Former Seattle Sonic Jim Marsh is a man of many causes. His compassionate dedication brings out the best in his fellow athletes.
Bill Walton had been traveling all day and was beyond exhausted, but when he saw a text from a reporter asking to talk about Jim Marsh, he called back instantly.
Jim Marsh has that kind of effect on people. The term “beloved” is not too strong to convey Marsh’s regard among his large circle of friends (including a veritable who’s who of NBA superstars), and the much larger sphere of those he’s touched through his coaching and youth mentorship.
Both lists include just about every great basketball player produced from the Seattle area, from Isaiah Thomas to Zach Lavine.
For more information on Hoops for Hope: The Jim Marsh Classic 3-on-3 basketball tournament, go to http://jimmarshclassic.org
“If Jim Marsh calls and says, ‘I have an idea, I need help,’ you answer yes before you even hear what it is,’’ Walton said — and he was just getting started. “We know what Jim is doing is pure, relevant and authentic.”
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These days, what the 69-year-old Marsh is doing — among numerous projects — is helping launch a 3-and-3 basketball tournament for which he is the namesake (though organizers had to twist his arm to let them use his name).
The full title is Hoops for Hope: The Jim Marsh Classic, and it will be held in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle on Aug. 29-30. The idea is to provide a local alternative to the wildly successful Spokane Hoopfest, while raising money for two causes near and dear to Marsh: Parkinson’s disease, which he was diagnosed with in 2004, and Mentoring Works Washington, of which he is a former president and current board member.
“It’s for a good cause — they can’t holler at you,’’ Marsh says good-naturedly of his efforts to help mobilize volunteers for the 3-on-3 tournament.
Parkinson’s has lowered Marsh’s once-booming voice to a near whisper and has somewhat limited his mobility. But he is coping remarkably well with the disease, which attacks the central nervous system and results in a gradual decrease in muscle control.
In a cruel twist, his older sister, Sharon, also suffers from Parkinson’s. There is some thought within the family that it relates to youthful exposure to pesticides from vineyards and orchards near Fresno. But maybe it’s a just a cruel coincidence; researchers are uncertain about the heritability of Parkinson’s.
When I spoke to Marsh recently at a Kirkland restaurant — he rode there on his bike because he can’t drive any more — Marsh told me that he had played a full-court basketball game at Bellevue’s Pro Club the night before. He’s been playing with the same group of guys for 35 years, and he hasn’t let the Parkinson’s deter him.
“The thing that gets you is balance,’’ he said. “Sometimes, I feel like I’m going to go down. And sometimes, I go down. The guys know what’s up. They’ll say, ‘Hey, I didn’t foul you!’ I say, ‘I don’t care. Foul me.’ ”
Marsh’s basketball roots extend to his days as a star player at USC, which segued into a brief NBA career (after being drafted in the 11th round by the Sonics) with the Portland Trail Blazers — 39 games in 1971-72. The 6-foot-7 Marsh likes to joke he was replaced by Walton.
Marsh also served on the Sonics’ television broadcasts for several years. But he is best known in the Seattle area as the longtime guiding force behind Friends of Hoop, the AAU basketball powerhouse whose alumni list glitters with NBA players — Thomas, Spencer Hawes, Jon Brockman, Martell Webster, Jamal Crawford, Nate Robinson, Lavine, Joe Harris Jr., Mitch Johnson and others.
He’s still coaching seventh- and eighth-graders. His players still revere him, and a few, like Thomas and Hawes, intend to help out with the 3-on-3 tournament. Hawes said it was the life lessons even more than the basketball skills he carried with him into the NBA.
“It’s not even the stuff he says and preaches,’’ Hawes said. “It’s how he handles adversity, and any situation thrown at him. How he’s dealt with Parkinson’s is a clear indication of that.
“With him, some days are better than others. I’ll see him, and he’s doing so well you forget he even has it. Another time — it could be the next day — you see how debilitating it can be.”
Marveled Walton: “Never a word of complaint. Never a down moment in public. The challenges he faces, he’s done it with such class, such dignity, such pride. I only hope that some day I can become half the human that Jim Marsh is.”
Steve Wright, executive director of the Northwest Parkinson’s Foundation and a staff member for the Marsh Classic, said that the disease affects everyone differently. Exercise is known to keep the symptoms at bay, so Marsh’s example is a good one, as is his relentlessly upbeat attitude.
“He doesn’t let this define him,’’ Wright said. “Some people let Parkinson’s define them. Jim is a mentor, a coach, a father, and all these other things — and he has Parkinson’s. That’s why he’s kind of a hero in our community. People see him doing all these great things. He has Parkinson’s, and it doesn’t stop him.”
It certainly hasn’t stopped Marsh from throwing himself headlong into the logistics of the tournament that bears his name. With about 22 hoops to be set up on the streets — there are divisions for men, women, coed, physically challenged, youth and adult — it’s an organizational challenge. But Marsh is confident they will pull it all together.
“I get the best out of people,’’ he said.
He is referring, with gratitude, to the way the basketball community banded together to help him after his Parkinson’s diagnosis. But scores of young basketball players have thrived on Marsh’s positivity; at clinics, such as the Jammin’ Hoops camps he ran all over the country for more than a decade, with the help of Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Marques Johnson, Gary Payton and scores of other NBA stars. Marsh instructs his coaches to say each player’s name with a smile and a compliment, because “many of these kids have never had anyone say a good word.”
He does, indeed, bring out the best in people.
“Jim has a compassionate soul that enables him to lift burdens off other people’s lives,’’ Walton said. “He is that ray of life, that beam of hope that allows people to believe they’re on the team, in the game, the game is on the level and they have a chance.”