Akron’s Marshall opening up, turning heads

AKRON, Ohio — His first answer was absolutely, positively no. He wouldn’t go to the prom. He never went anywhere except to school and to play basketball, and getting all dressed up to go spend a few hours in a large, loud group — and especially with girls involved — just wasn’t Zeke Marshall’s style.

The senior girl asked again. Then, her friends took the peer pressure route in trying to get Marshall to reconsider. Finally, Zeke went home and asked what his mother thought he should do.

As usual, Momma knew best.

That was five years ago, when Marshall was a junior at McKeesport High School near Pittsburgh and, in his words, “one of those nerds.” He spent 17 years holed up in the basement, preferring his computer and video game systems to any type of social interaction, neither worrying nor wondering what other kids were doing.

But his mother told him to go to that prom, and he did, and his whole outlook started to change in the weeks and months that followed. When Marshall showed up at the University of Akron in the summer of 2009, he didn’t just gradually start putting in more work on his basketball skills. He started making friends. He went to parties. He still put his academics first — Momma knows best when it comes to that, too — but he started realizing that all those years of growing pains and sticking with basketball when he wanted to quit had created a nice ticket to the next phase of his life, one that would involve new people and new challenges.

Now, Marshall is the most recognizable man on campus for multiple reasons, the senior center and centerpiece of a Zips team that’s won a national-best 16 consecutive games. Mid-major teams just don’t look like the Zips look when they take the floor, in part because most of them don’t have a 7-foot poster boy.  

“He broke out of his shell,” said Nicole Bozeman, Marshall’s mother. “Now, he’s a social butterfly.”

With his 7-foot, 5-inch wingspan, that’s one big butterfly.

While admitting that he once “felt like an actor” in summoning the intensity and energy to play basketball at his highest level, Marshall has shown flashes of both dominance and anger on the court this season for a 20-4 Akron team that makes its way with balance and defense. He’s blocked more shots (84) than 168 Division I teams had through the start of the week, ranking fifth in the nation in blocks per game, and is shooting 73 percent in his past 14 games. Marshall has five double-doubles on the season and leads Akron in scoring at 12.5 points per game.

He should dominate games in the Mid-American Conference, really, and he’s doing it more often now than he’s ever done it before.

In the stands, Bozeman celebrates every block. Two weeks ago, she bought a personalized jersey with her Twitter handle, @MommaZeke, on the back.

She swears she knew, even as Zeke resisted, that her oldest son would be a basketball player. She said she saw the hands and feet of a basketball player on the day he was born — he was 21.5 inches, 8 lbs. and 2 ounces — and always thought he’d grow to 7 feet.

“On his first doctor’s visit, he wasn’t but a few days old, they measured him,” Bozeman said. “They measure babies with charts to make sure they’re growing at the same rate as other babies their age. Well, they had to add a chart to his chart.”

Marshall always loved games growing up, just not basketball games. He spent hour upon hour, day after day, playing video games. He’d played youth football and showed athletic ability when he chose to run and play with other kids, but he fought back against basketball and kept the video-game controller in his hands.

Bozeman had to force him into basketball, first in a local reg league just before he started middle school. The local AAU teams called quickly and persistently, and Marshall continued to play, but only begrudgingly. He felt like he was obligated because he was tall and because his father, Jonathan Marshall, was a bit of a local hoops legend. Even as a middle-schooler, Marshall saw his future in computers.

He’s in a five-year program that will eventually see him secure both an associate’s and bachelor’s degree in computer information systems, opening the door for more formal education down the road. After this semester, though, he’s going to put that on hold as he pursues a professional basketball career.

“I don’t think he truly loved basketball until last year,” Bozeman said. “For the longest time, it was something he did so he could get a free education. I think his mindset was, ‘Fake it ’til you make it.'”

Said Marshall: “I’m finally getting my feet under me. I feel like I can do it. I have the utmost confidence.”

Much credit for that goes to Akron coach Keith Dambrot, who’s become Marshall’s 5-foot-6 father figure. While Dambrot appreciates Marshall’s individuality, he’s pushed for Marshall to consistently show his maturity on the court. His pushing still occasionally leads to Marshall pouting, especially when Marshall feels he’s been pushed enough on a certain day or in a certain week.  

For almost four years now, Dambrot has called Marshall almost every night. Sometimes, theirs are pep talks. Sometimes, they chat about school, or campus happenings, or just the national topic of the day. More times than not, the conversations are one-sided. Dambrot always gets the last word. He’s always pushing.

“He came here at 18, but he was still like a little kid in a lot of respects,” Dambrot said. “And now he’s (22), and he’s a grown man, but I see the 18-year-old Zeke come out at times, and that Zeke isn’t helping our team.

“He has the ability. He’s starting to show it more consistently. I tell the NBA (scouts), it may take until he’s 25, but he has the talent. It’s my job to get every ounce of potential out of him, and there’s a lot there.”

Akron isn’t a usual stop for most NBA scouts, but when they hear “7 feet” and “athletic” in the same sentence, they’ll go anywhere to find the next great player. Marshall is here, in a physical sense, because he liked the city feel of Akron’s campus, felt comfortable around the coaching staff, saw Akron’s computer information systems program as a good fit and, in maybe the strangest repeatable recruiting story there is, actually liked that Akron playing on national TV is a special treat and not an every-week occurrence.

“The best comparison I can make for Zeke at 18 is Bambi — tries to walk but keeps falling down,” said Jeff Boals, now an Ohio State assistant coach and Marshall’s primary recruiter at Akron. “He was still maturing physically and emotionally. We tried to sell him that at a place like Akron he might have a little more time to find his stride.

“He just wasn’t a social guy. He was friendly; funny once you got to know him, but he definitely wouldn’t say a word if he wasn’t comfortable around you or comfortable with his surroundings.”

Said Marshall: “I was a true introvert. Any of the things high school people did, I never did. I stayed by myself. I had very few friends. Now, I wasn’t the kid people made fun of. I was a nerd people looked up to because I was tall and played basketball, but nobody really knew me.”

Marshall said he’s come to know who he is — “a nice guy, goofy, brainy” — in his time at Akron, and said he’s appreciative of every Dambrot pep talk and every bit of encouragement and feedback he’s received from others around the program. He said being a true student-athlete while adding muscle to his wiry frame and polish to his basketball skills has given him an appreciation for time and stress management he may not have realized otherwise.

“I’m still a geek. I’m just a well-rounded geek,” he said.

Marshall’s biggest fear, his mother said, “is being big-headed or conceited. I think he’s afraid to accept praise, like he’s going to fall short of someone’s expectations. I think he’s scared of being the same, of being typical.”

Any shred of anonymity he either sought or still maintained disappeared at the start of the season when Akron launched a billboard campaign that put Marshall on posters, local RTA buses and on a huge, 40-foot banner affixed to a building in the middle of campus. But he said he still mostly keeps to himself in social settings, letting conversation come to him and playing the role of “the nice, quiet guy, not the stereotypical athlete” who craves attention.

“That approach,” he said with a big grin, “has worked to my benefit.”

Five years ago now, Zeke Marshall went to that prom, made friends with the girl who was his date and those who had prodded him to go, and while he was there he met the girl who would become his first girlfriend. Those two went to Marshall’s homecoming dance the following fall — he was voted king by kids he barely knew a few months prior — and to his senior prom the next spring, an event for which Zeke donned a top hat and a striped “zoot suit.”

He hasn’t worn that top hat since, but he still has it. Maybe he’s saving it for next month; for the NCAA Tournament perhaps?

“I might bring it back out,” Marshall said. “I’m unpredictable.”