In his five years of practicing clinical neuropsychology, Philip
Whatley of Oklahoma City can't remember ever before having
fielded such an urgent request for his services. Then again
Whatley, who specializes in diagnosing learning disabilities and
attention deficit disorder (ADD), had never before been asked to
evaluate a college athlete, let alone an athlete whose sport was
in season and whose eligibility was in jeopardy with a semester
rushing to a close.
The call came on Dec. 11 from a counselor at Oklahoma City
University who asked whether Whatley could immediately test
Marcus LoVett (pronounced luh-VET), a 6'2" guard who had helped
lead the Chiefs to the NAIA championship last spring. This
season LoVett's scoring (24.9 points per game) and rebounding
(9.9) had staked Oklahoma City to a 9-1 start and a No. 3
ranking as it chased its fifth national title in seven years.
The next afternoon Chiefs coach Win Case, 33, brought LoVett to
Whatley's office for a five-hour evaluation, and when that was
over, Whatley spent five hours more--his first all-nighter since
graduate school--writing his preliminary report so he could
accommodate the school's request that it be delivered the next
morning, the last business day before grades were to be posted
for the fall term.
Whatley's evaluation is unambiguous: The 22-year-old LoVett has
an IQ of 91, which falls in the average range. His vocabulary
and verbal comprehension skills are above average, and he reads
and calculates with little difficulty. But he suffers from ADD
and what is known as a disorder of written expression, a
learning disability that inhibits him from expressing himself in
writing. Nonetheless, before coming to Oklahoma City, LoVett had
somehow picked up an associate of arts degree from the College
of Southern Idaho, a junior college in Twin Falls, and 83 credit
hours from Southern Idaho and three other schools, even though
he writes at a fifth-grade level. In light of his evaluation
Whatley recommended that the university accommodate LoVett's
problems in a number of special ways, including extended-time
testing, exams with multiple-choice rather than essay questions
and as much one-on-one instruction as possible.
Whatley is no big sports fan. "Until it was pointed out to me, I
didn't know Marcus was a star basketball player," he says. Nor
did he know he was about to find himself enmeshed in a welter of
charges of broken promises on one side, countercharges of
academic irresponsibility on the other and, ultimately, perhaps
inevitably, litigation. The events of the weeks that followed
would open a window on a phenomenon that is widely acknowledged
to exist in college sports but rarely seen so starkly: schools
hooking an athlete to an eligibility-support machine until his
four years of playing are up.
February 24, 1997
As it turned out, Oklahoma City pulled the plug on LoVett of its
own accord. The counselor and coach who had been so quick to
retain Whatley's services had hurried in vain; LoVett had
snorkeled academically ever since enrolling at Oklahoma City in
the fall of 1995: He had missed classes and tutoring sessions,
and now, as the fall-semester grades posted on Dec. 18 revealed,
he had failed three courses and taken incompletes in two others,
thereby sinking irretrievably below the 2.0 grade point average
required to remain eligible to play under NAIA rules. On Dec. 23
the university turned down LoVett's request that Whatley's
recommendations be applied retroactively so that he might do
makeup work over the holiday break and salvage passing grades
for the semester. LoVett says Case shared his disappointment but
told him to accept the decision with grace. "Why would you want
to go to the media with this?" LoVett says his coach told him,
an account Case disputes. "You don't want people to know you
have a handicap. The best thing you can do is show a lot of
dignity. Just walk away, go to class and hold your head up high."
LoVett did not walk away. On Jan. 3, with his college basketball
career imperiled, he filed a civil suit in Oklahoma County
district court. In it he alleges that when he signed with the
Chiefs in August 1995, Case promised to have him tested promptly
for a learning disability, a charge the coach also denies.
LoVett seeks damages as yet undetermined from the university for
failing to provide the promised assistance, depriving him of the
opportunity to showcase his basketball talents and for
inflicting emotional distress.
By claiming that irreparable damage would be done to his NBA
prospects if he were not allowed to play, LoVett was quickly
granted a temporary restraining order that permitted him to
remain a member of the Chiefs. Oklahoma City, believing it could
face NAIA sanctions for using an ineligible player, struck back
by postponing its Jan. 4 game with Park College of Parkville,
Mo., and by not playing LoVett in a Jan. 11 meeting with
Phillips University of Enid, Okla., in which the Chiefs suffered
their first home loss in 43 games. Oklahoma City also held
LoVett out of a game against crosstown rival Oklahoma Christian
five days later, which the Chiefs struggled to win. On Jan. 17,
following a two-day hearing, Judge Bryan Dixon lifted his
restraining order, choosing not to overrule the NAIA regulations
to which Oklahoma City is subject. LoVett is still enrolled in
classes while pressing on with his civil suit. Meanwhile, the
Chiefs, who were 15-7 as of last weekend, are playing out the
season without their star guard, a circumstance former Oklahoma
City coach Abe Lemons likens to "going into an ass-kickin'
contest with one leg."
