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Monday, July 4, 2005
Updated: April 15, 11:45 AM ET
Snake Eyes

By By Eric Adelson with special reporting by Dan Galvin

Everyone sees The Ghost. Neighbors whisper. Children run up and stare. Strangers gasp and ask, "How'd you get that way?" They see him pretty much every day, shopping at Food Lion. He worked there once as a teenager, almost 10 years ago now, as a cashier. Back then, a sweet old woman approached and told him she usually shopped down at the Winn-Dixie, but her husband said she just had to see this. They see him at Wal-Mart, where he once had a job pushing carts around. Out there in the North Carolina sunshine, he felt the eyes on him, so he asked to move to the pet department, in the back. Animals don't stare. He chose the morning shift, when nobody visited. Then Christmas came, and the kids found him. Sometimes, The Ghost daydreams about making a T-shirt. "Don't ask," it would read. "I'm 7'1"."

Questions have always stalked Chris Marcus, wherever he's gone. How tall are you? How's the weather up there? They come like roaches; squashing one brings a dozen more. Why don't you play basketball? Can't you just dunk every time?

Amazing how so many have the gall to ask, considering he's never asked anyone else for a thing. He walked through most of high school with his head low, his eyes locked on the floor. He sat in the corner of the cafeteria and never raised his voice. But the questions kept coming, scathing and scary, even as he moved away from home and into our consciousness as the nation's leading rebounder at Western Kentucky, and eventually toward the lofty place everyone always imagines for giants: the NBA. Why didn't you leave school early for all that money? Why didn't you make it in the league? What happened to you?

that going to waste." Rob kept asking, and Chris kept saying, "Let me think about it." Saying no became almost as embarrassing as saying yes. So he went. Rob D'd him up, so Chris launched shots over the top of his outstretched arms. Rob baited him, so Chris dunked the ball hard enough to vibrate the metal stanchion like a tuning fork. After a few more jam sessions, Rob got an idea. "I wanted him to join the high school team," he says. "I knew he could help us. We sucked."

Yes they did. And that's why Olympic High hired David Davis in the summer of 1994. The athletic director gave the new coach a tour, a hearty handshake and a quiet aside: "By the way, we have a seven-footer here. And he doesn't play basketball."

Davis' eyebrows scooched halfway up his forehead. He soon went looking for the mysterious freshman. There he was, walking the hallway, shoulders drooped, hood pulled so tight over his face that all Davis could see were two sad eyes. Davis had never seen a kid that size-and not an ounce of fat on him. The new coach stuck out his hand and introduced himself, his interest obvious. Chris looked through him. Not this again.

He reluctantly tried out as a junior, then changed his mind. Sorry, gotta work. Davis didn't press. But the next fall, the coach had a new question: what will you do after high school? Don't you want a scholarship? Chris just stared. Never thought of that. He got to worrying. Mom didn't work; Dad did maintenance for the Boy Scouts of America. Both were getting older. I don't want to work at Wal-Mart my whole life. That September, The Ghost appeared at practice.

He hardly played. He didn't speak the language, didn't know a post-up from a back-down. He practically shook with fear before his first preseason game.

CHRIS Marcus can rattle off his growth chart like the rest of us can name old flames. He hit 6'1" in sixth grade, 6'3" in seventh, 6'4" in eighth …and if he'd stopped there, he never would have played basketball. If he'd stopped there, he'd have been a bookworm like his four shorter brothers. If he'd stopped there, Rob Lothorp never would have dragged him to the blacktop.

Rob showed up next door to Chris in 1994, when his family moved to Charlotte from Rhode Island. Rob quickly sized up his new neighbor. Must be a basketball player. Rob was 14, a little younger than Chris, and he'd have hung upside down on an I-77 overpass if he knew it would make him six inches taller. Yet when Rob said, "Let's go to the court," Chris felt a chill. I'm not good at basketball.

Rob begged. "He was seven feet tall," he says. "That's a free ride to college! I didn't want to see game and nearly collapsed in relief when his first righthanded hook fell through the hoop. He looked forward to coming out of games, then wanted back in when he heard the hostile shouts in opposing gyms: "Man, you tall! But you ain't good!" Coach Davis never pushed too hard, never nagged. But even his helpful comments and lessons made Chris burn with shame. Do this! Do that! Run up the court! Take him! I hate this.

