Two years ago he was an 18-year-old college freshman with a stoic manner and a distinctive, splayfooted gait. All around him, elders placed themselves at his service. They were wiser Owls, men who set screens and threw passes that turned the youngster into a prodigious scorer in order that, together, they could become a formidable team. A certain bald microphone jockey misread all this. He looked at the youngster and said something about "the next Oscar Robertson," and the clamor to find out more about this precocious player became so great that his coach put him off-limits.
Today the young man is 20, a junior with the same bearing, the same walk. Anyone may talk to him now. You can find him almost always in the same place, at Temple in North Philadelphia. But the rush to get to know him is over, even if he's still so shrouded in mystery that the headlines written about him remain interrogatories, THE MOST REMARKABLE OWL EVER? asked The Philadelphia Inquirer during that freshman year. Last month the same newspaper wondered, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO MARK MACON?
Macon prefers things the way they are now. He certainly doesn't like the way his jump shot has vanished, or how those comparisons with the Big O have disappeared. But Macon finds contentment in being an athletic cipher who is still the subject of curiosity. "People don't know me," he says. "Statistics are the only way they can find out about me. But they don't know me. The mental is four to one over the physical. Only when you study someone day in and day out do you begin to know that person."
With Macon, few get the privilege. "I take time to choose my associates," he says. "I'm not saying 'friends' because I don't have any. Or many. My thing is reading people. I try to keep my enemies close to me so I know what they're doing. I'm going to be nice and polite whether you like me or not. Then I might start trouble and make you think you were right about me. That'll keep you off-balance. Or I'll make you think you like me. Then, when I get you in my corner, I'll beat you. There are people I've won over just with knowledge."
Now, test your knowledge. See if you can figure it out: Just exactly who is Mark Macon?
a) He's a temperance worker in a campaign against emotional drunkenness.
Temple has just beaten Massachusetts by 17 points, and Macon has been his usual junior-season self—shooting poorly yet playing hard. Owl coach John Chaney meets the press without his star, bringing instead Mik Kilgore, a sophomore whose lips are pursed grimly. During games Chaney looks disheveled and world-weary, but he preaches control more passionately than any other coach in the sport. He brooks no high fives, no talking trash, no celebratory gesticulation. Turnovers and technicals make him physically ill. He abhors what he calls "emotional drunkenness."
"This is probably the worst team I've coached in my life," Chaney announces to the gathering. "I can't coach skillful people who are brainless and spineless. And I'm going to hold it against them when I see the kind of stupidity, the kind of blindness, that comes with being emotionally drunk."
During the game, Kilgore had used profanity to upbraid an official, who then obliged Kilgore with a technical. "Me," Chaney says, "I can be a jackass every once in a while. But stupidity is forever. And when guys do it over and over, it's got to be stupidity." With that, Chaney gets up and leaves, abandoning Kilgore to explain himself.
At a 5:30 a.m. practice the next day—this is the team's lot most days—Chaney brings Kilgore in front of his teammates. "If a human being were meant to butt his head against a wall," says Chaney, "God would have put horns in his head."
As Chaney goes on, Macon sits rapt, imbibing every word. "When I leave here I'm going to visit my mother," says Chaney. "My mother is blind. But she knows better than to go out in the street by herself, because she thinks. You can be as drunk from emotion as you can be from liquor or any other substance. You can get so emotionally drunk when you play that you can't see."
When Chaney delivers his lectures on life before each practice, he might say, "Mark's head is there." Macon can go oh-for-whatever just as long as he keeps that head, as long as he remains an abstemious example his coach can hold up whenever a Kilgore falls off the wagon.
"Mark has never wanted to be seen as some immortal," says Chaney later. "He tells me, 'Coach, I'm disappointed you didn't yell at me' for this or that. He wants to grow from his mistakes. The mind of this kid is way ahead of his skill. The skill is just beginning to catch up."
b) He's as much motivational video as highlight film, a cross between a Hallmark card and The Art of War.
Since high school Macon has collected homilies, often composing them himself in spare moments. He bats them around in his head, trying to get them to rhyme. He writes them down and tapes them to the wall of his dormitory room. He calls these sayings "affirmations."
He wrote this one: "In a true winner's brain there must live a man who's humble and humane." And this: "The three S's of life—suffering plus sacrifice equals success."
"We've built the house," Macon may say. "Now all we have to do is put a roof on it." Of course, you may hear Chaney say that.
