Marcus Denmon, grandma share bond

Often they came by twos, pairs of siblings trying to escape the flood of life's misfortune, winding and finding their way to the safe haven of Bertha Denmon's home.

Some were left intentionally in her care, dropped off by parents who didn't have the emotional or financial means to care for their own. Others sort of just wound up with her, coming for a week or maybe a summer and instead ended up staying for a lifetime.

Her sister's children arrived first, moving in with their aunt after their mother died. They were just 2 and 6 years old.

Soon enough there were two more and then more nieces and nephews, grandkids or cousins.

They came not because Bertha was rich in money, but because she is fabulously wealthy in compassion.

Her eldest son always asked, "How do your arms reach out that long to love?'

Bertha could never answer.

You just do what you do, do what you can, she'd always say.

Help others first.

Just how many kids did Bertha, who bore six children of her own, care for? She's not sure.

"I think I raised up to 16 into adulthood," she said. "Now, I'm just throwing out a number. I really don't know if that's everyone. There was never a time I had less than eight children in my house and most of them I sent on to college."

The last to come through, her grandson, was the handful, the ball of fire she had to watch closest of all.

All boy, as they say.

He wasn't bad, just too smart for his own good. If he wasn't occupied, he was trouble: climbing a tree in the backyard, yanking a girl's hair in school and scurrying away, itching and fidgeting in his seat.

"Give him more to do," Bertha practically begged the teachers.

She's why I am who I am.

-- Missouri's Marcus Denmon on his grandmother

"I always had him doing something -- helping me fold clothes, whatever he could," she said. "So then the teachers started to have him help, take things to the office. I told them you can't just let him sit still."

Marcus Denmon is still itching and fidgeting. Now, instead of bothering his grandmother, he's pestering his opponents, the perfect active cog for Mike Anderson's Fastest 40 Minutes in Columbia.

The leading scorer for the 14th-ranked Missouri, Marcus is more than a point producer. The Tigers are his team, their success a byproduct of his leadership, their personality stemming from his own.

Which means, then, that Missouri is really Bertha Denmon's team.

"She's why I am who I am," Marcus said of the woman he calls "Honey." "She's kind of in charge of everybody. Whatever is going on in the family runs through her. I always make sure I'm doing right for her and doing right by her. She's my favorite person in the world."

"After I went to college, we moved into a bigger house, more bedrooms," Martinez Denmon, Marcus' uncle, explained, "and I couldn't figure it out. I'd come home and there would be no place for me to sleep. There are more rooms and none with my name on it."

Martinez laughed as he told the story, marveling now as he did then at his mother's kindness.

New faces greeted him at the door all the time, cousins and other extended family members who found a pillow and a soft landing with Bertha.

"I don't know if it was that unique," Martinez said. "Those were the circumstances we were brought up in. People looked out for each other. Maybe it sounds strange now because things have changed. The family units aren't as close as they used to be or they needed to be, but my mom did what she did because she could."

And Martinez picked up her lead.

He parlayed two high-scoring seasons at Iowa State into a third-round draft spot with the Boston Celtics in 1973.

When his basketball career ended, he glided easily into corporate success.

Now a vice president at an educational publishing company who can see the light of retirement near the end of his tunnel, Martinez has the financial means and his mother's genes for compassion to do right by his family.

At Christmas, he is the Denmon family Santa Claus, loading up his sleigh with so many goodies for all of his de facto siblings that Bertha literally has to clear the furniture from her dining room and living room to make space for the haul.

"He's the real giver," Bertha Denmon said. "Marcus, all of my children had all of their needs and 90 percent of their wants met, and that's because of Martinez. He isn't good to one person. He's good to everybody."

Martinez's first act of kindness was getting his mother and the extended family out of the projects of Kansas City and into a nice suburban home.

His second act: Paving the better part of the backyard and putting down a basketball court.

The neighborhood kids, who flocked to it every day and every night, called it The Court.

Marcus, who came to live with his paternal grandmother when he was an infant -- "his mother gave him to me," is all Bertha cares to offer by explanation -- was 7 years old when the family moved into that new house.

The Court was his domain.

There are family pictures of Marcus dribbling a basketball at the age of 3, standing outside and entertaining anyone who wanted to watch him demonstrate his skills.

By the time The Court was installed, he was playing with kids two and three times his age.

"I'd yell out there, 'Don't you hurt my baby,"' Bertha said. "And they'd yell back, 'Your baby is hurting us.'"