But he couldn't quit, couldn't be known around Charlotte as the seven-footer who couldn't play. Besides, Chris wanted that college degree. So he hung in, got better. And when a couple of Clemson coaches stopped by to scout two other Olympic players, Davis told them about The Ghost.

One of the coaches was Dennis Felton, and he figured out the kid right away. "It's a common phenomenon with giants," he says. "They draw a lot of attention, so they grow up different than everyone else. There's a certain awkwardness that makes them uncomfortable long before they have the social skills to deal." Felton made Chris the first player he went after when he took the head job at Western Kentucky in 1998. When Chris visited campus, his hosts played up school and team and played down pressure. Chris came home to Charlotte beaming. He packed two suitcases and folded himself into the last seat on a Greyhound for the 480-mile ride to Bowling Green, a town he'd never heard of until a few months before.

Chris mostly stayed in his dorm while he sat out the first year as a Prop 48. He played video games and called home every day. He wasn't much for parties or talking to the ladies, but he did find a group of guys who liked being tall. One was a teammate named Michael Doe. No need to ask his height. Chris knew immediately: 7'2".

Turned out Doe played basketball because, well, what if height was his gift? He didn't want to be ungrateful. "When you're like me and Chris," Doe says, "you don't want to let people down." Then Doe found himself sitting in class one day during his freshman year, thinking, "What am I doing here?" He dropped out, went home to Florida and started to pursue a dream of designing clothes. "If millions weren't made in the NBA," Doe says, "people wouldn't care if I played basketball or not." Chris wished his friend luck. Good for him.

Chris stayed; he'd never quit anything besides Food Lion. Slowly, his talent emerged. A WKU assistant named Pete Herrmann had worked with big men from David Robinson to Shaq. Those guys used to be quiet too, and look where they ended up. Chris started to park his 300 pounds in the paint and whirl his arms like helicopter blades. He feathered jumpers no one could touch and grabbed boards with hands as soft as wet sod (11.9 ppg, 9.5 rpg). Chris won Sun Belt Defender of the Year and Newcomer of the Year as a redshirt freshman in 2000. This is exciting. I don't want to come out anymore. Then, one night after a game, a reporter asked him about jumping to the NBA.

Now? He liked his classes. And his friends. I'm comfortable here. While buddies gathered to watch the draft, Chris went to the library.

The next year, as Chris led the nation in rebounding (12.1 rpg) and WKU to the Big Dance, the questions flew at him from every direction. National media flocked to Bowling Green. Scouts jostled for a better view, calling him first-round at worst, top-five at best. Stanford coach Mike Montgomery called him "maybe the best big man in the country." Most seven-footers had feet of lead, hands of tin and shots of brick. Chris played smooth, sweet. "He was on his way," Felton says, "to being one of the top centers in the NBA."

Chris begged to differ. I can't even guard college guys yet. What will the pros do to me? He didn't come here to make a ton of money, and he didn't want to leave without a degree. The money would be there next year. What's the big rush?

Chris returned to Bowling Green in September, walking taller than ever. Then, in a preseason practice, he snatched a rebound and came down on a teammate's foot. Just a tweak, he hoped. Then the rush of pain, then the MRI: his left foot had cracked like a dinner plate. He'd be out for months.

Chris went quiet again. During one game, a teammate nudged him. "Chris, what's up with you? It's like you're a million miles away." He was—back at Food Lion, back pushing carts, back pulling the drawstring tight on his hoodie. Why am I here if I'm not helping the team? Did I make a mistake not turning pro? He wore headphones on campus to avoid conversation and took different routes to class. Eager to please as always, he hurried his rehab—a decision he would regret. He couldn't calm himself. When the boys got together on the weekend to kick back and pry open a bottle, Chris held out his cup. He wasn't playing. This felt good. Pour me another.

He began spending nights alone in his room, just him and the booze. He hurried to finish a paper so he could get to his reward. He never had enough to pass out, but he always had enough to forget his fear. A few drinks became several, then a dozen, then more. But the fear, like the questions, always returned the next day.

