MANN TRADES PRO BASKETBALL FOR PULPIT.
The black sky above the Mississippi Delta is cracked open by a thunderstorm. Rain pours into the cotton fields and beats a rhythm on the roof of the small recreation building at Mississippi Valley State.
Inside, Marcus Mann is at work. The campus director of recreation, Mann is in charge of the building. Tonight he is staying late so the fraternities and sororities can practice their dances for the homecoming show. Dressed in black sweats and white high tops, the 6-foot-7 Mann looks ready for a game. But he rarely picks up a basketball these days.
On this same night, thousands of miles away, the Golden State Warriors are on the road, preparing for an exhibition game. Mann knows what it would be like. The team would be staying at a hotel. There would be groupies around, autograph seekers, flashy suits and jewelry, wads of bills pulled from money clips. Mann saw it all. Even in exhibition season, he saw the attention and riches available to men who can put a basketball through a hoop.
That's the life Mann, 23, walked out on one year ago Friday. Though he had beaten the odds, had become one of the millions of basketball-playing kids who actually made it through the narrow funnel into the tiny vessel of the NBA, he turned his back on a career in professional basketball.
``This is an unusual story,'' said his college coach, Lafayette Stribling. ``But Marcus Mann is an unusual person.''
And Mann has no regrets.
``I'm a much more mature and courageous man now,'' he says. ``It's been a blessing every day.''
On Oct. 5, Mann stood up before the congregation of Jones Chapel, the small Baptist church where he grew up singing gospel, in Carthage, Miss., and made the transition from God-fearing young man to preaching minister.
In the small towns of Mississippi, where gospel music and cotton-trading prices fill the radio dial, it is not unusual for a young man to get ``the calling'' to the ministry. Mann felt it last summer and prayed. And when he opened his Bible to the book of Matthew and saw the passage - chapter 16, verse 26 - it was a moment of clarity.
``For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?''
Some thought Mann had gained the whole world when he was drafted in the second round by the Warriors in 1996. Despite a back injury in training camp, he was going to make the roster and be guaranteed the rookie minimum of $220,000. He could become a star. At the very least, he could become wealthier than most people in Carthage or Itta Bena ever dreamed of being.
On Oct. 31, the day before the Warriors opened their 1996-97 season, Mann explained his feelings. He said it wouldn't be fair to him or the Warriors to continue. He said he wanted to work with children. And on Nov. 1, while the Warriors played the Clippers, Mann was on a plane headed back to Mississippi.
``I felt nervous, but at the same time I had a peace of mind,'' he says. ``It felt so good to finally say, inside myself, `Marcus, you are ready to do what you want to do.' ''
For a long time, what Mann wanted to do was play basketball. He played in the yard of his grandparents' house, where he lived with his mother, Annie, and three younger brothers. He didn't know his father until he was in high school, but he had plenty of uncles and his mother with whom to play ball.
``It was the thing to do,'' he says.
He was an all-state player and highly recruited. After two years at junior college, he enrolled at Mississippi Valley State to play for Stribling, whom he had known most of his life. He was the top rebounder in Division I his senior season. He also maintained a 3.7 grade-point average, majoring in health.
``He's a serious-minded person,'' Stribling said. ``If there was a party outside the dorm and every one of my players was there, I knew my best player was in bed getting rest. It makes coaching easier.''
Stribling thought his star had a shot at an NBA career because of his work ethic.
Mann liked the Warriors, liked his teammates. He wasn't too homesick. He says his back injury didn't frustrate him. But as training camp extended through October, Mann felt himself changing.
``My desire to play ball was leaving,'' he says. ``I knew I had an obligation to go to practice, but I didn't even want to. I knew God was making a transition. God was taking control of my life.''
Mann struggled. He prayed every night. When he woke up in the morning, he faced the question: Should he stay and do what everyone expected him to do, or should he follow his heart?
He found a soul-food spot in Oakland and ate there every day, spending just a fraction of his per diem and saving the rest.
Then Mann left, trading an NBA job for uncertainty. He worked for a time as an assistant math teacher, then a bookstore manager. He enrolled in the master's program at Mississippi Valley and began to work as the recreation director, setting up programs for the faculty and students and community programs involving children. He wants to keep his salary private but acknowledges that it is less than 10 percent of the salary he was guaranteed as an NBA rookie. Significantly less.
That doesn't matter to Mann, who saved enough from his summer NBA pay to buy a computer and a truck.
Mann tells the kids who play ball in his building to pay attention to their schoolwork. He doesn't know what the future holds. He plans to get married next summer to a woman he met at church a few months back. He plans to let God guide him.
``God's people are a peculiar people,'' Mann says, smiling out into the Delta downpour.
Marcus Mann did not exchange his soul for profit. An unusual story, indeed.
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Nov 3, 1997|
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