GREENWOOD — Once upon a time, Santa Claus stuck a chess set under the Marshall family Christmas tree.
As everyone else played Army with the chess pieces, one child grabbed the bottom of the box the set came in and proceeded to read the instructions.
Meet Gregg Marshall, future Final Four basketball coach.
Were playing Army men and he was the only kid who sat there reading the directions, Regan Marshall recalled this week of his older brother. The whole bottom of the box was covered in directions.
In two days time, he added, Gregg was the best chess player on the block.
Greenwoods current most-favored son will lead his upstart Wichita State team against Louisville Saturday in the Final Four at Atlanta for a shot to play in the national championship Monday night.
They call teams like Marshalls Shockers a Cinderella and that is fitting. His climb to the top certainly seems like a fairy tale.
THE HUMBLE BEGINNING
For many, the Shockers rise to national prominence this season was, well, shocking. For those who know Marshall a diehard USC fan who twice was passed over for the vacant Gamecocks coaching job in the past five years it has been a natural, abeit exciting, progression.
That progression began in Greenwood when the scrappy son and grandson of former baseball players found a home on the hardwood.
He was a really good shooter when he was young and smart on the basketball court, said Walter, his father.
Gregg Marshalls first taste of success came at 11, when he led his YMCA team to the league championship. The final score is lost to fable and song. Some say Marshall scored 49 points that day. His father thought it might have been 42.
Im not sure what the final score was, Regan said. But I do know he scored all but two of the teams points.
Walter laughed when recalling that team.
Those YMCA teams were all the same, he said. Each had one good player and four other kids. He just seemed to have a better knowledge of basketball than the other kids. He was going to be a coach. I knew it even then.
Marshall left Greenwood at 12 when his parents divorced. He went with his mother to live in Roanoke, Va., where he went on to play varsity basketball for Cave Spring High.
The kid who grew up going to Frank McGuire basketball camps had decided to return to his home state to fulfill his long-standing dream of attending USC.
He wasnt going to play basketball, though, Walter said. But at the last minute, he got a scholarship offer to play basketball at Randolph-Macon, so he did that.
Regan said his brother seemed to average 8-10 points per game, but had a knack for turning it on whenever family came to watch him play.
He seemed like such a good player in college, Regan said. I thought for sure he would go pro. He was scrappy. It seemed like he averaged 8 points all year long, but the one or two games the entire family went to see him, he would score 23. He could score and do more than he did, but he got people involved and played good defense, all that was asked of him.
THE GLASS SLIPPER
Scrappy play, suffocating defense, getting contributions from virtually every player on the roster that seems to be a fitting description of the team Marshall has put on the floor at Wichita State. The Shockers progressed through the NCAA tournament over the past three weeks by emulating their coachs personal attributes.
Not that Regan or Walter actually saw much of this sort of thing
I cant watch, Walter said.
Yeah, the only way I knew they won the Gonzaga game was a buddy of mine texted me, Regan said. I was pacing in the back yard.
Both men were at a family members house this past weekend when the Shockers played Ohio State. When the Shockers took a 20-point lead, Walter headed to the back porch. Regan told his cousin to call her husband, who works for the Highway Patrol.
Tell him he might have to come check on me, Regan said. Im about to have a heart attack.
Their inability to watch Marshalls games stems back to his time as the head coach at Winthrop. Though Marshall was highly successful there seven Big South championships and as many NCAA tournament appearances in nine years the all-or-nothing nature of low- to mid-major basketball was gut-wrenching.
We walked around at a lot of Big South championships, Regan said. We spent more time in the hallways than in our seats. It was just excruciating to watch and it hurt so much when he lost.
Marshall went on his share of interviews for coaching jobs at major schools, but it wasnt until 2007 when Wichita State came calling that he found the right fit.
A year later, the USC job came open, but then-athletics director Eric Hyman went with another up-and-comer, Darrin Horn. The timing might not have been right for Marshall, however, since his first year at Wichita State resulted in a 11-20 record and a ninth-place finish in the 10-team Missouri Valley Conference.
But the Shockers have improved steadily with each season. The following year, the Shockers participated in the low-level CBI postseason tournament. The year after that featured an NIT appearance.
Wichita State capped the 2011 season with an NIT championship, then earned an NCAA bid last year.
But that was where the success was supposed to end. Marshall lost four starters and his five top scorers from that team and the 2012-13 season was supposed to be about rebuilding.
Meanwhile, the USC job came open once more and this time, Hyman looked to Kansas to fill the post just not Wichita.
Hyman hired Kansas State coach Frank Martin in what was universally hailed as a coup.
It was heartbreaking to watch, from Horn to this last hire, Regan said. Were biased, of course, but wherever he is, he will win and he will win as big as the pond allows.
After the Martin hire, Marshall went back to work in Wichita, looking to rebuild a roster that had been ransacked by graduation.
When he started this year, he was saying theyd be lucky to 15 games, Regan said. He has doubled that. I hope the state took notice.
MORAL OF THE STORY
Today, Regan said he and his father will be in Atlanta, likely not watching Marshalls team take on Louisville.
Yeah, well probably be walking the streets, Regan said with a laugh.
But both men said seeing Marshall on college basketballs biggest stage already is a victory. A win today and even a national championship on Monday night would be gravy.
Whether Marshall eventually moves on from Wichita State is a matter that will sort itself out in the fullness of time. If that day comes, Regan said he hoped that next stop would be closer to home.
When Frank Martin was hired, it really was heartbreaking, Regan said. He is a South Carolina Gamecock fan and he still keeps up with all their sports. But hes also a business man and it means less to him now to get the Carolina job than it does to my family. Hell go wherever it feels right.
But in his heart of hearts, I think he would also like to be in Columbia.
It has been a long road from Greenwood to the Final Four, but for those who know the 50-year-old Marshall, the destination was never in doubt. Anyone who takes the time to read the directions is destined to master the game if he takes those instructions to heart.
And Gregg Marshall takes everything to heart. Asked this week during a teleconference what lesson can be learned from his Cinderella story, Marshall didnt hesitate.
If you work hard and youre very, very diligent and youre committed and never give up even a skinny kid from Greenwood, South Carolina, who didnt play big-time high school or big-time college basketball, didnt play professionally certainly didnt grow up with a silver spoon those guys can make it.
And, just maybe, they live happily ever after.