From Iraq to Dallas, NCAA Bad Boy Marshall Henderson Still Chasing Hoops Dream

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagMarch 8, 2018

ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 13:  Marshall Henderson #22 of the Mississippi Rebels reacts after hitting a three-point basket against the Mississippi State Bulldogs during the second round of the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament at Georgia Dome on March 13, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

DALLAS — The most polarizing player in recent college basketball history follows the hostess down the hall of the dimly-lit Japanese steakhouse, where chefs juggle knives and toss shrimp toward the mouths of eager patrons, as if they were feeding animals at a zoo.

Marshall Henderson decided to eat at Benihana after reading about it online—"It sounds amaaazzziiinnngg," he'd said earlier that afternoon—but the former Ole Miss star didn't realize diners here are seated in groups. He seems puzzled when the hostess directs him toward a table occupied by four strangers.

"Umm, we're not with them," Henderson says, but he's told he has no choice.

So the walking sound bite—the guy who pissed off crowds in darn near half the arenas in the SEC, the hothead who once kicked over a handful of water bottles and flipped off the crowd after an NCAA tournament loss and trolled Erin Andrews on Twitter, the rabble-rouser who served a 25-day jail stint for a failed drug test—plops into his chair and sidles up to the table. Somewhat amusingly, Henderson looks up and discovers he's seated directly across from a Catholic priest.

"Of all people," chuckles a reporter, who hints Henderson may need to talk quietly.

"Oh don't worry, I won't say anything stupid," Henderson says as he opens his menu. "I'm actually kinda boring now."

If only more people knew that about Marshall Henderson.

If only those teams that didn't invite him to NBA Summer League or training camp would've known about the secret trip to rehab that altered his outlook. Perhaps then Henderson would be swishing threes in the G League instead of dominating a Thursday night rec league outside of Dallas.

If only overseas scouts had known he'd deleted his Twitter account and had gone months without consuming alcohol, maybe he'd have been awarded a multiyear contract instead of having to hopscotch from one mid-level team to the next in Qatar, Iraq and Italy.

If only the coaches in South America, Argentina and Mexico—all of whom have inquired in recent weeks—could hear Henderson talk about his newfound faith, he might have a full-time job playing basketball right now.

Those thoughts pass through Henderson's mind every day as he bides his time in Dallas, where he's been since falling out of the sport altogether in April. Almost every day, Henderson drops his girlfriend off for work at NorthPark Center and then spends the afternoon doing odd jobs, working out or running a trail in his parents' neighborhood. Three nights a week he competes in rec leagues—50-point performances aren't uncommon—and often checks his phone during timeouts. His agent, Jason Elam, has told Henderson for months now that he could be offered a contract to play outside the country any day.

"I feel bad that it's taking this long, that he's having this much trouble finding a job," Elam says. "There are a lot of people out there who still think Marshall Henderson is this wild, crazy guy. That's the farthest thing from the truth."

Henderson may have indeed moved on from the mistakes he made in college.

Yet nearly four years later, he's still paying for them.

Marshall Henderson knew he was in trouble the minute he stepped off the plane.

It was May 2013—the summer before his senior season at Ole Miss—and Henderson had spent the previous week at the Kevin Durant Skills Academy in Washington, D.C. One evening, while out with a group of fellow campers, Henderson says he smoked marijuana.

Weeks after leading Ole Miss to a 27-9 record and into the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2013, Marshall Henderson was sent off to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center before his senior season.
Weeks after leading Ole Miss to a 27-9 record and into the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2013, Marshall Henderson was sent off to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center before his senior season.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

"I got back to Oxford," Henderson says, "and someone from Ole Miss was waiting for me at the airport. They drug-tested me right then and there."

A few weeks later, Henderson—who had already failed a test six weeks earlier—was summoned to the office of athletic director Ross Bjork. Instead of kicking him off the team, Bjork informed Henderson that the school was sending him to "The Ranch," a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center just outside of Nashville. A representative from the facility accompanied Henderson to his apartment, gave him 10 minutes to gather some belongings and then drove the reigning SEC scoring leader to Tennessee.

"I didn't fight it," Henderson says. "Deep down, I think I realized I needed some sort of a wake-up call."

Whether it was on the court or off, Henderson had long had a knack for drawing attention that often placed him at the center of controversy.

As a star at L.D. Bell High School just outside of Dallas, he blew kisses to his then-girlfriend in the stands after dunks and once knocked an opposing player unconscious by pegging him in the face with the basketball to keep it from going out of bounds.

In a road game against Colleyville Heritage his senior year, Henderson, who was coached by his father, silenced chants of "Daddy's Boy! Daddy's Boy!" by unspooling a three-pointer a few steps after he crossed midcourt.

"As soon as he shot it," longtime family friend Scott Hammonds says, "he pointed his finger toward the ceiling, turned his back and started jogging toward the other end. He didn't even watch the ball fall through the net. He just knew it was going in."

Just as they did in high school, Henderson's showboating ways quickly made him the player opposing fans loved to hate at Ole Miss, where he signed in 2012 after one-year stops at Utah, Texas Tech (he redshirted but never played) and South Plains (Texas) Junior College.

