KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Marshall Henderson carried Ole Miss to victory in its NCAA tournament opener against Wisconsin on Friday. You must say that he carried Ole Miss to victory, because he is what matters. He is the story, always, and he is the story again on Sunday against La Salle, because he is Marshall Henderson, and in this era of loud noises you must have an opinion of him to reveal what kind of sports fan you are.
"He's a lot of different things to a lot of different people," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said.
He's a lot of different things, but we can break him down into two all-encompassing categories: He's either an embarrassment to the sport of basketball, an overrated guard who shoots too much and plays lousy defense, and a self-centered showboat who needs to take his game and his life more seriously. Or he's a college kid who's made some mistakes but has paid his dues, a game-changing shooter who led the SEC in scoring, and a breath of fresh air as an entertaining player who has fun on and off the court.
There. Pick one. You must have one of these opinions about Marshall Henderson. No shades of gray, please, because if you try to wrap your mind around the duality of Henderson enough, try to wrap your head around the contradictions in his basketball and in his words, you will wind up confused and lost. And you will not be the first person to wind up confused and lost about Marshall Henderson.
"For us, there's no question. 'Marshall Mania' affects the psyche of the other team," Kennedy said. "How can you avoid it? Marshall this, Marshall that. For us it's another day at the office."
Another day at the office of Marshall Mania on Friday consisted of a quiet Henderson launching three-pointers from all over the court for 12th-seeded Ole Miss against fifth-seeded Wisconsin and missing almost all of them. He started 1-of-13 from the field, a somewhat common occurrence for a streaky shooter who is never afraid of shooting from anywhere on the floor. Then, in another common occurrence, he became a bit livelier, the crowd became a bit livelier too, as he hit a shot, hit another, ultimately making five of his final eight attempts from the field. He didn't pop his jersey at the crowd until the final buzzer sounded and he found the largest cluster of Rebels fans in the Sprint Center.
Then, he took his show across the street to a bar, popping up in photos on Twitter, taking us down the other road of the Marshall Henderson experience.
"I really just wanted to go out and socialize with all the people here and just enjoy the experience," Henderson said, in an entirely reasonable statement. He said he had positive interactions with most fans, from Wisconsin to Kansas to Kansas State, and he went out to celebrate because he didn't want to be "cooped up in his hotel room," in another entirely reasonable statement.
He is 22 years old, and he just won his first NCAA tournament game, so ordinarily this would be a totally normal occurrence. That is, unless you want to tie it to his past and to his future, and because he is Marshall Henderson, we must do that, and he must sit and answer questions about going to a bar. You can say this is ridiculous, or you can say he has brought it upon himself.
First there's the past: With junior eligibility, Ole Miss is Henderson's fourth school, following stints at Utah, Texas Tech and South Plains Junior College. He spent time in jail last spring, and USA TODAY Sports reported in January that he served that time because he violated terms of his probation "stemming from a 2010 forgery charge related to counterfeit money," the probation being revoked because he tested positive for cocaine, marijuana and alcohol in January 2012. On Saturday, Henderson happily said that, as of a few months ago, he is off probation.
Then there's the future: He says he wants to make money playing basketball, and then he wants to use that money to open an addiction rehab center. He says that, for school, he's been doing an independent study at an Oxford, Miss., drug rehabilitation center. He wants to work with people who have had some of the problems that he has had.
Given the two above paragraphs, most people would be worried about the appearance of a conflict. But to care about the appearance of what he does would make Henderson into a different person altogether.
He can taunt Florida fans, and he can taunt Auburn fans, and he can shoot from anywhere on the floor -- with the "greenest light in basketball history," according to LeBron James -- and he can do everything else he does because he doesn't care if people think he's a villain. He doesn't care if people think he's bad for basketball.
"I don't care," Henderson said. "It really doesn't matter. I'll take whatever, as long as I'm on the front page somewhere -- well, I take that back; I don't want to be on the front page of some things. I think those days are over."
And so we can analyze him in every way imaginable, and over the last few days in Kansas City -- and surely the last five months in Oxford -- he has been analyzed in every way imaginable. At a press conference Saturday, Kennedy was asked if race had anything to do with Henderson being so polarizing (the questioner referenced Grantland's Most Hated College Basketball Player bracket, which consists of a region mostly made up of white Duke players).
"I don't think it has to do with the color of his skin more than the craziness of his eyes," Kennedy said. "He's got some craziness going on in those eyes. I think really that's what everybody sees. Does he do a few things that I wish he didn't do? Of course. But I think the intensity of the way in which he approaches the game is the most polarizing thing about him."
Which brings us back to the basketball. As he gets set to face 13th-seeded La Salle on Sunday for a berth into the Sweet 16 in Los Angeles, Henderson is, among a couple other subjects, the talk of March Madness. He vaulted to national prominence in early SEC play as he carried Ole Miss into the Top 25 and made waves with his on-court celebrations and taunting. He faded as Ole Miss lost to the bottom-feeders of the SEC and seemingly played its way out of the Big Dance. He then helped propel the Rebels to the SEC championship, capped by a win over Florida.
Now he's in Kansas City, drawing attention for every move he makes, and as usual every move he makes appears to be dripping with contradictions. He desperately wants to win, cares about his teammates, but he says that in his mind there's no such thing as a bad shot. He says he cares deeply about getting his degree, but he doesn't want to graduate too soon because he doesn't want to worry about fulfilling the high standards of grad school as he plays basketball. He says he's excited to have one year left of college, but he would not guarantee that he will be back for one more year of college, because you never know what will happen. He said he's a people person who takes sociology classes, but he also said his motto is "do what you do and forget about everybody else."
Good luck reconciling any of this.
Henderson's individuality is typically frowned upon in college sports by coaches, by players, by administrators, by many fans. At most schools he would not be given free rein to be himself, and in college football, he would draw an excessive celebration penalty every 12 seconds and be forced to run wind sprints for those penalties at 4 a.m. every week.
But this is not college football, and Ole Miss is actually letting him be himself, with some guidance. For now Henderson seems to be enjoying the ride, happy that he has found a semblance of order in his life.
For better or worse, he's the show, and instead of lavishing him with praise for having fun or belittling him for making a mockery of the sport, I say let's just enjoy it. He has upset the established order of college athletics, and maybe that's not such a bad thing.