It was an afternoon like any other, early April in Mequon, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. Chloe Marotta’s phone buzzed: a text from Mom.
“Dad’s in the hospital.”
Behind the wheel on the short drive home from Homestead High School, Cam Marotta, a senior, heard fear in the voice of his younger sister as she read the text aloud. If Cam was afraid, he didn’t show it.
“It’s OK,” he assured her. “Calm down.”
Cam believed it was OK because Marc Marotta wasn’t the sort of guy you worried about. No one was more dependable than their dad. He was of towering stature—by every definition—yet seemingly always within arm’s reach. To Cam, Chloe and their two sisters, he was invincible.
Back at their house, Cam dialed his mother. By then Kim Marotta had arrived at the hospital, and she was, Cam recalls, “hysterical.” Something about Dad having passed out in his car. Kim made a sound. Cam didn’t need to hear the rest.
The phone fell from his hand.
From behind him, Chloe screamed.
“It was,” says Cam, “the worst day of my life.”
For the next four years, when Marquette basketball fans look to the end of the bench, they’ll find walk-on guard Cam Marotta. And if the older fans look closely enough, they’ll see something familiar.
They’ll see it in the freshman’s powerful shoulders and arms. They’ll see it in his nose, which, in true Marotta fashion, has been busted up a few times on the basketball court. They’ll see it in the number on his jersey, the same 52 his late father wore. Cam will remind fans of Marc Marotta, save for nine or 10 inches and all the playing time.
Cam has about as much chance of getting into a Big East game this season as you or I do, yet he’s proudly carrying the banner for Marquette hoops’ first family. Marc, a Pittsburgh native, was a handsome, rugged 6’7” forward and a mainstay on the school’s strong teams of the early 1980s. Cam’s maternal grandfather, Robert Heller Jr., and great-grandfather, Robert Heller Sr., played there. Kim was a Marquette cheerleader. Chloe, now a 6’1” sophomore at Homestead, already has a scholarship offer to play basketball at the school.
And then there’s Cam, who’s generously listed at 5’10”. Truth be told, he’s probably better at football; he was an all-area cornerback at Homestead. Kim thought he’d choose football, in fact, after the two took a recruiting trip to Butler, a highly successful FCS program.
“Everything about that trip was great,” his mother says. “We were driving [home] and I said, ‘Wow, I can see you at Butler.’ But he said, ‘I’d rather be one of 14 at Marquette than one of 100 at Butler.’”
In the end, the decision to walk on at Marquette wasn’t complicated. Cam wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father. Being a star on the court wasn’t important. Seeing the man he calls his “best friend” in the stands was.
“He would just be loving this whole experience,” Cam says. “He was all pumped up about it. It was going to be the best four years for me and for him.”
Marc Marotta wasn’t invincible. He died April 8 as a result of a brain aneurysm in the parking lot of Milwaukee’s Wisconsin Athletic Club after a workout. He was 52.
He experienced neck pain—a symptom of a brain aneurysm, as the Marottas now know—in the days leading to his death, but he tried to suck it up and press forward. That was in character for a man who seemed capable of everything.
He was drafted by the New York Knicks, but the only three-time Academic All-American in school history went to Harvard Law School instead. Back in Wisconsin, he served in the administration of former Governor Jim Doyle, became a partner in a leading Milwaukee law firm and was deeply involved in the city’s Boys and Girls Club and other areas of community outreach. He also was board chairman of the BMO Harris Bradley Center, home of Marquette and the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks.
Yet Marc’s “proudest legacy,” Kim says, was the time he spent coaching each of their children in basketball.
“He worked long hours at his job,” she says, “but he’d give it all up to leave at 4 (o'clock) to get to a fifth-grade girls’ basketball game. That’s what made him feel fulfilled.”
