Kellen Marshall was raised in locker rooms.
He was just 2 years old when his father, Wichita State men’s basketball coach Gregg Marshall, was hired as the head coach at Winthrop, a small college in Rock Hill, S.C. Marshall would always take Kellen with him into the locker room, and the boy would frequently end up buried by players in a laundry basket or, as he got older, playfully tossed into trash bins.
Now 17 and as tall as Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton, Kellen is still in the locker room with his father. But the players aren’t tossing him in laundry baskets or trash cans any more. (Though he wouldn’t put it past them to try, he said.)
During the past year, which has been a pretty good one for his family, Kellen has become an increasingly visible presence with the Shockers, leading a surreal teenage existence that includes lots of face time with sports celebrities, visits to the set of ESPN’s SportsCenter with his dad, and seats at the end of the Shocker bench during road games.
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Kellen, soft-spoken but self-assured, with his father’s jet-black hair and his mother, Lynn’s, feisty spirit, is an unofficial fill-in team manager, the Shockers’ self-appointed social media defender, and a good buddy of player Fred VanVleet’s.
When the Shockers take on Kentucky in the third round of the NCAA tournament at 1:45 p.m. Sunday, the coach’s son will be in a seat in the front of the fan section, just behind the bench, continuing a year so surreal and awesome that he gave up playing basketball during his junior year at Trinity Academy so he wouldn’t miss a second of it. (And because, in truth, he prefers to play golf. He’s a member of his school’s varsity team and golfs regularly with his dad and his buddies – sometimes beating them.)
But people still ask him about the basketball thing – a lot.
“My teammates were a little surprised when I first told them I wasn’t going to play. They thought I was joking,” said Kellen, who started his basketball career in elementary school and played forward at Trinity last year. “But one of my friends from the team told me, ‘If I had your choices, I’d do exactly what you’re doing.’ ”
Basketball still is Kellen’s whole life, he said, and it always has been.
Gregg Marshall is a former player whose coaching career was fully underway when Kellen was born in 1996. His mother played basketball for the College of Charleston in the late 1980s.
His best childhood memory, he said, happened when he was 10 and his father coached Winthrop to the school’s first ever victory in the NCAA tournament – a first-round win over Notre Dame. Kellen said he remembers what a huge deal that was for him and for his family. He remembers thinking his father had really made it and that life couldn’t get any better than that.
Then it did.
His father’s biggest coaching moments have arrived at Wichita State at a time when Kellen is old enough to appreciate it and fully participate in it.
The players, most only a few years older than Kellen, are his peers, and they like him.
“He’s like a little brother,” said VanVleet, who sometimes stays at the Marshall house with Kellen and his 14-year-old sister, Maggie, when the Marshalls have to leave town.
“Only because Maggie won’t listen to me,” Kellen said.
“They probably babysit me more than I babysit them,” VanVleet said.
Kellen often fills in at practices, fetching water and towels and helping with drills on the court. One of his favorites is a defensive drill in which team managers try to get shots past the Shocker big guys. A couple of months ago, Kellen finally made a bucket. “That was the highlight of my athletic career,” he said, dryly.
One of his most important jobs, which he’s given himself, is defending the Shockers against media critics. Using the Twitter handle @Kelmoney24, Kellen is known to snap back at pundits criticizing his father or doubting the Shockers. He does it, he says, because the players can’t, and his father won’t, and someone has to. (Gregg Marshall monitors his son’s commentary from his own secret Twitter account.)
“I didn’t set out to become this nut attacking the national media pundits and so-called experts,” he said. “The only reason I say anything is that I want to defend our guys and our team, and I will do that any time. Anything I say, I always back up with facts.”
The Twitter notoriety has made him a bit of a go-to guy at NCAA tournament stops for media members who need background information. During Saturday’s locker room interviews, CBS sportscaster Jim Nantz approached Kellen, whom he’d met on court earlier in the week, asking for details of Evan Wessel’s relationship with his high school teammate, KU’s Perry Ellis. Lynn Marshall said she and Gregg often talk about how amazing it is to watch Kellen navigate that world so effortlessly at such a young age.
Lynn, who describes her son as “a caring, compassionate and intelligent person,” said Kellen is leading a dreamy life now, but he earned it. The not-so-fun years in between that big Winthrop win and the Shockers’ current run have grounded him, she said.
“You think about how it’s so cool that he gets to go to the NCAA tournament and the Final Four and go through this undefeated season. But I think back to those years when he was a new kid in Andover, and we were losing and we were 11 and 20,” she said. “Those years he went through were not very good. So many kids were KU and K-State fans. Those were tough times for him and for our family. He had to live through that era to get to this one, and when you go through tough times like that, you don’t take now for granted.”
Kellen said he doesn’t take now for granted, which helps him avoid a frequent question about the future he gets from Shocker fans.
Where does he want to go to college? (Answer: He has no idea.)
“If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me that, it would pay for my college tuition,” he said.
Kellen says he might want to study business. His dream is to become a coach like his dad. He spends all of his time thinking about and analyzing basketball, and lately, he feels his brain learning to read and anticipate plays.
“That’s what I want to do,” he said.
Shocker “character coach” Steve Dickie said he could see that happening.
He said he’s impressed by Kellen’s maturity, his easy-going nature and his ability to seamlessly fit in with the team.
“He’s a great kid. When you talk to Kellen, watch his eyes. He’ll look you right in the eyes, and that’s the sign of a mature kid,” he said. “He’ll probably be running a basketball team some day.”
What does Gregg Marshall think about that plan?
“My dad says, ‘You’re smart enough to be a doctor or a lawyer. Why do you want to be a coach?’ ” Kellen said with a laugh. “But at the same time, I think he’s proud that I want to follow in his footsteps.”