"The truth will set you free," Macon may say. Of course, you may hear Norwaine Reed say that.
Reed coached Macon at Buena Vista High in Saginaw, Mich., and taught him a course, as part of the basketball program, called Competitive Edge to Peak Performance. Reed's pedagogy is a sort of Norman Vincent Peale for jocks, with an overlay of mysticism. Says Reed, "We sought to instill in our youngsters a commitment to truth, and to have a spiritual commitment—to teach them that there are things in the metaphysical realm that they can control just by how they think."
The Reed method involves memorizing affirmations and repeating them three times daily. His Knights keep a journal of their goals and an "image book," with graphic renderings of these objectives to help them "visualize."
Reed's beliefs scared up some controversy while Macon was at Buena Vista. Players had to sit together in the cafeteria and nosh on affirmations with their lunches. The team practiced on Sunday mornings, which gave the Knights "a feeling of being one, of aspiring to something higher," says Temple's Shoun Randolph, a classmate of Macon's at Buena Vista.
Players even had to forswear girlfriends during the season. "When you get caught up in one girl, you lose sight of what you're striving for," says Macon, who found this to be the most difficult of Reed's rules to follow.
The Saginaw in which Macon grew up is an industrial city of Roger & Me bleakness. He lived with his mother, Eva. His father, Samuel—his parents split soon after Mark was born—worked in the General Motors plant across from the high school. Macon remembers listening to older men around town and taking in their wisdom. Yet he nurtured his personality through long talks around the kitchen table with his mother. He still phones her constantly. He buys her flowers and sends her things, says Chaney, "just like Joe Louis used to do for his own mother."
"I don't understand this college business," Eva said around the time Mark, who was to be a four-time all-state selection, began attracting the attention of recruiters.
Enter Reed. "It was like my mom handed me to him," says Macon.
By day, Reed is a juvenile probation officer. Placing a young man in a proper situation is his vocation. Reed was the one who called Chaney and told him to expect Macon the following fall. Other coaches whined. Michigan State's Jud Heathcote phoned Reed and lectured him animatedly, to no avail. "I thought Coach Chaney was a man who could continue the work that had gone into Mark for four years," says Reed.
Chaney is less Zen master than schoolmaster, a logic-driven man who toiled for years in predominantly black backwaters. He is a walking history lesson on the subject of suffering, drive and will. He was in his 50's, with 10 coaching seasons behind him at Cheyney State, when Temple gave him a shot at the big time. His parables are earthier than Reed's, but it's as if Macon's twin mentors have each cracked open several thousand fortune cookies in their time. "Coach Reed and Coach Chaney have the same love and drive to get to youth—not just about ball, but about survival in life," says Macon. "When ball is over, life hits, and life hits hard."
When it hits, Macon won't flinch. He is on schedule to graduate with his class in 1991, with a degree in secondary school education. So, he will eventually do as Chaney and Reed have done. He will teach. "I have that kind of patience," says Macon, who is already tutoring in Philadelphia's public school system. "It's my obligation and duty to give back what I've learned. It should be everyone's duty, whether he be a priest or a thief, to give back. Otherwise, history will repeat itself.
"Today's society is so money-oriented. You have to look deeper than money, to knowledge. My mom wanted me to have better, but when you give kids things they don't deserve, they get into a comfort zone. [There's hardly a basketball star in America without a late-model car and some spurious piece of paper, signed by an "uncle," to vouch for it; Macon rides public transport.] I want to give someone my time and my patience."
"Mark is common," says Chaney. "He does not leave the earth."
c) He's the character out of Cheech and Chong's Basketball Jones who needs a pick set for him at the free-throw line of life.
When Macon arrived at Temple in the fall of 1987, Howard Evans, who was a senior at the time, had scored more than 1,000 points over three seasons as a shooting guard. To accommodate this hotshot from Michigan, Chaney switched Evans to point guard. Throughout Macon's senior season at Buena Vista, Reed and Chaney had been on the telephone with each other, installing Temple's three-guard offense at the high school; this gave Macon a head start in learning its many options. "When he got there," says Reed, "Mark knew as much about that offense as Howie Evans did."
Having been handed his first high-school All-America, Chaney could hardly afford to bring him along slowly. He chased away the press, fearing its fascination with Macon would foster jealousies among the upperclassmen. Then Dick Vitale, in one of his more incontinent moments, made the "next Oscar Robertson" remark on the air. Macon prospered nonetheless, slaloming through picks set by 6'9" forward Tim Perry and 6'10" center Ramon Rivas, taking precise passes from Evans, converting 45.4% of his shots and leading the Owls in scoring.
