The bracket-busting performance of scrappy Davidson College in this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament surprised Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin.
But not Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry. And he should know: Over 20 years ago, Gentry was pounding the same Davidson court that three-point-dropping guard Stephen Curry now lights up — but as a member of the visiting basketball squad from Sewanee, The University of the South.
“[Gentry] had a great touch; he was very much a finesse player,” said Gentry’s former teammate Mark Peeler, now the head coach for Erskine College’s men’s basketball team. “Back then, he was a skinny dude with a big belly, but all the coaches thought he could play inside.”
From 1982 to 1984, Peeler played guard to Gentry’s forward, dumping shots the younger 6-foot-3-inch Gentry moved out from under the hoop.
The team trotted around the south, receiving drubbings at the hands of Division 1 schools like Georgia Tech with stars John Salley and Mark Price while vying with Division 3 conference rivals Centre College for the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference title.
“We held our own,” recalled teammate Ellis Simmons. “We had a very solid team from a D3 standpoint.”
A team, indeed. For Gentry — whose first year on the job has included several community-fracturing incidents, from hate speech to alleged sexual harassment — bringing disparate groups together has seemed to be of tantamount importance. It is a philosophy, in fact, that may have been nurtured on the courts and concrete of Gentry’s youth.
“Playing on a team,” Gentry said, “has a way of building bridges.”
On the court, the young Gentry, dubbed ‘Chal’ by Simmons, played forward, reeling in rebounds off the backboard and dishing up — and, as often as not, messing up — lay-ups close to the hoop.
“That man could not make lay-ups to save his life,” joked Peeler. “We used to call him the assist king because he couldn’t make a two-footer to save his life.”
Sewanee’s official 1983 Men’s Basketball Program was kinder, noting that, as a freshman, he appeared in 22 games the previous season and twice grabbed more rebounds than anyone else on the team.
That fits with the memories of both Peeler and Simmons, who described the young Gentry as a forward with a decent shot, outstanding coordination and a gifted instinct for finding the ball off the board.
But the team never made headlines. Gentry went so far as to half-jokingly describe the squad’s play as “awful.” Sewanee never won a conference title in Gentry’s days, losing out repeatedly in down-to-the-wire finishes with Centre.
With his height and 195-lb frame, Gentry was a big man on the court — and on campus. At graduation in 1986, the school awarded Gentry its Algernon Sydney Sullivan Medallion for Character.
“You would never find anyone at Sewanee who wouldn’t sing Marichal’s praises,” Simmons said.
A team photo from the era shows two rows of students in proud Sewanee Tigers uniforms. Gentry is easily recognizable: He was one of only two black students on the team.
“For a black kid to come to Sewanee in the early ’80s, that took a lot,” Peeler recalled. “But that was his style. He was always breaking down barriers.”
After graduation, Gentry made his way to Charlotte, N.C., to manage a branch of Union Bank and coach a junior varsity basketball team with Peeler. In 1992, Gentry started graduate school in social work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, just in time to watch the Tarheels bring home the national title against Chris Webber and the Michigan “Fab Five.” With a women’s championship to follow in 1994, it did not take long for Gentry to form a second allegiance — first to Sewanee, then to UNC.
“To this day, I always put [North] Carolina in the Final Four,” Gentry admits. “And I always have Duke lose out in the first round.”
These days, the dean does not have time for basketball. With seemingly endless meetings, insistent students and more committees than one would care to name clogging his schedule, Gentry said it is rare that he even makes it out to the occasional game of pick-up.
“But I still shoot,” he says, smiling. “I go to the big gym and I shoot the lights out. But I’d have to get into some major shape to play basketball these days.”
On Saturday night, Gentry will watch as his Tarheels take on the University of Kansas Jayhawks.
There may yet be more basketball in this man’s future: Gentry splits his time at the dean’s office with a fellow position in Timothy Dwight College. Will he consider walking on to the intramural team?
“I don’t know,” Gentry mused. “No one’s asked me.”