By Don Doxsie
It seemed inevitable that Roy Marble would become typecast.
He scored points in bunches, scored them in a variety of ways and often scored them in spectacular fashion. One minute he would be draining a mid-range jump shot. The next minute it might be a flying, breakaway dunk. The next time, he might be banking it off the backboard with a slick, duck-under drive to the hoop.
When you’re a high-flying, athletic wing player in the mold of Michael Jordan and you even wear the same number as Jordan, it’s easy for others to view you as someone who only cares about his own offense. But like Jordan, Marble’s game went far beyond the points. Those who played against him and alongside him knew. So did those of us who watched him up close during four years of college basketball excellence at the University of Iowa from 1985 to 1989.
“He was a great teammate,’’ former Iowa coach Tom Davis said of Marble, who died of cancer at the age of 48 on Sept. 11, 2015. “He was for the team first, it wasn’t about Roy, it was about the team and what was best for the team. He was unselfish as a player and he was coachable for that reason.’’
Brad Lohaus, whose Iowa career overlapped with Marble’s for two years, said his former teammate “did a little of everything.”
“I couldn’t believe the stuff he could do,’’ Lohaus said. “He helped me be a better player because of how good he was.’’
Marble, as a college player, may have been somewhat underrated. That seems an odd thing to say about a player who has been the all-time leading scorer in the history of his school for more than a quarter-century, having tallied 2,116 points during his Hawkeye career. But Marble almost certainly is among the best Big Ten basketball players never to make first team all-conference. He made the second team in both his sophomore and junior seasons and was third team as a senior despite averaging 20.5 points per game.
In addition to being a scorer, the 6’6” Marble was a disruptive force at the defensive end. He was Iowa’s all-time leader in steals when his career ended and he still is No. 4 on that list. And when he had the ball in his hands, he wasn’t just looking to score. Another former Iowa player, Michael Morgan, remembered Marble as much for clever, creative passing as for scoring.
Marble sometimes seemed to be in the shadow of teammate and friend B.J. Armstrong, who had a brighter personality and was more polished both on the court and off. That shadow only lengthened after they left Iowa. Armstrong played 11 seasons in the NBA and played a role in winning three world championships while Marble’s own pro career was derailed by personal demons. He appeared in just 29 games in the NBA, playing a total of 194 minutes.
But Marble demonstrated he was a winner even before he came to Iowa. He led Flint’s Beecher High School to the Michigan Class B state title and arrived as part of the best recruiting class in Iowa history. All five players who came in together prior to the 1985-86 season saw at least some action in the NBA.
Marble led the Hawkeyes in scoring with an average of 12.5 points per game in his freshman season under George Raveling. But you can’t help but wonder if he ever would have become an all-time great under Raveling, whose skills at recruiting players went far beyond his ability to develop them.
One of the best things to happen to Marble was the arrival of Davis as Raveling’s replacement for the 1986-87 season.
Davis espoused relentless, pressing defense and up-tempo offense. If he could have taken a chisel and made the perfect player for what he wanted to do, he would have created someone with size, superb athletic gifts and an aggressive nature. He would have created Marble.
With Marble, Armstrong, Lohaus, Kevin Gamble and others blossoming under Davis, the Hawkeyes embarked on one of their best seasons ever. They won their first 17 games to rise to the No. 1 ranking. After starting 14-0, the streak seemed to have come to an abrupt end on Jan. 14, 1987, at Illinois. They Hawkeyes fell behind by 22 points in the second half but they never stopped grinding, wearing down the Illini and coming all the way back to claim a miraculous 91-88 victory.
They hammered Bob Knight’s Indiana team in the next game before the streak finally ended with a loss to Ohio State.
The Hawkeyes went 27-4 in the regular season, then defeated Santa Clara, UTEP and Oklahoma in the first three games of the NCAA tournament. Marble had one of his best games against UTEP, scoring 28 points and hitting some key free throws in the final minute.
Iowa then opened a 16-point halftime lead against UNLV in the regional championship game and was just 20 minutes from the Final Four. Yet somehow it all came apart in the second half and UNLV won the game, 84-81. That wasn’t one of Marble’s best games. He scored just nine points and admitted he was thrown off his game by the physical tactics of the Rebels’ Armon Gilliam.
The dismay of that day is something Marble took with him to the grave. When he wrote his memoirs 25 years later, he ended the book with that defeat without ever elaborating on the damage it did emotionally.
“I haven’t gotten over it. I’ll never get over it,” he admitted in an interview then. “All I know is that Bobby Knight said, ‘If we’ve got to play the University of Iowa again, they may as well just give them the national championship.’