Researchers often attribute attention deficit disorder to
environmental factors such as parental neglect or mental abuse.
But from the huge disparities in LoVett's scores on a variety of
tests--he fared reasonably well in all categories except those
requiring writing--Whatley suspects a neurological basis for
LoVett's learning handicaps, as if he had suffered some sort of
traumatic head injury as a child.
In fact, LoVett grew up amid both itinerancy and abuse. He
shuttled between his parents' hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind., and
Wichita Falls, Texas, where his father, Michael, settled right
before he separated from Marcus's mother, Debra, when Marcus was
about 15. Michael has been in and out of trouble much of his
life, with a rap sheet that includes convictions for assault,
burglary, criminal trespass, forgery and unlawfully carrying a
weapon. Marcus says that his father frequently beat Debra and
their three boys, an accusation that Michael doesn't refute,
saying, "I look at it as disciplining. They was pretty bad
kids." At 15, Debra had already had her first child, Michael
Jr.; when she became pregnant with Marcus 11 months later, she
tried to abort him by drinking a potentially lethal homemade
concoction, so bleak did she see the prospect of bringing
another child into her abusive world.
When Michael became violent, Debra sometimes had to summon the
police to their home. Marcus says he suffered a particularly
nasty beating when he was eight. "It was one of those blows to
the head where you black out for a second--everything goes
dark--but your eyes are still open," says Marcus, who had not
told Whatley of this alleged beating before Whatley made his
diagnosis. (Michael says he doesn't recall that particular
The two constants in Marcus's adolescence were this tumultuous
home life and his lack of interest in school. During his senior
season at Fort Wayne's Northrop High, rival fans, aware of his
struggles in the classroom, serenaded him with singsong taunts
of "ju-nior col-lege." Sure enough, as a Proposition 48
nonqualifier LoVett would enter the college basketball food
chain at the two-year level: first at junior college power
Hutchinson (Kans.) Community College, where he didn't help his
reputation by getting arrested for breaking into an apartment
near campus with a couple of teammates and stealing some
electronic equipment. The charges were later dropped, but he
moved on anyway to Southern Idaho.
As a high schooler back in Fort Wayne, Marcus had dreamed of
suiting up in the Big Ten for Purdue, and with two years of
junior college behind him he went looking for a Division I NCAA
school. But after committing to Middle Tennessee State in the
summer of 1994, he was told he needed to shore up his transcript
in order to take the court for the Blue Raiders. He took a
correspondence course on coaching basketball from the University
of Central Arkansas, and then, on the recommendation of Middle
Tennessee State coach Dave Farrar, he shipped out to
Northwest-Shoals Community College in Muscle Shoals, Ala., for
the fall term. Among the courses he took there was a two-credit
class, Beginning General Conditioning, which he says involved
nothing more than checking into a weight room and working out.
He got an A. "At first I didn't like it," says LoVett, who made
the honor roll with a 3.75 grade point average during that term
at Northwest-Shoals, "but I bought into it."
LoVett enrolled at Middle Tennessee State in January 1995. But
by then the Blue Raiders were well into their season, and there
wasn't much of a role for him. When Middle Tennessee traveled to
Baton Rouge to play Southern, he was left in his hotel room, he
says, waiting to be taped by the trainer, when the team bus
departed for the arena without him. He never did make it to the
Meanwhile, his girlfriend, Siria Beck, had become pregnant.
LoVett says that with a child on the way he sensed for the first
time the importance of getting more serious about school. Also,
with half of his basketball eligibility already gone, he hadn't
yet had his chance to make an impression on the pro scouts. But
during a pickup game in May 1995, he met a businessman from
Murfreesboro, Tenn., a minister's son named C.C. Alexander, who
promised to help him find a school where he might do both.
Alexander made a small name for himself in the late 1980s
developing and becoming a prodigy at a two-man Pop-a-Shot type
of basketball arcade game called the Hoops Machine; he even
barnstormed the country, demonstrating his skill at the game as
a halftime act. More recently he has created and begun
performing as a Barney-style character, Shooter, who plays Hoops
Machine while making appearances at children's and charity
events. Alexander, 36, now lives in Las Vegas, where he says he
is also developing programming for children's television. But
helping to place athletes in college has been a sideline of his
since 1979, and he points to eight basketball and football
players he has assisted over the last decade.
