On the latest episode of Listen In With KNN on Fox Sports 1340AM, host Kelsey Nicole Nelson welcomed former NBA player and a member of the Illinois’ 1989 “Flyin’ Illini” Final Four team Marcus Liberty to the show.
Speaking of his journey, he was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. Liberty didn’t love basketball at first even though his father, brothers and uncles played every weekend. One day, they were missing a player and his father made him play that day despite not knowing how to play.
“I couldn’t dribble the basketball but I blocked one of my cousin’s shot and got an applause from my father. That feeling that I got from that made me want to continue to play basketball. The next morning, I was back out there playing with my dad and was showing me the ins and outs of basketball and the rest is history,” Liberty said.
He attended King College Prep High School from 1984 to 1987. During that time, Liberty led the Jaguars to a state title and was named Illinois’ Mr. Basketball in 1987.
“I always look at things that I worked hard for and I earned it. At the same time, I didn’t want to throw it at anyone’s face. I just love playing the game of basketball and once the accolades came along with it, I just took it,” he said. “I was very humbled that other people recognized that I had pretty good basketball skills in the game and let my game do the talking.”
After high school, Liberty attended the University of Illinois where he saw people from all different backgrounds. Coming from an all black high school, it was a culture shock for the Chicago native.
“I remember one of my professors telling me to open up so people can get to know who you are and I started doing it and started liking college a little bit more and more. I didn’t play my freshmen year because of Proposition 48 in which you couldn’t play in your freshman year. So I had to find my way through the Student Body playing pickup games with them and kept me in shape,” he said.
Liberty was part of a stacked Fighting Illini team that had future NBA players in Nick Anderson, Kendall Gill and Kenny Battle. Nicknamed the “Flyin’ Illini,” they went to the Final Four in 1989 where they lost to Michigan 83-61.
“We built something special. Everybody stayed on campus that summer and we didn’t go back home. Adding me to that piece helped get us over some of those humps we had. What made us so special was we were all interchangeable.”
The Denver Nuggets selected Liberty with the 42nd pick in the 1990 NBA Draft. The talented swingman believed he could play in the league but didn’t understand the business side of the NBA.
“I was looking for someone to show me but the older guys were looking at me like, ‘you about to come in and take my spot and I’m not about to show you the ropes.’ I wanted to be out there playing and I never really got that chance to play as much my rookie year. But I started working out more,” he said. “Those guys in the NBA were faster, stronger, quicker and could shoot the ball from downtown.”
As a result, Liberty spent only four seasons in the NBA with the Nuggets and the Detriot Pistons before playing the remainder of his career overseas. But it was those life experiences that taught him the importance of giving back.
“All the knowledge that you’ve gotten from different coaches and people throughout your life, it’s up to you to give it back. Don’t hold on to it for yourself. Give it back to the next generation and let them learn and understand what they need to go through. That would be my advice to our listeners out there today.”