SAN DIEGO — Markel Brown stayed on the court as long as black-pullover-clad NCAA types would allow.
First, he posed for pictures with all the Oklahoma State coaches and fellow senior Mason Cox at midcourt of Viejas Arena. Then, Marcus Smart joined the group. Then, all of them scattered, and buddies Michael Cobbins and Brian Williams joined Brown and mugged for the camera.
Brown wanted some mementos to remind him just how far he’s come.
Yes, the world knows that he’s made amazing strides on the basketball court, from a forgotten about reserve a few years ago to a SportsCenter Top 10 regular and an NBA Draft prospect. A reminder of that evolution could come Friday afternoon in OSU’s NCAA opener against Gonzaga. With top defender Gary Hall Jr. keyed on Marcus Smart, the Zags might not have anyone who’s able to stay close enough to Brown to keep him from hitting jumpers without getting blown by on drives to the basket.
But Brown’s long journey to this one shining moment wasn’t just on the hardwood. Several family tragedies could’ve derailed his life, much less his basketball career. A network of family stepped forward and provided structure when stability in Brown’s life went missing.
“I feel like it made me stronger as a person, especially going through so many things,” Brown said. “Maybe a person only goes through one, but having it all on my back, I think it made me stronger. It made me fight hard to get where I am.”
His parents separated when he was a toddler, and his mom, Antoinette, moved him and his sisters from Louisiana to Georgia. They returned to Louisiana for a family funeral when Markel was 3, and while they were there, Antoinette took sick.
She went to the hospital.
She never came out.
In a matter of days, Antoinette lost the ability to walk or talk or care for herself. A brain aneurism was to blame. She was eventually moved to a nursing home in Alexandria.
Markel and his sisters moved in with Jerrie Mae Eggins, their grandmother.
She would have it no other way. She was broken up when Antoinette initially moved with the kids to Georgia, so she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to keep them close. Yes, it meant more mouths to feed and backs to clothe — and Jerrie Mae didn’t have the fullest bank account or the biggest house — but she always found a way to help folks who needed it.
Even today, it’s normal find her house full of children.
“You walk in there, and there’ll be about 13 little kids,” her son De’Andre Eggins said. “Everybody in the family drops off their kids at my mama’s house. She’ll clean up and do it all again the next day.”
De’Andre and his brother, David, were in elementary school when Markel came to live with them, and being basketball players, it wasn’t long before Markel was tagging along for practices and games and trips to the park to play pick-up. Even though he was often the youngest, he held his own.
He had those big ups even then.
De’Andre and David tried to be good role models off the court, too. They lived in an Alexandria neighborhood near the banks of the Red River where drugs and violence were the norm. Kids got sucked in all the time. De’Andre and David did everything they could to keep Markel out of it.
Markel called them “Uncle”, but they were more like brothers.
And Jerrie Mae? She wasn’t “Grandma”. She was “Mom”.
By the time Markel started high school at Peabody Magnet, a basketball powerhouse, he looked to be on a good path, a road that might take him to college like De’Andre, who became the first in the family to get a degree. But during Markel’s freshman year, tragedy struck.
Markel’s mom died in December 2006. It was a day the family knew would eventually come because of the toll that brain aneurysm had taken on her body.
Then in February 2007 came another blow, one that no one saw coming. Markel’s uncle David died while trying to rescue two elderly women from a house fire. He kicked in the neighbors’ door, but the opening caused a backdraft that engulfed the house in flames, trapping David and the two women inside.
The night before he died, David had driven from Baton Rouge to Alexandria to see Markel play like he always did.
“Every time I feel like I want to give up, I’m reminded of how far I came and where I’ve come from,” Brown said as he sat in the OSU locker room Thursday afternoon. “It just makes me work harder on the court.”
He’s worked so hard that he’s become one of the top 10 scorers in Cowboy history. The names ahead of him are a who’s who of OSU basketball. Byron Houston. Bryant Reeves. Adrian Peterson. James Anderson. Desmond Mason. Bob Kurland. Keiton Page.
When Brown was honored during Senior Day, he was deservedly showered with gratitude and praise by Cowboy fans. But as memorable as that was, it was every bit as special to Brown to have several members of his family there.
None of his family will be able to travel from Louisiana to California for Friday’s game. Jerrie Mae has never flown and isn’t not about to start now. She’ll be watching on TV. Everyone back home will be. They’ll cheer and fret during the game. They’ll text and call after it. They’ll be there in spirit.
And Markel Brown will play with them in mind. He wouldn’t be where he is without them.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.