Alexander knew Oklahoma City to be the Sooner equivalent of SMU,
a Methodist university with a good academic reputation and a
fine-arts school that produced actors, dancers, opera singers
and Miss Americas the way the hoops team turned out
All-Americas. "Marcus was tired of feeling useless in a
classroom," says Alexander. "He told me he wanted to be tested
for a possible learning disability."
Case, a former point guard at Oklahoma State, made a persuasive
pitch when LoVett came through Oklahoma City looking for a fresh
start. "I'm going to take my mind," Case said, taking his index
fingers from the sides of his own temples and placing them on
LoVett's, "and put it in your mind." Don't bother going back to
Indiana to fetch your things, he said; don't bother checking out
those other two schools in Arkansas--schools that LoVett and
Alexander had planned to visit. Sign now and stay here, Case
said, and we'll get you tested right away.
Or so say Marcus and the three people with him when Case made
his pitch: Alexander, Marcus's mother and Beck, who would give
birth to Marcus Jr. the following spring. "If he had been tested
as promised, before he ever set foot in class, none of this
would have happened," says Alexander. He also says he had a
phone conversation with Case several weeks later in which Case
said the testing had been done but Alexander admits that he
didn't follow up to see what the results were.
Case says he never told Alexander any such thing and denies that
he made any promise to have LoVett tested. "A learning
disability never came up," he says. "The only thing I offered
Marcus was an opportunity to get an education. That's the
god-heaven truth. I would plead with him to go to class. I tried
walking him over to the learning center, to tutoring, to study
hall, but he wouldn't attend. You can't lead a horse to water if
he doesn't want to drink."
LoVett, a phys-ed major, found himself on academic probation
last May, at the end of his junior year. He needed to pick up
six credits over the two summer school sessions and have his
cumulative grade point average stand no lower than 2.0 to be
eligible to suit up for the start of the 1996-97 season. His
summer school schedule consisted of five courses: fishing and
angling, beginning volleyball, beginning golf, intramural and
recreation programs in the first session and walking and jogging
in the second. All the tougher core courses he would need to
graduate--classes in history, literature and Spanish--were put
off until his senior year. With three A's, a B and a C in his
summer courses, he was eligible for the fall term.
In conversation LoVett sounds like someone who has been around
the academy and absorbed its argot. He will use words like
generic and refer to someone as a "mentor-slash-role model." But
he sat through a two-hour algebra final last fall and succeeded
in answering only three questions. Some barrier stands between a
mind that clearly forms and holds and turns over thoughts and
the hand that would write them down. "I can be taking a test,
concentrating, and all of a sudden I'll be on to something
else," he says. "Then panic will set in. It's like a domino
Just because LoVett suffers from ADD doesn't mean he can't pay
attention or concentrate. It simply means he'll learn better if
his assignments are broken up into smaller, more manageable
pieces. "The whole point of academia is to provide an
environment in which people can learn," Whatley says. "No one
would ever say, 'Oh, you can't walk to class, so you can't take
the course.' Or, 'You're blind and can't see the blackboard, and
we can't make up for that.' But neuropsychological disorders are
so hard for people to accept because you can't see them. It's
easy to say, 'This is just another dumbass basketball player who
doesn't want to go to class.'"
That's more or less how Oklahoma City's lawyers and witnesses
characterized LoVett during the January hearing. To be sure, he
had been chronically late and truant, and he didn't seem to want
to be helped or to help himself. But suddenly the young man who
says that he set his watch and dorm-room clock 10 minutes ahead
to try to stay on schedule, who served as the Chiefs'
co-captain, who spent time volunteering at last summer's Special
Olympics and who had just appeared as one of nine varsity
athletes on the university president's Christmas card, was being
described as the instigator of a scuffle during an intrasquad
scrimmage--a bad actor no longer wanted by his coach or
teammates. "Marcus went to three or four tutoring sessions and
then stopped going," says Jerald Walker, Oklahoma City's
president, "but he never missed basketball practice."
Whatley says that's precisely the point--that LoVett's was a
case of ADD begging to be discovered. "Not following through on
tasks is one of the diagnostic criteria of the disorder," he
says. "If you were a lawyer, how long would you keep going to
court if you knew that every day you'd lose a case? How much
longer would I keep practicing if none of my patients got any
At the hearing Whatley testified that, before his evaluation of
LoVett on Dec. 12, Case told him the testing was something that
they had planned to do but hadn't gotten around to doing.
According to Whatley, Case then mouthed from his seat in the
gallery, "You're a liar!" theatrically enough that Whatley
caught it from the witness stand.
"I'm sorry, sir?" Whatley said before Judge Dixon restored order
in his courtroom. "You just called me a liar."