Last season Macon moved to the point to replace Evans. Suddenly Macon had to fall back on his skills as a "breakdown" player, someone who, without space cleared for him, could shake himself free and squeeze off a shot under any circumstance, without any help, any picks. Then, when I get you in my corner, I'll beat you.
But the baskets came harder. Macon's shooting percentage fell to 40.7%. And every time he missed, he missed other things all over again—missed an Evans pass, a Rivas pick, a Perry move inside that would have diverted a defense's attention. "We saw a lot of man-to-man defenses the first year," says Chaney. "Since then it's been all boxes-and-one and triangles-and-two"—all aimed at containing Macon.
At least three-point shooter Mike Vreeswyk's stroke kept defenses somewhat at bay. However, with Vreeswyk gone this season, they've closed in on Macon even more. A move back to shooting guard hasn't cut Macon loose either. Through Sunday he was shooting just 38.1% from the field, and only twice all season had he sunk more than half of his shots in a game. On Jan. 13, against UNLV on national TV, Macon bricked 18 of 22 shots. In two games against Atlantic 10 rival Rhode Island, he went 16 for 56. Macon was so bad against St. Bonaventure in early February, going 2 for 19, that Chaney sat him down for good with more than seven minutes remaining.
Although Temple has begun to play better—at week's end the Owls were 15-8—and appears poised to win the Atlantic 10, it hasn't won a nationally televised game since Macon was a freshman and nothing seemed impossible. "He had the support his freshman year," says Chaney of that 32-2 team. "That's the difference. No one could afford to double up on him. Now everywhere we go there's a gimmick. 'Oh, he's not playing like his freshman year,' people say. Well, every time we go to war, we've got one rifle with one bullet in it."
For someone who arrived in such a hurry, Macon is remarkably patient. Yet he encounters man-to-man defenses so rarely now that he'll either attack them in haste, or fail simply to recognize them altogether. Says Chaney, "He's so used to seeing muddy water that I sometimes have to tell him, 'Lord, it's clear! Drink it!' "
Technical glitches, too, have frustrated Macon. He doesn't always get his legs underneath himself when he shoots, and he sometimes fails to distribute his weight properly on his release. But you would never know Macon's troubles by the look in his eye. Reed taught him that. "I hate to see players grimace when they miss," says Reed. "If they find fault in themselves, that seed is going to grow."
"You only become a failure when you don't try the next time," says Chaney. "I can't tell him not to read the papers, but if you're going to accept someone else's value system, you're going to find yourself atop a hill one day and in a valley the next. If he's going to read and believe those things, that's when he's going to be a failure. Failing is O.K. Failure isn't. Better you go through the verb form than you become the noun. That's my job, making sure he knows the difference.
"Mark's busting his heart out there, while other guys are running around stupid. That's just not fair. Great players don't have bad games. Mark will never have a bad game," Chaney says.
Is Macon really a great player? Or is he a poster child for synergy, that mystical condition under which good players become even better in one another's company? "I'm not concerned that he's shooting this or that," says NBA scouting director Marty Blake. "He's had to take shots he ordinarily wouldn't take. He'll be much better as a pro. He has some very good point-guard skills. Hell, he has skills people don't even know about."
d) He's a sensitive human being.
We know this because we saw the tear ducts open up after the 63-53 loss to Duke in the 1988 NCAA tournament, the game that ended his freshman season. Macon sat in front of his locker at the Meadowlands, sobbing. Macon insists he didn't cry over his own 6-for-29, eight-air-ball performance, or even over losing per se, but rather over the realization that he would be parting company with Evans, Rivas and Perry, who had helped make that Temple team one of the finest of the 1980s—and perhaps made Macon as good as he's ever going to be. "It was because of all the good times we had," he says. "I started missing those guys even before the game was over. They were leaving me."
This isn't a sentiment you would expect to hear from someone who has said that, under Reed, he was "programmed for success," and who has told Chaney, "I want to be your clone." Those comments sound so terribly....
Macon anticipates the question and smiles. "People put the chips in me," he says. "My duty is to keep rolling."
e) He's all of the above.
You can mark it in ink. "I may grow wiser," says Macon, "but I'll never change."