Henderson taunted Florida fans by doing the Gator chop during an Ole Miss win in the SEC championship. He labeled conference coaches "losers" when they didn't vote him to the first-team all-conference squad despite averaging 20.1 points per game, and he publicly called out Missouri players for not shaking hands after losing to the Rebels in the SEC tournament.

In one of the most recognizable GIFs in sports history, Henderson—moments after hitting a pair of game-winning free throws in a road triumph over Auburn—approached the Tigers' student section and rubbed in the victory by flicking his jersey repeatedly as he was showered with insults.

"Has there ever been a more despised SEC basketball player than Marshall Henderson?" a newspaper columnist wrote that spring.

"I'm a manipulator of sorts," Henderson said back then. "I like messing with people's minds."

Irritating as he was to SEC opponents and fans, Henderson became a cult hero in Oxford. Everywhere he went, it seemed, people asked him for pictures and autographs. He embraced the attention he received when he strolled throughout campus or when he went to a bar. Just hours after leading Ole Miss to its first NCAA tournament win since 2001, a 57-46 victory over Wisconsin, Henderson was photographed drinking with fans at a bar across the street from the arena in Kansas City. The pictures immediately hit Twitter, prompting a Rebels assistant to race to the establishment from the team hotel to remove Henderson from the situation.

"I still remember him showing up, all frantic and out of breath," Henderson chuckles now. "I didn't mind. I just went back and threw a party in my hotel room."

Henderson had entered Ole Miss the previous fall fresh off a 25-day jail stint he received for testing positive for marijuana, cocaine and alcohol, which was a violation of the probation he'd received in 2010 for a charge of attempting to use counterfeit money to purchase marijuana.

"I was on probation again when I got to Oxford," he says. "When it expired in February, I just went wild. It was the first time in months that I could go out and have fun—and I'd been playing so well, so now I was this big baller.

"In just a few short months I'd become this king of basketball, and I couldn't control myself. I definitely couldn't handle living in a glorified role. I was reckless."

Henderson failed a drug test just weeks after coming off probation and again following the Durant camp that summer. Shortly before he left for rehab, Ole Miss officials hired former Fresno State star Chris Herren to speak with Henderson and other Rebels athletes. A former college star, Herren had a well-chronicled battle with substance abuse issues.

"He made a special trip, an emergency trip, just to come down there to talk with me," Henderson says. "His main message was, 'Hey, you're still young. You still have time to turn things around and have a great career. All of your goals are still right there in front of you.'"

Henderson listened, and he learned from his time at "The Ranch," the rehab facility just outside Nashville.

"It was a good experience for me, a wake-up call more than anything," Henderson says. "The only thing was, they kept trying to find this deep meaning behind what I was doing. I didn't think it was that complicated. I was just a guy that liked a party.

"At one point I was like, 'Maybe I should just man up and grow a pair and get my s--t together.' I wasn't an addict. I was just ignorant. There was no sense making excuses. I had no one to blame but myself."

Henderson's numbers dipped slightly as a senior, and Ole Miss failed to make the postseason. Henderson, though, was much less of a problem. His on-court flare-ups were few and he avoided trouble away from the court. He even surprised former SEC foe Florida by traveling to Memphis to cheer on the Gators in the Sweet 16.

Still, the damage Henderson had done to his reputation was too much to overcome.

Henderson averaged 19.6 points per game in two seasons at Ole Miss but couldn't secure an invite to the NBA's draft combine or summer league.
Henderson averaged 19.6 points per game in two seasons at Ole Miss but couldn't secure an invite to the NBA's draft combine or summer league.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

He wasn't invited to the NBA Draft Combine, nor was he granted a spot on an NBA Summer League roster—a surprise considering his lofty scoring stats at Ole Miss. Henderson wasn't even asked to attend the Portsmouth Invitational, an event that showcases college seniors to pro scouts.

Herren had promised Henderson after his tumultuous junior season that his goals and dreams were still attainable. One year later, it hardly felt that way.

"I realized then," Henderson says, "that I pretty much screwed up any chance I'd ever have of playing in the NBA because of what I did in college. I didn't get down about it, though. I just decided to explore other options."

And so began one of the wildest years of Marshall Henderson's wild life.

The knock came shortly after 8 a.m. on the door of a hotel room in Iraq.

"Your team is gone," a bellman informed Marshall Henderson in broken English. "They all left on a bus in the middle of the night. There is a driver downstairs to take you to the airport."

A few weeks earlier, in February 2015, Henderson had signed a $10,000-per-month contract with Naft Al-Janoob of the Iraqi Division I Basketball League. He'd collected half of his money the previous evening, prior to tipoff of a season-ending tournament game in Baghdad. Henderson was told he'd be given the remaining amount the following morning, but instead his team had bolted without paying him.

"And now there was this beat-up car—I think it was a Toyota Corolla—waiting to take me to the airport," Henderson says. "I'm in the middle of Baghdad, so all of the stereotypes started to come into play.