Case stands by his version of events and has his school's
support. "The suit will cost money, but we will win," says
Walker. "As expensive as it will be, the cynicism would be more
expensive in the long run. We're not a pro sports camp."
Seven years ago Oklahoma City admitted former Kentucky star Eric
Manuel, whom the NCAA had banned for life for allegedly cheating
on his college boards. The Chiefs couldn't suit him up fast
enough; they even supported Manuel in his successful litigation
against the NAIA, which wanted to ban him from playing just as
the NCAA had. Over the past decade Oklahoma City has become a
last-chance saloon for other first-rank NCAA players, such as
Smokey McCovery of Oklahoma and Randy Davis of Oklahoma State.
With the happy exception of Manuel--he got his degree and now
works as an account rep for the Coca-Cola bottler in town--most
former Oklahoma City players have only basketball baubles to
show for their time on campus. The Chiefs' graduation rate since
1988 is 27%, and according to a report by Juli Rhoden of
Oklahoma City's KTOK radio, over that same period no more than
10% of the school's black players have earned their diplomas.
(The university could not confirm the latter figure.) "If we had
known that, we would have never even visited," says Alexander.
"No one in their right mind would have visited."
The Chiefs' last two coaches haven't been paragons of rectitude.
At the 1994 NCAA Final Four in Charlotte, Case was arrested for
scalping tickets, though the charges were later dropped. And
Darrel Johnson, the man Case replaced and whom Case served for
two seasons as an assistant, ran into trouble at Baylor in 1994.
Although Johnson himself was cleared of criminal wrongdoing, he
was fired in the wake of an academic credit-laundering scandal
that led to the conviction of three of his assistants on federal
fraud and conspiracy charges. Walker nonetheless believes his
coach in the LoVett dispute. "In dealing with Win over the
years, he has been truthful with me," he says. "If you had a
player averaging 24.9 points a game, it seems reasonable to me
that you'd do anything you promised to help him remain eligible."
Whether we believe Case or LoVett, it's not much of a choice:
Either we have another college coach quick to make a blithe
promise to get a kid to sign and just as quick to forget that
commitment, or we have another college athlete who won't find
his way to anything on campus besides the gym. Both are
much-too-easy stereotypes. And even if both are true, that still
leaves a young man with an infant son and abiding obstacles to
finishing his education.
Oklahoma City will keep LoVett on scholarship as long as he
makes satisfactory progress toward his degree, which will be
difficult now that his course load includes American history,
philosophy and kinesiology. The school will also go along with
at least some of Whatley's recommendations, including extra time
to take tests. For his part, LoVett is reluctant to take
Ritalin, the drug commonly prescribed for ADD, which Whatley
believes would be helpful. But the Chiefs won't let LoVett suit
up again. "If our primary objective is educating Marcus, this is
what we had to do," says Sandra Harper, Oklahoma City's vice
president for academic affairs. "If our primary objective was to
keep him eligible to play basketball, then we would have allowed
him to turn his three F's into incompletes and complete the work
in the month before basketball season resumed. But Whatley's
recommendations emphasize that he needs extra time, and there
would have been tremendous pressure to cram everything into that
month. Even a good student couldn't do that. How legitimate
would that have been?"
For LoVett the lawsuit has only added another distraction to an
environment in which he already found learning to be a
challenge. Even if he sticks with his studies, over the coming
months his mind will likely wander off to the dream he still
entertains: that some NBA scout will catch a glimpse of him,
perhaps at one of those predraft cattle calls, and take a liking
to his ability to finish a fast break with a sudden dunk or slap
chest-to-chest defense on an opposing point guard.
"I see Marcus's case as being to college sports and education
what Curt Flood's was to free agency," says Alexander. He is
confident that LoVett will prevail in court: "From now on, 'Win'
is going to be Win Case's middle name. He's going to have a new
first name: 'Not.'"
Marcus's 16-year-old brother, Darnell, is only a junior, but in
Fort Wayne last fall he quarterbacked his high school team to
the Class AAAA state football title. He also has a habit of
suddenly getting up and walking out of his classes. He was to be
tested for ADD this month.
"It doesn't begin with me," Marcus says. "It's a cycle. Both my
parents come from abusive households. When my father saw a story
about me, he called to tell me that he was diagnosed with ADD in
prison. The cycle has to stop sometime. That's why I'm so into
my son. Despite all the confusion in my life right now, I have
Marcus Jr. hasn't yet celebrated his first birthday, but the
father points out proudly that the staff at Oklahoma City's
Healing Hearts Day Care Center considers the toddler unusually
adaptive and mature. They put him in with the two- and
three-year-olds, Marcus says.
The cycle is on hold. For now, anyway.