my college major firmly out of my temporal lobe.
Yet, no matter how many new Marquette memories I collect, none seem to stand out to me as much as the ones – both good and bad – from my youth. One in particular, occurred on a Saturday afternoon in late March of 1977. I remember sitting Indian style, fixated on the rabbit-eared TV set in my family’s basement in New Jersey watching my dad’s alma mater, Marquette, play a NCAA semi-final game versus the 49ers of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.
Our beloved Warriors got off to a strong start and held a double-digit lead, before the 49ers stormed back to make a game of it. Then, in perhaps the most iconic play in Marquette basketball history, 6’10” center Jerome Whitehead scored the winning bucket – propelling the Warriors into the championship game where it capped off its improbable tournament run with a retirement present for their coach Al McGuire: a victory over the favored North Carolina Tarheels.
[Marquette could not have made the Final Game vs UNC without Whitehead's heroics vs UNCC.]
I own a videotape of that broadcast, but haven’t viewed it in years. In part because I fear the ancient tape may disintegrate, but also because I don’t need to. I can still see the play unfolding in my mind’s eye just as vividly as when it happened nearly 36 years ago. On an inbounds play with the score tied and three seconds left in the game, Marquette’s Butch Lee hurled a baseball pass the length of the court that carried over the outstretched fingertips of leaping teammate Bo Ellis, off the hands of UNCC’s Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell and into the huge mitts of Whitehead. Catching the ball in the paint, Whitehead quickly gathered himself, turned to the hoop, took a two-handed dribble and powered up as Maxwell jumped along with him in a vain attempt to defend. From point-blank range Whitehead flung the ball against the backboard with seemingly more force than the distance required. Yet, somehow – whether it bounced back and hit Whitehead’s hand or caught the lip of the front rim, the ball didn’t carom off, but instead dropped through the cylinder as the game clock expired.
Immediately, I announced to no one in particular my verbal commitment to attend Marquette when I graduated high school in six years (regardless of whether or not their coach would want any part of my limited game) and declared Whitehead to be my favorite player.
Whitehead was easy to like. He had a cool-sounding name and a chiseled physique, unusual in an era before weight training in athletics was in vogue (myself, and other devoted Marquette fans, have long wondered whether Whitehead was the model for the man-child Warren Coolidge character in the basketball-themed TV show of the late ‘70s, ‘The White Shadow’).
He could do no wrong in my eyes, even when the broad-shouldered center was tossed out of Marquette’s first round NCAA tournament game the following season versus the University of Miami of Ohio for throwing his elbows while clearing a rebound. The disqualification triggered a chain reaction of unfortunate events that would have converted even the father of the power of positive thinking, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, into a Murphy’s Law disciple, ultimately resulting in an upset loss that still stings.
Later that year, Whitehead made the NBA. He was only warming a seat at the end of the bench for the lowly San Diego Clippers, but at least he was in the pros.
Never a star, but a solid role player and citizen, Whitehead went on to draw NBA paychecks for ten more seasons. I followed his journeyman career at every stop and weigh station along the way: from San Diego, to Utah, to Dallas, to Cleveland, back to San Diego, to Golden State, and finally to San Antonio, through barebones boxscores in the newspapers that often revealed little about his performance, such as lines that read ‘Whitehead: 1 0-0 2’ – if he scored a basket – or the even more opaque ‘Whitehead: 0 0-0 0’).
When he’d finally squeezed every ounce of talent and grit from his body, Whitehead retired after the 1989 season. I read that he’d entered the financial services industry and had later been employed in the same capacity by the NBA to help young players intelligently manage their sudden wealth. Great, I thought. Whitehead’s made a seamless transition to the real world. Here’s one less player who won’t read from that tired, old script and fall on hard times when his playing career ends. Whitehead would defy the stereotype of ex-athletes and live a long, successful life off the court.
But I was wrong. Following the recent discovery of Whitehead’s body at his suburban San Diego home, a subsequent autopsy revealed that the son of a minister from Waukegan, Ill. succumbed to the effects of chronic alcohol abuse.
When I first started following the Marquette program, the players were a good ten years older than me. Then, as a Marquette student, they were in my peer group. Now, the current players could be my sons. So, not surprisingly, in recent years, some former Marquette coaches – including McGuire and his staff that championship season: Hank Raymonds and Rick Majerus – have passed away.
While the coaches’ deaths were no doubt sad, they were not, however, wholly unexpected, as all three had been in failing health. I also suspect that each of their final days and hours were spent in the company of loved ones. Whitehead wasn’t so fortunate. There’s no creature comfort on a cold, hard bathroom floor; no one there to hold your hand while you breathe your last; and no death with dignity, either. Alcohol saw to that.
That’s what makes Whitehead’s passing profoundly poignant and tragic. It wasn’t supposed to end this way – especially, not at the relatively young age of 56. Whatever combination of circumstances, be they physical and/or emotional, that led Whitehead to seek solace from a bottle must have been particularly intense. Yet, no matter how acute his pain, I hope he found some measure of comfort in the lasting joy and pride he brought to legions of Marquette fans and a small, Jesuit university, located in Milwaukee.
Maybe there’s an appropriate metaphor in the way he died and alcohol’s role in his death, but my best attempt would likely be trite and superficial. Besides, I’d much prefer to remember Whitehead the way he was before the downturns of life took their toll. As a strapping 20 year-old, rising toward the rim and carrying his team into legend, rather than a physically and emotionally damaged middle-aged man, falling to a bathroom floor.
John Basil is a two-time graduate of Marquette University (1987 and ’93) and the author of Let Me Wear Your Coat, a sports-themed novel.