Basketball: Marks calls time on NBA

By Grant Chapman

New Zealand's Sean Marks. Photo / Mark Mitchell
New Zealand's Sean Marks. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Sean Marks has always insisted how lucky he is to be living his National Basketball Association dream but now the on-court adventure is over - and a new journey begins.

The first Kiwi to enter the American professional league - widely regarded as the best basketball show in the world - hung up his sneakers this week and will move into an off-court role with the San Antonio Spurs. His decision ends an 11-year tenure, during which he suited up for six different teams and won a championship ring with the Spurs in 2005.

"The body tells you when it's time," says Marks (36), who stands at 2.08m and 113kg. "You realise you can't keep up with the young guys any more. Each generation is just bigger, stronger, faster, more athletic and perhaps a little hungrier."

Retirement has probably been on the cards for the past 12 months. The veteran forward-centre began the the last NBA pre-season in camp with the Washington Wizards but was cut after missing build-up games with a pulled hamstring.

He eventually found a spot with the short-handed Portland Trailblazers but was bundled up in a late-season trade to the Charlotte Bobcats and released almost before he had time to unpack his bags.

Marks sensed then he had done his dash and as the troubled labour negotiations between players and franchise owners dragged on, threatening the 2011-12 season, he began seriously considering his future.

"I thoroughly enjoyed that time away from the game with my wife Jennifer and our three boys, just being daddy for a while, and that made my decision easier. I never could have dreamed I'd play this long in the league. Every morning, I'd wake up and think how fantastic it was to do something I loved for a living. I'm just as blessed, now, to be able to continue in a different role."

The Spurs are widely regarded as one of the best-run NBA franchises and obviously made a big impression on Marks, even beyond the impact on his jewellery collection.

He built up a special bond with coach Greg Popovich and team-mates like Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.

Initially, Marks will split time between assisting coaching staff in a player development role and learning what makes the Spurs organisation tick over so smoothly from an administration perspective.

What role he goes on to play is still not set in stone.

Marks first emerged as a teenager on the end of the North Harbour bench in the National Basketball League and American coach Jerry Webber saw enough to help him to a US college scholarship at the University of California, Berkeley, where he majored in political science. In 1998, the New York Knicks named him as the 44th pick in the NBA draft and immediately traded Marks to the Toronto Raptors.

He debuted on March 16, 1999, against the New Jersey Nets and went on play 230 games for the Miami Heat, San Antonio, the Phoenix Suns, the New Orleans Hornets and Portland. While he rarely challenged the statisticians, averaging just 2.8 points and 2.2 rebounds per game, Marks earned his salary - usually the league minimum - in other ways that were just as valuable to team chemistry.

"I knew my role over my entire career and it wasn't to score 20 points a game. If I was lucky enough to score 10, that's great, but my role was just to bring energy. There were some key stats for me - defensive rebounding was one and I became a pick-and-pop shooter, so I needed to knock down those open shots. But with San Antonio, when we won the championship, I was a practice player and I had to treat that like a game - don't hurt the guys, but push them to get them ready.

"I cherished it, I embraced it. Other guys were arguably a lot better than me. They decided they didn't want that role and went to Europe to score points. But I was happy with my role and enjoyed being a good team-mate."

That attitude won the hearts of supporters wherever he played - or didn't, as the case may be.

While the Spurs' championship was an obvious highlight, Marks can also reflect on the odd cameo where he allowed the world a glimpse of his individual abilities.

During the 2008-09 season with the New Orleans Hornets, he appeared in a career-high 60 games (from a possible 82) and starred in a 101-97 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, scoring 18 points and the go-ahead dunk with 7.9 seconds remaining.

"That's the only time I've scored the winning points in a [NBA] game," he says.

Another enduring memory of his NBA career will be the basketball legends he shared company with, including Duncan and Ginobili at San Antonio, Shaquille O'Neal and Steve Nash at Phoenix, and Chris Paul at New Orleans.

Marks' retirement also ends any further speculation about an international comeback with the Tall Blacks.

He attended two Olympics - Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 - where he showed how competitive he could be against the best in the world.

But Kiwi fans will always wonder how far their team could have gone at the 2002 FIBA world championships if Marks hadn't been sidelined by the eye injury suffered in a pool game against Argentina.

Without him, the unheralded Tall Blacks went on to shock the planet (and win a Halberg Award) by making the semifinals and challenging eventual champions Yugoslavia.

"I'll always be proud of my NBA career and winning a ring but there's still nothing like walking out for an opening ceremony at the Olympics, wearing your country's flag on your chest."

- Herald on Sunday

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