Today, we catch up with 1987 American Family Insurance ALL-USA basketball player Marcus Liberty of King (Chicago), who played for the University of Illinois and for four years in the NBA. Today, Liberty coaches camps and a high school team in Sarasota, Fla. For more than 30 years, USA TODAY has recognized the nation's top high school athletes. We are digging into the archives and checking in with ALL-USA honorees from the past three decades.
Marcus Liberty was a LeBron James-type phenom before the age of Internet player rankings.
Liberty, a 6-8 player who could run the break, led King (Chicago) to the 1986 state AA title as a junior. Though the Jaguars finished as the state runner-up his senior year, he was again named the state tournament MVP after scoring 143 points over four games in the state tournament, a record that still stands. Besides being the All-USA Player of the Year, he was also named the top high school player by Sports Illustrated and Parade Magazine.
"He's probably in the Top 10 Chicago high school players of all time," said former NBA player Sonny Parker, the father of Duke freshman forward Jabari Parker. "You have to mention him with names like Isiah Thomas, Mark Aguirre, Cazzie Russell, Quinn Buckner, Bo Ellis, Ben Wilson and Terry Cummings. He was that good. He was very similar to Ben Wilson, a guy with size would could handle the ball."
Unfortunately for Liberty, he may have come along a decade or two early. At Illinois, he was expected to play with his back to the basket, hardly his strength. He entered the 1990 draft, after averaging 17.8 points a game his junior year, because his grandfather had died and his family needed the money.
"We were living in the projects at Hilliard Homes and we didn't have much," Liberty said. "My grandfather helped us be OK and when he passed, I wanted to help out as much as I could. I got picked in the second round. When I look back at it, I should have stayed in another year to develop as a player."
Liberty had a solid, but not spectacular, four-year career in the league with the Denver Nuggets and Detroit Pistons, averaging 7.3 points and 3.5 rebounds a game.
"I think it's much different now for players coming out of high school," Liberty said. "I was a little bit before my time. The NBA was more physical then. You didn't have too many players at my height handling the basketball."
Liberty's last year in the NBA was 1994 with the Pistons. From there, he played professionally in the CBA and in Europe, South America and Japan. He went from the NBA's deluxe hotels to not knowing if he would get paid, week to week.
"I was in Chile and was told they couldn't afford to pay us," Liberty said. "I was in Sweden another time, same situation. When you go to Europe, all you sign is a one-year contract and they don't always honor that. Everybody thinks when you go to Europe, that they'll give you a Mercedes Benz and a villa. I got a Hyundai and a two-bedroom apartment."
Now 44 (he turns 45 next week), Liberty runs a Sarasota, Fla., YMCA league, holds camps and individual coaching sessions and coaches the boys varsity team at Out-of-Door Academy in Sarasota.
"I would love to be a talent scout for an NBA team," Liberty said. "I think that's the direction I'm headed in right now. I would love to be a college assistant as well."
If Liberty could chat with up-and-coming freshmen such as Parker or Andrew Wiggins of Kansas, he would tell them that being the best high school player won't guarantee you an NBA paycheck.
"I would definitely tell them to be humble," Liberty said. "When you get labeled as the best high school player in the country, you start to think you're invincible, that nobody can touch you. Once you get to the pros, it's totally different."