On Sunday night, we said goodbye to Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson, college basketball's most exciting troll, a sort of human "u mad bro?" who did everything to antagonize his opponents short of popping motorcycle wheelies at halfcourt with their girlfriends riding pillion. He and the 12th-seeded Rebels lost a heartbreaker to 13th-seeded La Salle, 76-74, and when the buzzer sounded, Henderson stalked off the court with two middle fingers raised.
Later, radio host Danny Parkins asked him for an explanation. Henderson told him, "Someone yelled that my sister is a whore and said something about cocaine."
The incident occasioned some tsk-tsking here and there, but by that point it'd been well established that Henderson was a temperamental figure—"outspoken," as CBS put it—and the two middle fingers seemed perfectly in character. The lines had been drawn on Henderson. You either love him or you hate him. We'd already reached the "Marshall being Marshall" stage of raffish sports anti-heroism, improbably.
But then, everything about Marshall Henderson is improbable. He messes with any racially essentialist expectations of what a white basketball player is supposed to be. He's an incessant shit-talker who tosses up 30-footers, rarely passes, and has a conspicuous lack of "hustle" stats. He tokes an invisible joint after made three-pointers. He drinks a lot, even during the NCAA tournament. He tweets photos of himself blacked out or with groupies, and calls them hoes. He has a rap sheet. He's a coach's kid with a known history of clashing with coaches. Marshall Henderson by all rights shouldn't exist. And if he were a black athlete, he wouldn't—not as far as big-time basketball is concerned.
Henderson is consciously at odds with the prototype. "Every team has a little white guy who can shoot threes," he told one interviewer (incidentally, his grandfather, Lonnie, is a full-blooded Choctaw). "I'm trying to make a difference." Nor is he Aaron Craft, a better player on a better Ohio State team who best embodies the white-guy type—unassuming, outwardly humble, fundamentally sound. After his game-winning three against Iowa State on Saturday, Craft joked in his postgame presser that instead of dreaming of big shots as a kid, he fantasized about taking last-second offensive charges. He then left, saying that he had to study for an organic chemistry test. The kid doesn't have to do any maneuvering. He's exactly what we expect him to be.
"Craft is perfect. He plays the right position. He plays with the right amount of effort," CBS Sports's Gregg Doyel wrote the other day, wondering why Henderson was so seemingly beloved. Then Doyel dropped the mask entirely. "And," he continued, writing about Craft, "he has the right demographics. Why those demographics elicit such dislike, I can't say. But earnest Aaron Craft is the one we're going to hate."
But basketball is complicated. Craft isn't perfect. He has a weird, canted little flick of a jump shot, and he can't really create his own offense. Those are fundamentals, too, and so is Henderson's ability to tear around screens and jack 11 three-pointers a game in the face of game plans expressly designed to chase him off the perimeter. Craft is no more fundamentally sound than Henderson and no less determined to humiliate his opponents (if you've watched him play defense or try to thread a pass between a guy's legs, you know this to be true); he's just better at the valorized, "white" aspects of the game.
Doyel's column, while seemingly harsh, was only making a point about etiquette, and it was ultimately forgiving. "Kid, I've been you," Doyel wrote. It's hard to think of him offering the same sort of empathy to, say, LSU's Honey Badger.
In fact, keep Tyrann Mathieu in mind when you read about Henderson's past. Henderson was a good student and highly rated shooting guard playing in his home state of Texas under his father, Willie. He was courted by schools like Gonzaga, Notre Dame, and Stanford his senior year but ultimately chose Utah. Before graduating in 2009, though, Henderson attempted to purchase $800 of marijuana with counterfeit money, and exchange a further $100 of the fake cash for real currency.
During his tumultuous freshman year, which included a one-game suspension for sucker-punching a BYU player, the Secret Service came knocking.
"They came to Utah and they were like, 'Blah and blah and we got this and surveillance camera,' and I threw up," Henderson told the Clarion-Ledger. "That was my first thing, because I thought I was done for."
He wasn't. In 2010, Henderson was charged with misdemeanor forgery in the incident, but he dodged federal court and received a two-year probation. That spring, Henderson also decided to transfer, saying, wonderfully, that coach Jim Boylen's rules didn't mesh with his "individualism."
From there he went to Texas Tech, where he redshirted then transferred again without ever playing a game. He spent his third year destroying junior college basketball at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas, leading the team on a 36-0 national championship run. Finally, he transferred to his third (and likely final) Division I program, Ole Miss. Just last year, he spent 25 days in jail for violating his probation after a drug test found traces of cocaine, pot, and alcohol in his system.
