college basketball

Donyell Marshall Is Ready to Be a Head Coach, and Willing to Pay His Dues

After a long and lucrative NBA career, Donyell Marshall doesn't need to try to turn around a moribund low-major program. He's at Central Connecticut State anyway.
September 15, 2016, 10:17pm
Photo by Peter G. Borg

In July, Donyell Marshall traveled the United States. The 15-year NBA veteran wasn't relaxing or partying or enjoying the benefits that come with retiring after earning more than $70 million in salary during his playing days. It was the opposite of that, actually.

Marshall was working, and he was glad to be doing it. His job requires him to spend Julys in small gyms in Milwaukee, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas watching the nation's best high school basketball players compete against one another in camps and tournaments. He is on the road most of the month, and away from his family. It isn't the most glamorous way to spend a summer month, but that's the career path—and the sort of July—Marshall chose soon after his playing days ended, in 2009.

Since then, Marshall has risen steadily through the coaching ranks, with stops as an assistant at three Division I programs in three states, as well as in the NBA Development League. He knows that recruiting top players is the surest path to success at his new job as Central Connecticut State University's men's basketball coach. Since getting hired in April, Marshall has been busy adapting to his first head-coaching position and trying to turn around a formerly winning program that went 4-25 last season. That's a challenge for any coach, let alone a first-timer, but it's not necessarily a new one for Marshall.

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With all of the money he's earned, Marshall doesn't need to be a coaching vagabond. He doesn't need to be working at all. He knows this, but wouldn't want it any other way.

"This game has given me so much in life," Marshall told VICE Sports. "I felt for me to pay it back was to give back by teaching everything I know."

Marshall knows a lot, in large part because he's seen a lot. As a junior at the University of Connecticut, the six-foot-nine forward averaged 25.1 points per game and made first-team All-American before declaring for the 1994 NBA draft. The Minnesota Timberwolves selected Marshall with the fourth overall pick but traded him midway through the season to the Golden State Warriors. Marshall stayed with the Warriors for the next five seasons, which wound up being his longest stretch with one franchise.

In August 2000, Marshall was part of a four-team trade that sent him to the Utah Jazz. During his two seasons with the Jazz, he made his first two NBA playoffs appearances, but the team lost in the first round both times. Marshall signed with the Chicago Bulls as a free agent in August 2002 before getting traded again in December 2003, this time to the Toronto Raptors.

On March 13, 2005, Marshall had a performance that he and Raptors fans will never forget. That night, against the Philadelphia 76ers, Marshall came off the bench and tied Kobe Bryant's NBA record with 12 three-pointers. Marshall was always a reliable shooter and made 36.8 percent of his three-point attempts over his long career. He never hit more than seven threes in any other NBA game, but the thing with records is that you only need to set them once.

"My advice to you is to enjoy this town's renowned wings. They're delicious." Photo via Paul Hokanson/UBBulls.com

To this day, people bring up Marshall's 12 triple game in conversations with him. In March, when Marshall was an assistant at the University at Buffalo, he said players on the team were aware of his record, which Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry had tied a few weeks earlier.

"They tease me anytime Steph Curry gets close," Marshall said. "They actually cheer against him. In their mind, they love it. They're like, 'Our coach has the record.' They like being able to say that."

Marshall also has cachet with today's young players because he was teammates with LeBron James during James's first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Marshall played on the Cavaliers team that made the 2007 NBA Finals, albeit in a lesser role than he had earlier in his career. Marshall had averaged at least 11 points and six rebounds in eight consecutive seasons from 1997-98 to 2004-05. By the 2006-07 season, though, he was a reserve playing 16.8 minutes per game. He was helpful in those minutes—by PER, only LeBron, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Drew Gooden were more valuable—but for much of the back end of his career, it was Marshall's versatility and professionalism that kept him in the league.

It was a good gig for many reasons, but in particular it helped him prepare for the next chapter of his basketball life. As his playing career wound down, Marshall took television classes at Syracuse University and coached and ran an AAU program based in his hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania. During his last year with the 76ers, the coaches allowed him to attend their meetings and help with practices and game plans. They also provided him with the scouting reports and film that they watched. "They really, really helped me," Marshall said.