What if I don't heal?

THE big guy came back for a fourth year of eligibility in the fall of 2002. He wasn't the freak at the grocery store anymore. Now he was the 7'1" prospect who may have cost himself a lifetime's worth of money. Now everyone knew The Ghost. He played in just 19 games over his last two seasons at Western. Never mind what he was supposed to be. He wasn't even what he used to be. And the Hilltoppers made the Tournament without him. Chris went back to Charlotte halfway through his senior year. He drank. And he grew to 330 pounds.

Still, the NBA couldn't resist the lure of the big man. The Nuggets called the next spring, just as Chris' foot felt better and he was drinking less. He had his degree, he had nothing else to do—and he actually missed playing. So in the summer of 2003, he boarded a plane headed west. "I think 70% of him wanted to," says Lothorp. "And 30% thought he was supposed to. But that 30% was pushing really hard on that 70%."

Not long after Chris joined Nuggets Carmelo Anthony and Nene in Utah for workouts, he raided a minibar and missed a team meeting. His agent, Andre Colona, reached out to an old friend. David Davis quit his job in student affairs at Fisk University in Nashville and moved in with Chris.

Chris began to put himself together again. Nuggets strength coach Steve Hess cooked his meals, worked him out three times a day, drove him around town. Davis took Chris to AA meetings and found him a therapist who diagnosed his problem as depression. The foot felt better. He lost that extra 30 pounds. Davis noticed a barely restrained glee on the faces of the Nuggets brass as Chris devoured rebounds and dunked on legitimate NBA players. Chris was invited to training camp and suited up for some preseason games. The 2003-04 season started with all kinds of hope. I can do this.

Late in November, with a roster spot in hand, Chris felt like celebrating. He went down to the store. I'm better now. I'm in control. One drink.

The next morning, he woke to find Davis at his bedroom door. Chris had missed another team meeting. Self-esteem drained from his body. Davis dragged him to the Pepsi Center to see GM Kiki Vandeweghe. Basketball and Chris don't mix, Davis told the boss. Not now, maybe not ever. Vandeweghe nodded. Chris left town. When he got back to Charlotte, he checked into a rehab facility.

CHRIS Marcus is 25. He lives with his parents in Charlotte. He spends his days running errands, watching TV and trying not to wonder what comes next. Thoughts of work or basketball rekindle the fear, and fear brings cravings. He goes to AA three times a week and calls his sponsor every night. On good days he talks about what he did that day. On bad days, he talks about how much he wants to give up. Commercials, smells, storefronts…seems like anything can break him. Even doing his laundry makes him want to take a sip. At Western, he always drank as he undressed after a long day, and he'd find forgotten money in his pockets days later when they came out of the washing machine.

Chris politely declines a request for an in-person interview. He says he doesn't know if he's ready to talk about his problems face-to-face with a stranger. But he is tired of hiding—from the media, from his friends, from himself. He knows the questions will come, but he is done with all the shrugging and nodding. "I can't control what other people think," he says. "I can't please everybody. That's what I learned in rehab." He hasn't had a drink in almost a year. So go ahead, ask.

About his height. "You're going to be interested. I understand that. I've accepted that."

About the game. "I wasn't really interested in basketball at first. And I was a real introverted person. I used to just want to say: 'No, I don't play!' It did get to me. A lot."

About drinking. "I was sad that I was hurt. I kinda felt like I was alone."

About whether he regrets staying in school. "I did. You wouldn't believe how many sleepless nights I've wondered what if. I'd dilute it with alcohol. Then the doctors told me my foot was gonna break at some point anyway. Better it happened at Western than in the NBA. The pressure would have been 10 times worse. I could be dead."

About coming back. "I still get the itch to play, but I don't let anything consume me. I want to have control of my life. Without the bottle."

See The Ghost. Find him at the Food Lion or Wal-Mart, loping through the aisles with his mom and dad. Bring your camera phone and your questions. Bring your judgments about whether he should be playing, or what you'd do with his height.

Just remember: The Ghost is human.