Chances are, you didn't know much, if any, of this. Until Saturday, when sportswriter Bomani Jones pointed it out on his Twitter account, Marshall Henderson's Wikipedia page didn't even mention his run-ins with the law. And Sunday's broadcast team of Marv Albert, Steve Kerr, and Craig Sager played the usual word games in order to skirt around his rap sheet. They called Henderson "flamboyant," "fiery," "emotional," and "magnetic"; they mentioned his past only once, when Albert said, vaguely, "He was put on probation, and went to jail for a month." There was no mention of the blow or the pot or the funny money. In print, Henderson might get the occasional slap on the wrist from the likes of Doyel and Seth Davis, who called his showboating "classless" back in January, but Henderson's personal history sits apart from the story of his play, as it should, and as it rarely does for black players who find themselves on the wrong side of the law. No one's calling Henderson a thug or a gangster. He's "paid his dues," some say. "He had to find the right program," as Kerr said on Sunday. He's still young. He's gotten his shit together. He's proven that he's capable of change.
Let's imagine the counterfactuals: If Henderson were black, the arrest alone likely would have ended his NCAA career. An attempt to pick up 50-plus grams of marijuana using fake currency isn't exactly a mere youthful transgression. Would a black 18-year-old have gotten off with just probation? Would he have gotten another chance to play Division I ball?
If that hadn't killed his career, wouldn't the punch and the subsequent falling out with his head coach have sealed the deal? He'd have been another selfish hothead, a punk, and if somehow he found another D1 program to take him in, his subsequent failed drug test and his month in jail would've ensured he'd go down in the ledger as a druggie and criminal, too. Not worth the trouble, they'd say.
We can get a good idea how this would've played out from Ole Miss itself. In January 2012, Rebels coach Andy Kennedy dismissed two players from the team—leading scorer Dundrecous Nelson, and a freshman named Jamal Jones, both of them black—following Nelson's arrest on charges of possessing drug paraphernalia. Nelson and Jones had been caught smoking weed, according to the cops.
"It's a shame, really," Kennedy said. "It's a shame. There's a process that I don't feel like is needed to get into, but you get to the point of no return. Obviously the most severe thing you can do is dismiss someone from your program and that's where we are."
That same semester, Ole Miss announced that Henderson would be joining the team. "Marshall is an outstanding shooter who will immediately bring some much-needed scoring to our backcourt," Kennedy said.
Or compare the refreshingly gentle handling of Henderson's missteps with the coverage of Mathieu.
Mathieu, in case you've forgotten, was crowned the top defensive player in college football in 2011, like Henderson an undersized athlete getting by primarily on balls and guile. But Honey Badger was kicked off the Tigers before the 2012 season for a series of failed drug tests that found traces of marijuana in his system. He withdrew from school and went to rehab, before enrolling again at LSU later in the fall, with hopes of playing in the 2013 season. On Oct. 25, he was arrested again for possession.
What followed was a shitstorm whipped up mainly by the media, who turned a commonplace story about recreational pot smoking into a narrative about a troubled black athlete on the verge of entering a very dark wood. Sports Illustrated's Thayer Evans and Pete Thamel, in maybe the single dumbest piece of sportswriting last year, went so far as to compare the Honey Badger to his father, Darrin Hayes—a convicted murderer who is serving out a life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole. They wrote:
If the crossroads he has arrived at — between redeeming his football career or squandering it, between old loyalties and new priorities — feels familiar to him, it should: Three decades ago his father came to the same point and washed out in a spiral of drugs and violence.
Mathieu has never done time. He's never killed anyone. He smoked pot. Synthetic pot. Shitty pot.
Mathieu played along with the narrative. What choice did he have? He cut his trademark blond hair (standard protocol for black athletes with legal issues now), and ESPN pursued and aired a Mathieu mea culpa, in which the 2o-year-old cried and apologized for partaking in a drug already legal in two states and decriminalized in over a dozen more. "I abused myself through marijuana," he said, through tears.
Mathieu will likely get drafted this year, but his story is already set. In five years, a decade, as long as Mathieu is in the public eye, he'll be stuck in a state of suspended animation: the former drug user, the criminal on a path to redemption. The broadcasters won't try to dance around the language. And right now? Not worth the trouble, they're saying.
Even if he never rolls another blunt and turns into one of the premier defensive backs in football, Honey Badger won't outrun that story. Henderson, however, is past the counterfeit money, the marijuana, the punch, the cocaine, the month in jail. He flipped us the bird on Sunday, but he's already past that, too. He's retained the kind of freedom everyone wants but only some people in public life can ever enjoy: the freedom to move on.