Still, when Marshall retired in 2009, he took a job as a pre- and post-game analyst for the 76ers on the local Comcast SportsNet affiliate. Although he enjoyed his colleagues, he didn't like his limited role and having so much time off. "I'm not a guy who has a lot of hobbies," Marshall said. "I needed something that was gonna keep me more busy."

When an assistant coaching position opened at George Washington University the next year, he found that thing. Marshall got in touch with coach Karl Hobbs, who was an assistant at UConn when he played there. He got the job, and soon realized he enjoyed coaching more than broadcasting.

TFW you enjoy coaching more than broadcasting. Photo via Paul Hokanson/UBBulls.com

Whereas former NBA veterans Jason Kidd, Derek Fisher, Avery Johnson, Doc Rivers, and Steve Kerr started their coaching careers in the league, Marshall has worked his way up through the low Division 1 college ranks, save for a one-year stint as an assistant with the D-League's Maine Red Claws. He spent one season with Hobbs at George Washington, two at Rider University in New Jersey, and last season at the University at Buffalo.

"I love teaching young kids, especially kids that want to learn and want to get better," Marshall said. "For me, it's the passion. I don't mind traveling. I don't mind being on a bus and road trips. Some of the best stories that you have as a coach are when you're on the bus, especially after a win."

Now Marshall, 43, is back in Connecticut, where he became a national star during his college playing days. Although Central Connecticut State University's New Britain campus is only 35 miles from UConn's in Storrs, the programs have very different histories. CCSU has finished last in the low-major Northeast Conference the past two seasons, and the Blue Devils have won a combined nine games in that span; the only NBA players the program has ever produced are Keith Closs and Corsley Edwards.

Still, the prospect of taking on a rebuild did not dissuade Marshall from seeking out the position when coach Howie Dickenman announced his retirement in February after 20 years on the job. Dickenman was an assistant at UConn when Marshall played at the school, and the two had a close relationship. Marshall also knew CCSU wasn't a lost cause. After all, Dickenman had led the Blue Devils to NCAA tournament appearances in 2000, 2002, and 2007. For all the program's recent struggles, few NEC teams produce NBA players more than once in a generation.

The first public appearance of Head Coach Donyell Marshall. Photo via Steve McLaughlin Photography

Marshall's knowledge of the program and conference and his love of the game impressed the hiring committee.

"He struck me immediately as having a real passion for not only coaching but more importantly developing the character of young men and using basketball as a vehicle to do so," Central Connecticut State athletics director Paul Schlickmann said. "It almost came through as this was his calling. He's had such a successful career that he doesn't need to coach college basketball. But it's a passion for him. He's passionate about giving back to the game."

Marshall spent his first five months at CCSU getting to know his team and reshaping the roster. He has signed six players who will be eligible to play this season; among that group is his youngest son, Donyell Jr., a six-foot-six forward. In the near term, Marshall is focusing on high school players who could make an immediate impact. He views recruiting as a way not only to help CCSU win games but also to get his competitive juices flowing.

"During the season, a lot of times it's the players against the players," Marshall said. "Yeah, there's some coaches you just want to say, 'I want to beat them,' but [recruiting] is our time, this is our competitive time. A lot of us in the league are going after the same players. This is our time to say, 'Yo, I won this battle.'"

The competitiveness comes easy, but Marshall has been seeking advice from mentors who have decades of experience as he prepares to tackle his first head-coaching job. He and his staff met for several hours this summer with Jim Calhoun, Marshall's old Huskies coach and a legend who has won three NCAA tournament titles and 877 career games. Dickenman is also still around at CCSU in an administrative role, and while he doesn't want to interfere too much, he's there for Marshall in case he has any questions.

"He's gonna bring a wealth of basketball knowledge to the program," Dickenman said. "Lack of head coaching experience, I believe, is overrated. He's done a good job as an assistant wherever he's been. I'm sure that will continue with him as a head coach here. He's a terrific communicator. He will relate well to the players."

Marshall is eager for CCSU's first game, on November 11th against the University of Hartford. He's been in basketball for a long time, reaching the highest levels as a player and paying his dues as an assistant. Now he is about to do something he has never done, something that he has wanted to do since he stopped playing the game for a living. Some of his former NBA teammates are still figuring out what to do with their lives. Marshall has found his next career.

"I'll keep doing it until I don't have the passion to do anything else," he said. "I could see myself doing this for a long time."

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