Jan. 21, 2003
This story originally appeared in the Times Picayune on Jan. 14, 2003.
Reprinted by permission.
If if hadn't been for basketball, Tulane guard Waitari Marsh said, he probably wouldn't be where he is today -- four months away from his college degree.
But for Marsh to get to this point, he had to make major changes in his life. Those who knew Marsh when he was a high school basketball player on the south side of Chicago call it a huge accomplishment, because Marsh always seemed to let other things get in the way of what was really important.
"Wat had some academic issues when he was growing up," said Memphis assistant Steve Roccaforte, who also served as an assistant at Tulane and was partly responsible in Marsh signing with Tulane. "For Wat to be getting his degree says a lot about how he's changed. He's very smart, but he hasn't always used it to his advantage."
Marsh entered Tulane as a borderline student. The only problem was Marsh had a one-track mind: basketball. But entering his third year at Tulane, things finally came to a head when he was declared academically ineligible for the 2000 fall semester.
"That was it," Marsh said. "That was the turning point right there. I got a chance to just sit back and just view things from a different perspective.
"When you're playing basketball, it's kind of a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately thing; you're treated differently. But now I wasn't getting a chance to do the things, like traveling with the team. It was like I was a regular student. It was hard for me to deal with then."
Marsh quickly addressed his academic problems and was eligible to play in mid-December, at the end of the semester. But then first-year coach Shawn Finney decided the best thing for Marsh was to let him concentrate on school. He was allowed only to practice with the team.
"Wat's grown tremendously as a person," Finney said. "It says a lot about him coming to Tulane and going to be able to walk out of here in May with a degree. He's matured into a man, and he doesn't get concerned about things he can't control as much anymore."
As a sophomore, 6-foot-3 Marsh displayed potential on the basketball court. He was confident and never backed down from a challenge, something he learned on the playgrounds of Chicago.
This season Marsh has emerged as one of the Green Wave's go-to players, the kind of player who can hurt an opponent by driving to the basket or with his perimeter shooting. Going into tonight's conference game against Marquette, he is second on the team in scoring, averaging 13.1 points and 3.6 assists.
"He understands how to get to the rim and bring it in strong," Finney said. "He's playing off of two feet more, and not driving to the basket out of control."
Former Tulane coach Perry Clark said he isn't surprised by Marsh's success, either.
"I felt like he was as good as any point guard in Conference USA when he came in," said Clark, now the head coach at Miami. "Potentially, he was the best point guard we had recruited. He had the size, the strength . . . he could create for other people. He was strong enough to get bumped and still complete the play."
But the play Marsh had the most trouble completing was his emotional side. He wasn't accustomed to losing at Julian High, and had a hard time learning the right way to deal with it.
Losing affected nearly everything he did. After a loss, Marsh was usually the first player out of the locker room, either hurrying out of Fogelman Arena, or onto the team bus for road games. He was often too upset to talk.
"It has been a lot of steps along the way," Marsh said. "Coming out of high school, things weren't as structured as they are in a college environment, on and off the court. I was always borderline and just did enough to skate by. It caught up with me."
As for his failures, he takes full responsibility.
"That was, more me than anything, just being lazy," Marsh said. "It was a matter of me not applying myself. I knew right from wrong, but I was young and making bad choices. When I was supposed to be in class, I would be in my room watching a game or something. We'd lose a game and I wouldn't go to class . . . a couple of classes. I would be so upset."
Taking control of his academic situation has also helped Marsh take control of his life. He now realizes a big part of his life is about to come to end.
"I've got to do something productive," Marsh said. "I don't have any days to waste. Once they're gone, you don't get them back. It's almost like an hourglass, and the sand is running out."