If Bertha called Marcus in from the back deck for something, he'd snatch his ball, making sure the game couldn't continue without him. The boys -- even though most were technically young men -- would simply wait patiently for Marcus to return.

His Uncle Martinez thought Marcus could play at a young age, but he didn't necessarily see that as something unique. The bar is perpetually set high at the Denmon household, especially in basketball. Along with Martinez, Marcus' older brother, Martane Freeman, played at the University of Colorado.

Succeeding at basketball, just like succeeding in the classroom, is viewed more as an expectation than an accomplishment.

"Why would I be surprised?" Martinez said. "He's an outstanding young man, an outstanding basketball player. We anticipate that in our family."

When the plane touched down after Missouri's game at Oregon, Marcus knew immediately something was wrong. He flipped on his cell phone and the thing just kept on buzzing, one text message after another after another.

Back in Kansas City, the news was grim: His cousin, Marion, had been shot, the victim of crossfire while riding in a car.

Five days later, the 20-year-old died of his injuries.

Part of that extended family who lived with Bertha, Marion was a cousin by birth, but a brother through life.

Marcus called him Little Daddy; Bertha tabbed the boy, named after her own father, Mr. D. Inseparable since childhood, the two boys were schoolmates and teammates on The Court.

"He was a jokester, a clown," Marcus said. "Everyone around him always had a smile, just laughing at something he was doing. He was the one, he'd make you laugh at the wrong time -- at something that wasn't supposed to be funny."

The day after Marion died, Missouri was hosting Vanderbilt.

"We talked and I told [Marcus] he had to take time," Anderson said. "But I think that made him even hungrier. It's like he was playing for himself and his cousin."

But Marcus saw the basketball court as a place to lose himself, even if only for a handful of hours.

Even more, he thought his team needed him.

Help others first, Bertha always preached, and so Marcus played.

Always a sparkplug as a sixth man, Marcus was pushed into a starring role this season with the graduation of J.T. Tiller and Zaire Taylor.

Anderson hoped he could handle the new responsibilities, but did he plan on it?

No, no he didn't. Mizzou fans need only peek across the border at Kansas State, where Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly have struggled under the burden of leadership, to see how woefully that can go.

But Marcus was ready and eager to make this team his team.

"I earned it," he said. "I earned this chance. It comes with hard work and waiting your turn."

Marcus sewed the seeds of respect last season when he played on a gimpy knee without complaint, finishing as the Tigers' second-leading scorer.

From the jump this season, he earned even more. The kid labeled a scorer showed he was a whole lot more. His numbers are up across the board -- 17.5 points up from 10.4 last season, plus-1 in rebounding and steals, a better assist-to-turnover ratio, better field goal percentage and a blistering 3-point shooting percentage that ranks in the top 30 nationally.

And whatever lingering doubts people had about Marcus' leadership all but evaporated in that Vandy game.

Still grieving, he scored 19 of his 21 points after halftime. With the game tied, he swiped a pass at halfcourt, scored the layup and made the ensuing free throw in the waning seconds of overtime. Missouri won, 85-82.

"It was just remarkable, really remarkable," Anderson said. "That told me the kind of person Marcus is. He knew his teammate needed him and he was there for them. Believe me, they noticed."

They talk every day; Marcus checking in to see if his grandmother is all right, Bertha making sure her boy is getting by.

They talk about life, they talk about school and they talk about basketball. Having raised three Division I players, Bertha isn't shy about her knowledge, nor is she afraid to share it.

"Oh, she knows the game," Marcus said. "She'll tell me when she thinks I need to be more aggressive, certain things she's seen in a game."

"I could be a coach," Bertha said, without a hint of sarcasm in her voice.

The one thing they haven't really talked much about is Marion. The pain of his death was compounded at the funeral when, before the service ended, gunmen opened fire outside, spraying the front door of the Macedonia Baptist Church.

But since the funeral, since Marion's death, Marcus hasn't made any grand gestures -- no new hand signals after made free throws, no names or initials inked on his sneakers.

He's angry, he admits, but with younger cousins and other family members looking to him, won't let that anger affect him. He's just sort of kept on keeping on.

"He doesn't talk to me much about it but I think that's because, I don't know, I think we're all sort of worn out," Bertha said. "It hurt so bad. It hurt so bad. And I know Marcus is hurting, but the way he handles it, he just goes off and does what he does."

And that's just fine with Bertha.

Do what you do, do what you can, help others before you worry about yourself.

That is how Marcus Denmon acts because that is how Marcus Denmon was raised.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.