Cam still swims in the specialness of the bond he shared with his father. He's lost count of the number of times he has reached for his phone to text or call him about something that happened at practice. Kim worries Cam has held in too much of his grief, but Cam has cried more than his mother realizes. Sometimes, the tears come when he’s driving alone. A piece of paper given to him by Marc’s Marquette teammate Tom Copa—notes Copa jotted down before speaking at the funeral—never fails to move him.
Meanwhile, Cam’s life on the court is challenging in its own right. For a walk-on, practices are an endless exercise in taking one for the team. Some drills mean standing off to the side and watching, which can make it hard for a kid to feel like he’s even on the team. Others involve impossibly heavy lifting—going heads-up against players who are bigger, faster and, to put it mildly, better. In between the extremes lie no moments of glory, only selflessness. Invisibility, almost.
“Me and the two other walk-ons, our job is to make sure the energy level stays high and make our teammates better every day,” Marotta says. “I’m glad to do it. I’m building lifelong friendships with my teammates. I’m living a great experience I’ll always be able to look back on.
“But, yeah, I guess it’s kind of hard knowing you’re not going to be playing.”
Diving into his role as a walk-on has helped Cam feel connected with his dad, who was, in former Marquette star Doc Rivers’ words, “unselfish—a giving teammate.”
“He was physical and tough, a Steel City kid,” says the Los Angeles Clippers coach. “But he was a great guy and a good friend. I talked to him probably a week before he passed.”
One of the things they talked about was how great it would be to have Cam at Marquette and on the team. Not in the sort of high-profile role they’d enjoyed 30 years prior, but so what?
“Cam primarily helps us behind the scenes, but I certainly appreciate his value,” says Golden Eagles coach Steve Wojciechowski. “Walk-ons add to the value of programs every day.”
Marquette’s top player, 6’11” freshman Henry Ellenson, got to know Marotta during their final season of AAU ball, when they played together on a team Marc helped coach. Now Ellenson is the most recognizable person on a college campus and is being floated as a potential NBA lottery pick in 2016. There’s a wall between superstar and walk-on.
It’s literally a wall—the one that separates their rooms in Humphrey Hall. They knock on the wall in code. When students stop them on the street and ask about the NBA, Ellenson points at Marotta and says, “This kid is going pro, not me.”
“He’s been real nice from the first time I met him, and our friendship has just grown ever since,” Ellenson says. “He reminds me a lot of his dad. His dad was like, ‘You ever need anything, let me know’—right off the bat, just a really nice guy. And Cam, how he acts for other people is something he’s really known for. I don’t know if I could do what walk-ons do, but the stuff they do for our team is something I just really admire.”
The Golden Eagles’ season opener is Friday versus Belmont in Milwaukee, and that means Cam Marotta—like walk-ons all over college basketball—is about to go really quiet for four months. His game highlights will have to come in the layup line.
That’s nothing like what his dad experienced at Marquette, yet Marc’s life will be shining through Cam as it already has been. Marc was always there for his kids, and not only for basketball games. You know what Cam thinks about every day? It’s just a little thing, but it means everything to him now. His dad—an early riser, always with so much on his own plate—never failed to make breakfast for the family. It was how he wished them a good day. It was a simple way he let them know: I love you.
Cam starts his own days now by texting his mother and three sisters—Karley, Chloe and McKenna.
“ ‘Good morning, everybody. Have a great day. I love you!’ ” Kim says, reading one.
He does it at night, too.
“He’s an amazing kid,” Kim says. “It’s just absolutely amazing, the strength and fortitude all the kids have and the love they’ve shown for each other. It’s one of the things that helps you get through a significantly tough time. I’m in awe of the way they’ve rallied around each other. Cam has really led the way on that.”
For Marotta, it’s about those footsteps—his father's. It’s about the responsibility a son feels to carry on a legacy.
“I don’t think about how I have to be as great a player as he was here,” Marotta says. “I want to be the same type of person my dad was. When I’m a father, I want to care about my kids as much as he cared about me and my three sisters. That’s what’s most important to me.”
Steve Greenberg has covered college sports for nearly 20 years, namely for the Sporting News and the Chicago Sun-Times.