University at Buffalo assistant basketball coach Donyell Marshall does not need to be grinding on the bench, on the bus or in some recruit’s tiny high school gym.
Marshall played 15 years in the NBA. He shares the record with Kobe Bryant for most three-pointers made in a single game. He’s one of only six NBA players to have 10,000 points, 5,000 rebounds, 750 blocks and 750 three-pointers in a career. He earned a little more than $70 million in salary in the NBA.
It’s only human nature for him to ask himself, on an occasional rough day at UB, do I need this?
“It’s funny because I said that to Monte one time,” Marshall said, referring to UB point guard Lamonte Bearden. “I said, ‘You know what Monte? You guys are (ticking me off). Sometimes I ask myself, why am I here? I made a lot of money. I could be at home sitting on my couch. And he goes: ‘Well why are you here?’ I said, ‘I’m here because I know the answer.’”
The answer is long and hard-earned. The question is short: What does it take to develop the skill, work-ethic and commitment to become the best basketball player you can be … and maybe, if you’re very lucky, make the NBA?
“I’m here because I love it and because this game has given me so much it’s only right for me to give back,” Marshall said. “My way of giving back, regardless of what level I’m on, is giving back what I learned.”
The 6-foot-9 Marshall learned a lot in a playing career that started in his hometown of Reading, Pa., moved to the University of Connecticut and then traversed eight NBA cities. He says his biggest coaching influences were his high school coach, Mike Miller, his coach at UConn, Jim Calhoun, and his coach with the Utah Jazz, Jerry Sloan. Calhoun and Sloan are Basketball Hall-of-Famers.
His most influential teammates? “Karl Malone taught me a lot,” Marshall says. “John Stockton taught me a lot. Scottie Pippen. Mookie Blaylock. Chris Mullin. Even LeBron James when he was younger taught me a lot.”
Marshall was the fourth overall pick in 1994 and enjoyed a long career because of his versatility. He started out as a small forward, moved to power forward as he got older and was tough enough to defend centers. He became one of the NBA’s better “stretch fours,” a power forward who can stretch the defense with his outside shooting ability.
The other five players with him in the 10K-5K-750-750 club: Pippen, Dirk Nowitzki, Sam Perkins, Buffalo’s Cliff Robinson and Rasheed Wallace.
Asked about the stereotype that great players don’t often become great coaches, Marshall laughed.
“That’s funny because I always sit back and say it’s a good thing I wasn’t a great player,” he said. “I was the fourth pick. I wasn’t the best fourth pick. I’m certainly not the worst fourth pick. I had a good career. I helped some good teams. It depends on who you ask. … I don’t have the Dwyane Wade status. I have a good-player status.”
Marshall’s most famous NBA game was the night in Toronto in 2005 when he tied Bryant’s record of 12 three-pointers in a game against the Philadelphia 76ers.
He says he fully expects Golden State sharpshooters Steph Curry or Klay Thompson will break the record some game soon. In fact, Marshall gets text messages and tweets from friends whenever Curry or Thompson get up to seven or eight threes in a game.
“I’m surprised it’s lasted this long,” Marshall said.
His most successful season came when he helped James and the Cleveland Cavaliers reach the NBA Finals in 2007.
What impressed him about the young James back then? “His knowledge of the history of the game,” Marshall said. “I always say that’s what’s wrong with these young kids. They don’t know the history of the game. He knows. You could tell even then he YouTubed stuff. He looked stuff up. He respects the game. That’s one of the things that makes him so great.”
Marshall started thinking seriously about coaching over the last five years of his playing career, which ended in 2009. He spent summers over that span coaching an AAU youth team that he owned.
“Coaching the AAU team, I saw the connection I had with kids,” Marshall said. “Basketball is about X’s and O’s. But I also think if you can get the kids to play hard for you, and respect you, and if they know you love them, they’ll run through a wall for you. I think I was able to do that with my AAU team, and I felt like I could be good at this.”
He dove right in. UConn alumnus Karl Hobbs was head coach at George Washington and hired Marshall as an assistant in 2010.
“I remember one day at GW, one of our big guys was walking on campus, slumping along, and we were standing there watching,” Hobbs said. “And I recall Donyell telling him, ‘Hey, hey, walk like a big man! Stick your chest out. Pick your head up. You’re a big guy.’ I would have never thought to say that to a big guy. That was an aha moment to me. It was a little thing but it was a big thing.
“I watched him work with our big guys, how he was able to connect with them and teach them all the fundamentals of the game,” Hobbs said. “My players always wanted to be around Donyell. They would come by his apartment. As a head coach you love that because relationships and knowing what these kids are thinking is 80 percent of the coaching.”
One year at GW was followed by two years as an aide with the Maine Red Claws of the NBA’s Development League, followed by two years at Rider University in New Jersey.
Along the way there have been a lot of bus rides from unglamorous places like Portland, Maine, to Newark, Del., and Lawrenceville, N.J., to Hamden, Conn. It’s a far cry from traveling first-class charter jets with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“I could be in the NBA and still traveling in the hotels I’ve been used to and not driving three hours to recruit,” Marshall said. “But when you get a win and you have to drive back three hours, the fun and stories you have on that bus, you can’t replace. There’s things I’m experiencing that I’m going to take for the rest of my life, stories I can tell when I am finally sitting on my porch with my grandkids.”
Grooming the Bulls
UB head coach Nate Oats met Marshall at a basketball camp in Las Vegas a few years ago. When Oats took over for Bobby Hurley last March, he reached out to Marshall, who had just finished his second year at Rider.
“When I was interviewing for the job, Danny White thought it would be good if we had an NBA guy on staff because it would help with recruiting,” Oats said, referring to UB’s former athletic director. “The recruiting stepped up here when Bobby came because we had a big name. I agreed with Danny. Donyell’s name came up.”
The move was attractive to Marshall in part because his wife, Leea, had stayed in Cleveland when his NBA career ended. She and the family were tired of moving around. Buffalo is a lot closer to home.
“For me, it’s three hours away, and my son is a high school senior this year,” Marshall said.
“Coach and Danny at the time promised to make sure I could get to see him play.”
In addition, Marshall liked the progress of the UB program.
“I was coming to a good program that had just made the tournament,” he said. “The campus and atmosphere kind of reminded me of UConn when I first got there. … I feel I was one of the pioneers at UConn, and I feel I can get on this coaching staff and I can be one of the pioneers here.”
Oats takes full advantage of Marshall’s experience. Marshall is responsible for coaching the big men. But he also works with perimeter shooters on the side.
“He’s kind of like the big man-slash-shooting coach,” Oats said. “It’s good for the guys. He played in the league, and he’s humble. He wants to give back.”
“He brought us to his house before the Kent State game,” said UB guard Jarryn Skeete. “And we got to see he’s got every UConn player jersey signed, every top player he played with signed − LeBron, Kobe, Steve Nash, Gilbert Arenas. He’s got a UConn pool table, UConn flooring in his basement. … He’s actually a really cool dude. He’s super down to earth.”
Marshall aims to become a college head coach. Given his experience and willingness to pay his dues, it’s reasonable to think it’s eventually going to happen.
In the meantime, he’s busy teaching lessons learned, such as how hard you have to work to be good.
“Sometimes it’s like when your grandfather says I walked to school five miles in the snow,” Marshall says. “I tell them stories and sometimes I don’t think they believe me. I tell them how hard LeBron works in practice. How hard Karl Malone worked. That’s why those guys are great. Yes, a lot is natural talent. But LeBron wasn’t a great shooter when he got into the NBA.
“I think I’m able to teach that without being questioned.”