Center was on 1978 NBA Finals team, but joined the Knicks before Sonics' championship season

Marvin Webster collected a couple of nicknames during an NBA career that included a one-year stop in Seattle, where he led the Sonics to the 1978 Finals. At times, he was known as the “Human Eraser” and other times he was called “Marvin the Magnificent.”

But the Sonics knew him simply as an unassuming gentle giant who withdrew from the public spotlight when he retired in 1987.

On Monday morning, employees at the Ambassador Hotel in Tulsa, Okla., found Webster dead in a hotel bathtub. The medical examiner’s office has not determined the cause of death, but preliminary reports suggest he died from coronary artery disease. He was 56.

Many of Webster’s former teammates and friends were unaware of his death and were surprised he died at such a young age.

“What I’ll remember about him is just that he was a super, super kid,” former Sonic Fred Brown said. “People called him the ‘Human Eraser,’ but we used to tease him about that because we felt that wasn’t representative of who we thought he was. He was just a tall, quiet, young kid trying to figure out this whole NBA thing.

“He used to love his little pranks in terms of jokes. He had a great smile. He was just a super nice guy and he just wanted to have fun and play the game of basketball and block shots.”

Former Sonic Dean Tolson said: “It hurts me because Dennis [Johnson] just died two years ago, and it’s like, wow, here we go again.”

As a junior at Morgan State, Webster led the Bears to the 1974 Division II championship and was named the D-II Player of the Year. He began his professional career the following year with Denver in the now-defunct American Basketball Association.

The Nuggets traded Webster to Seattle in 1977 along with Paul Silas and Willie Wise in a deal for Tom Burleson, Bobby Wilkerson and a second-round pick.

Webster started on the front line alongside forwards Jack Sikma and John Johnson and led Seattle with a 12.6 rebounding average and 2.0 blocks per game. His 14.0 scoring average was third on the team behind Gus Williams and Brown.

During the 22-game playoff run, Webster averaged 16.1 points, 13.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks for the Sonics, who lost 4-3 to Washington in the Finals.

“It was unbelievable,” Silas said. “He was actually leading us. He handled Wes [Unseld]. Wes couldn’t do anything with him. Wes was big and strong and tough, but Marvin just shot over him. He blocked his shot. Wes couldn’t get shots off. Marvin just had a great series.”

Webster parlayed his breakout season into a five-year contract with the New York Knicks.

Before his Big Apple arrival, he landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated next to a caption that read: “Can Marvin Webster turn the Knicks around?”

After six unproductive seasons in which he became a backup, Webster sat out two years because of hepatitis. He returned for the 1986-87 season, but played just 15 games for the Milwaukee Bucks before retiring.

For his NBA career, Webster averaged 7.1 points and 7.0 rebounds.

“The situation in Seattle was perfect for him,” Silas said. “Had he stayed in Seattle, he would have gone on and had a great career in my opinion. Going to New York was a big, big mistake for him.

“I saw him later, and the one regret that he had was he wasn’t on that team when we won the championship. He just couldn’t stand it.”

Webster is survived by a son, Marques; his brother, Steve; four sisters, Phyllis Edwards, Maryline Laws, Garnetta Massey and Karen Grimes, and his mother, Dorothy Webster.

His son Marvin Webster Jr. played college basketball at Temple but died during his sophomore year at age 18 after a heart attack.

Information from The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com