as he plans to own a computer business.
It’s difficult to reconcile the stereotype of the “dumb jock” with what’s observed of Marshall in class.
During that computer lab, as other others around him browse assorted social networking sites, including Twitter, Facebook and others, he’s engaged with the instructor, asking and answering questions. He concentrates on his work. Although he knows that people possess those perceptions about athletes, he’s able to differentiate, especially when it comes to the one regarding ethnicity.
“It depends on the person, honestly,” he said. “I believe in [my] generation, we don’t see as strong into race or color of our skin as much as people before us.”
Expectations of others
But the commonality that crosses generations is that almost everyone has expectations of who he is, how he’s supposed to play and how he should be the one to lead the Zips’ basketball program to the national prominence that Kent State enjoyed during its sprint to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight back in 2002.
He’s keenly aware of that and, until recently, he wasn’t sure he was ready for it.
Any star athlete will tell you that they play the game to win, for championships.
Marshall is no exception, but it took him some time to get to the point where he’s embracing the responsibility Dambrot gave him when he recruited him.
“The expectation level is hard. The accountability of being a great player is hard. The responsibility of being a great player is hard,” Dambrot said. “And I think just the consistency of being a great player is hard. So, I think sometimes he’d just like to be a normal kid.”
Marshall doesn’t dispute that.
The expectations can be seen in the small things. During the trek to his computer class, there staring at him is an image of himself on a cardboard cutout. He growls at it, and gives it a quick smack. “I hate those things,” he said.
That it’s taking so long to find his place shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows his story.
Marshall didn’t have any great desire to play basketball as a child. He has been, and forever will be, a gamer.
At 21 years old, he can recite the history and key milestones in video game history. That prompted his interest in computers. He didn’t pick up a basketball on his own. His mother got him started.
“No one understood that he didn’t pick up a basketball until he was in eighth grade when I made him pick it up. I’m the one who got him onto that court,” Bozeman said.
Dambrot said that Marshall has matured each year he has been at UA. Despite the ups and downs, it’s beginning to show, but it’s still a work-in-progress.
He understands that if he continues to develop, a career in professional basketball awaits him, but there’s an innate fear that has haunted him.
“I’m still working on me being humble and accepting the fame. One thing I don’t want to do is get caught up in the fame and lose myself,” he said. “They say money changes everything, and that’s what I don’t want to happen, so I’m always taking it very slow until I know I’m ready for it. I’m not going to accept it all and glorify myself.”
The problem that Marshall has to confront: it’s either embrace everything around him or he and his team will languish. He is a key cog, if not the primary one, on Dambrot’s team.
“That’s where I come in at,” Bozeman said. “That’s when I let him know that he’s not going to lose [himself] because that is his foundation, he’s building everything off of that.
“That’s what you’re seeing in him now. He doesn’t want to lose the gamer that he is, the computer geek that he is. He wants to keep that foundation solid because we know that the life of an NBA player doesn’t last that long.”
The mental maelstrom affected his game, Marshall confessed. He and Dambrot butted heads. In recent weeks, he did start to lose himself. He usually used video games to decompress before games, putting himself in his own space where he could relax. There was none of that in recent weeks. He allowed his emotions to get the best of him, dictating his actions on the court.
Then there’s the stress that comes with losing and knowing that teammates, Dambrot, friends, family and fans are relying on him. That certainly could lead to “mental fatigue.”
“But stress comes with everything,” he said philosophically. “Life is stressful so you have to learn to manage it. You tell yourself you have to work harder, better and make you feel good about yourself to get to where you want to.”
Make no mistake about it; Marshall knows exactly where he wants to be.
Right now, he’s a difference-maker on defense, one of the best shot-blockers in the nation, a fact bolstered when he was selected the MAC’s Defensive Player of the Year. But he’s not a complete player.
After a recent practice, the entire team dropped by the Tommy Evans Lounge to make an appearance and take pictures with a group of visiting children. After feasting his eyes on Marshall, one curious boy asked him if he was going to play in the NBA.
Marshall replied, “Hopefully.”
That’s a statement based in reality. He knows where he is now as a player.
“I could get to the NBA. I wouldn’t be where I want to be,” he said. “When I think about getting to the NBA, I’m thinking top 10 lottery pick. That’s why I said ‘hopefully, I can work my way up there.’ ”
He, like Dambrot, understands to reach that goal he has to achieve it.
“Proper mind-set means good results for him,” Dambrot said.
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Zips blog at http://zips.ohio.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.