"I couldn't help but think, 'Is this it for me? Is this where it all ends? Is this where I'm gonna die?'"

Scary as it was at the time, Henderson chuckles as he tells the story nearly three years later. It's just one of many tales he's collected during a three-year overseas career that's included multiple stops in Italy as well as a stint in Qatar, where he earned MVP honors after averaging 17.1 points in the Arab Club Championship.

Henderson (third from the right) with some friends celebrating a recreation league title a few years ago.
Henderson (third from the right) with some friends celebrating a recreation league title a few years ago.Photo courtesy of Marshall Henderson

"I hit nine threes in the title game and scored 30-something," Henderson says. "The stands were packed and people were beating on drums and flares were going off. It was awesome. I'll never forget my coach saying after the game, 'You need to find a place where there are crowds like this every night. You're a different player when you have an audience like this.' He could tell I thrived on it."

That's hardly the environment Henderson encountered in Qatar, where players' family members were usually the only ones in the stands. Still, of all of his professional stops, Henderson cites Qatar as his favorite. Not because of the quality of basketball, which was subpar, but because of the personal growth he experienced in virtual solitude.

"There was nothing to do in Qatar except play basketball," Henderson says. "I didn't go out. I didn't drink. I was either at practice or in my room every day."

Although he was raised in a church-going family, Henderson said he'd never studied the Bible until moving to Qatar. Doing so, he said, made him realize how "selfish and ungrateful" he'd been to all of the people who had given him second and third chances.

Family members, coaches, friends…Henderson began contacting key figures in his life to apologize and to offer up the "thank-you's" he'd failed to express years earlier.

"I had so much reflection time in Qatar," Henderson says. "I realized what an idiot I'd been. All of a sudden this peace came over me. I wasn't going to be negative or selfish anymore. I decided I was going to be thankful for any opportunity I was given. I wasn't going to stress over things that were out of my control."

The following summer, Henderson was invited to training camp with the NBA's Sacramento Kings. His locker was next to the one occupied by DeMarcus Cousins.

"I walked in one day and Boogie [Cousins] was just staring at me with this weird look on his face," Henderson recalls. "He was like, 'Man, you were on some kill yo'self s--t back in college. I've been reading about you. What were you thinking?'

"I laughed and was like, 'Man, I'm not like that anymore.'"

Henderson spent a month with the Kings before being cut and added to their D-League squad in Reno, where he appeared in four games before leaving for what he hoped would be a more lucrative opportunity in Italy.

"That was probably a mistake," says Elam, Henderson's agent. "He'd have been better off averaging two minutes a game in the D-League than playing for a fourth-level team in Italy. He got bad advice. Teams at that level aren't really respected, so it did nothing for his resume, nothing to make him more marketable."

And now Henderson is paying for it.

Eleven months have passed since his last appearance on a professional roster, an absence even more frustrating considering Henderson vows he's in the best condition of his life. He says the workouts he put himself through this past offseason were the most intense of his career as a collegian or pro.

He says he recently bench-pressed 250 pounds and routinely scores in the 40s and 50s in his rec league games. About a month ago, Henderson went to Oxford and scrimmaged with the Ole Miss players. Elam says coaches there told him Henderson was "as good as he's ever been."

Although he's softened a bit off it, Henderson says he still plays with the same fire on the court. The trash-talking, the fist pumps. He feeds off his emotions.

"I wouldn't think coaches would view that as a negative," Henderson says. "I'm a competitive guy, and that's what gets me going.

"It's driving me nuts. I just feel like these teams are stupid by not signing me. I realize I was in a bad league in Italy last year, but it's not like I forgot how to play. I've averaged 20 points for every team I've ever played on. I'm ready to do it again."

Although Elam, the agent, is still working to erase the negative stigma that always surfaces when coaches inquire about Henderson, he's confident his client will be on an international roster by the end of the month. A squad in Mexico, he says, has shown particular interest in signing Henderson.

In the meantime, Henderson continues to lay low in the Dallas area. He's deleted his Twitter account and says he and his girlfriend of two years, Chloe Romer, have only hit the Dallas nightlife scene four times since last summer. When the weather is nice, their favorite pastime is to take Henderson's pontoon boat out on Grapevine Lake with a few friends.

"It's ridiculous," Romer says from the stands as Henderson drains his fifth three-pointer early in the second half of a rec league game. "I feel for him. I know he gets worried. He wants what we all want: an opportunity to create a career for himself doing what he does best."

When that opportunity comes, Henderson is determined to capitalize.

"All people have to do is get on Google and they can see everything I've ever done," Henderson says. "It's something I'll have to live with for the rest of my life. It doesn't bother me because there's nothing I can do about it. I can't change my past."

Henderson smiles.

"But I can definitely do something about my future."


Jason King is a senior writer for B/R. A former staff writer at ESPN.com, Yahoo Sports and the Kansas City Star, King's work has received mention in the popular book series The Best American Sportswriting. In both 2015 and 2016, King was tabbed as one of the top five beat writers in the nation by the APSE. Follow him on Twitter: @JasonKingBR.