ST. LOUIS — As a youngster, playing in elementary school in Chicago, Marcus Liberty already was regarded as one of the city's all-time great basketball players, right up there with Isiah Thomas, Glenn Rivers, Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings. During his career at Martin Luther King High School, the comparisons went national, his name mentioned with the likes of Magic Johnson.
His nickname was "Doc."
By the time he reached the University of Illinois, Liberty was said to be able to pass like Johnson, soar like Dominique Wilkins and dominate play like Michael Jordan. But the road to immortality has to start somewhere. For the 6-foot-8 sophomore, it may have started here Monday night. Following the fifth-ranked Illini's 87-84 victory over No. 10 Missouri before an Arena crowd of nearly 19,000, Liberty giggled and confessed he'd never been on a team that played away from home.
"It sure is different from high school and being at home; the crowd's not going for you," Liberty said, sounding as much like an innocent as a street-smart 19 year old can. Liberty has yet to be asked to handle the crowds in Ann Arbor and Iowa City, but he's shown maturity on a number of fronts.
He remained at Illinois despite having to sit out his freshman year because he did not qualify academically under Proposition 48. Now, at the start of a much-awaited collegiate career, he finds himself a substitute, averaging 12 points and playing just 23 minutes a game.
"I was a superstar in high school but I'm not now," he said after scoring nine points in 20 minutes Monday night. Missouri freshman guard Anthony Peeler has received a great deal of publicity for a splashy debut season, but Liberty allows that chances are he won't have the same opportunity, at least in his first year.
"I know I can play (with flash), but I'm not with that type of team," he said. "Missouri plays run and gun, pull-up and shoot -- we don't. I'm not sure I'll be a superstar -- there may never be one on an Illinois team. It's not the system."
While acknowledging Liberty's talent, Illinois Coach Lou Henson would rather harness Liberty's skills now for later benefits: "We're playing Marcus now with an eye on January and February."
Thus, though Liberty hit a three-point field goal that gave Illinois its first lead of the second half and would later add another basket with 3:33 remaining in the taut, tense game, his night was over. When forward Lowell Hamilton fouled out just under a minute later, Henson hesitated, glancing at Liberty, but then chose to go with another player.
"This wasn't exactly the kind of game that you throw a young guy into," said Illinois assistant coach Jimmy Collins. Indeed, Nick Anderson, Kendall Gill and especially Ken Battle, who scored 28 points, were nearly flawless down the stretch, enabling the Illini to erase what was at one time an 18-point deficit.
Those players represent a Who's Who in Chicago-area basketball, nearly all of them leading their high-school teams to state championships. But none of them had the clippings Marcus Liberty had.
"I knew who he was when he was in grammar school," said Anderson. "I knew he'd be outstanding then; he was 6-5 and playing the point. No one could stop him -- he did whatever he wanted to do."
Liberty began his high-school career at Crane, largely because his father had gone there. But Liberty felt, and his parents agreed, that his talent was being stifled, particularly after one game against rival Simeon.
"It was in a frosh-soph game, I got a rebound once and went (from one end of the floor to the other) -- I just started going with it," Liberty said. "I was rebounding, shooting, dribbling ... it just happened right there, I knew I had it."
Then at King High, Liberty made the varsity in his sophomore year but spent most of that season "setting up other people." At the end of the year Coach Sonny Cox told him to start looking for his shot, and got staggering results. In his junior year, Liberty averaged 25 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks per game in leading the Jaguars to the state title. They failed to repeat the next season, but Liberty was named Illinois' "Mr. Basketball" after averaging 26.5 points, 12 rebounds, five blocks and three steals.
He was heralded as the top high-school player in the nation and the Chicago area media began speculating that Liberty would leave the state for college, putting pressure on Illinois.
Of the six allotted visits to colleges, Liberty only took three: to Illinois, Cincinnati (as a favor to head coach Tony Yates, a former Illinois assistant) and Syracuse. UCLA made a late bid, but Liberty was unimpressed. "I told (then coach) Walt Hazzard that he just couldn't shoot in at the last minute and get me," he said.