Roy Marble's spirits good in the fight of his life

Rick Brown

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Roy Marble's appetite fluctuates daily.

"Up, down, sideways," Marble said. "Every day I get up and fight."

Fighter. That's a word that has always described Marble. He was a ferocious competitor for Iowa basketball teams in the late 1980s, becoming the school's career scoring leader and playing in four NCAA Tournaments.

Friday, as the Hawkeyes begin play in this year's tournament, one of their all-time greats is literally fighting for his life. Keeping score has an entirely different meaning now.

Marble was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer at the end of August. The long-term prognosis is not good. He doesn't want his doctors to give him a time frame, a life expectancy. He is driven by one word: tomorrow.

"How long I live is not up to me," said Marble, 48. "I'm not trying to smack death in the mouth. I'll let it come when it comes."

Marble gets emotional when he talks about the challenge he faces. Who wouldn't? But he wipes the tears away and plays on.

"I'm scared as hell sometimes," Marble said. "I don't like this feeling. But if you're supposed to die, you're supposed to die. I'm not asking for pity or anything."

The disease is taking its toll physically, but his friends admire his spirit in the face of overwhelming odds.

"Roy is tough, and I know he's going to fight this all the way to the end," said Ed Horton, a former Iowa teammate who remains in constant contact. "He's not going to be one of those guys who gives up or gets down on himself."

Marble knew there were issues when his left eye started to droop, then became swollen shut last summer. He had headaches, too, and hadn't been feeling all that great. Doctors discovered three tumors in his head, including one right behind his eye. A biopsy was done at University of Iowa Hospitals the third week of August. Cancer, Marble was told. And it had spread to other parts of his body.

Marble, a former prep star in Flint, Mich., now splits his time between Iowa City and Lansing, Mich., where he lives with his brother, Jeron. Roy Marble has been getting chemotherapy treatments every three weeks. The tumor behind his left eye has shrunk. The tumors in the rest of his body have stopped growing, but are still there. He'll get an update when he has a CT scan, scheduled for April 22.

Special kinship with coach McCaffery

When his son, Devyn, followed his basketball footsteps at Iowa five years ago, Marble got to know coach Fran McCaffery.

"He told me, 'You concentrate on being the dad, and let me coach,' " Marble said. "I said, 'I'm going to trust this guy.' "

Devyn is now a rookie with the NBA's Orlando Magic.

"He's in the pros, man," Marble said. "I didn't coach him there."

Marble and McCaffery are connected in another way. And to tell this story, you must go back to March 10, 2014. It's a moment that still brings tears and chokes off words when McCaffery is asked to describe it.

The coach had gathered his team around him before practice that day. He wanted to tell them that doctors had discovered a tumor on the thyroid of his teenage son, Patrick. He tried to speak, but couldn't. Devyn Marble stepped forward, hugged McCaffery and said, "We got you, coach." It is a moment the coach's wife, Margaret, said she will never forget.

A biopsy discovered that Patrick's tumor was malignant, and he had surgery to remove it on the same morning his dad would coach Iowa in its first NCAA Tournament game in eight seasons. Patrick, who turns 15 on Friday, continues to be cancer-free.

The roles are reversed now. McCaffery is doing what he can to hold up Devyn's dad.

"He's been my stake," Marble said of McCaffery. "Someone you know who is always there, someone you can hold on to."

When Marble got back the results of his biopsy, the first person he called was McCaffery, who worked behind the scenes to get Marble connected with the help he needed.

"His attitude has been amazing," McCaffery said. "I talk to him all the time. He's never in a bad mood. It's never doom and gloom. It's always positive ... 'I feel good. I'm eating. The medicine is working …' He's going about his business. I'm really proud of him."

Roy Marble, Iowa’s career scoring leader, with children Carlo, Roichelle and Royanah at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Marble motivated by UI fans, family

The news of Marble's illness hit Horton like a ton of bricks.

"This was all new to me, because I'd never gone through it with one of my friends before," Horton said. "The stuff he's going through, at first it really hit me hard. I just left it all in God's hands. Roy's a good guy."

When Marble's diagnosis went public, McCaffery said that "he needs the Hawkeye family to wrap their arms around him and support him." They have.

"The fans have been tremendous," Marble said.

Roy Marble, left, and Ed Horton were key components of some incredible Iowa teams in the mid- to late-1980s. The 1986-87 squad nearly made it to the Final Four.

Selected by Atlanta with the 23rd pick of the 1989 NBA Draft, Marble's pro career took a hit when he violated the league's substance abuse policy as a rookie. He played in just 29 NBA games, the last five with Denver in 1994. Marble's legal issues, which include drunken driving and drug-related offenses, are no secret. He also lost his business, an entertainment center and clothing store, to the flood that ravaged Cedar Rapids in the summer of 2008.

"Outside of that, everything's been pretty great," Marble said.

When the university recognized him at halftime of the final regular-season game against Northwestern on March 7, Marble got a standing ovation.

"So heartwarming," Marble said. "And so motivating."

Family is another source of motivation. He got to see Devyn start in an NBA game, against the Detroit Pistons in Auburn Hills, Mich. One of his daughters, Roichelle, will be a redshirt freshman on Wisconsin's basketball team next season. Another son, Carlo, transferred from West Des Moines Valley to Sexton High School in Lansing, Mich., so his father could see him play.

Carlo is being recruited as a football and basketball prospect. He has a basketball offer from Central Michigan. The coach, Keno Davis, is the son of Marble's coach at Iowa, Tom Davis. One of Keno's assistants, the one recruiting Carlo, is Kevin Gamble. He was one of Marble's Hawkeye teammates.

Roy Marble, right, and son Carlo, who transferred from West Des Moines Valley to Sexton High in Michigan in early October.

When she found out her dad was sick, Roichelle wanted to leave school and be by his side. No, her father told her, stay in school.

"He's part of the reason I have such a good attitude," Roichelle said. "I know in order for him to stay strong and keep fighting, I have to be good support for him. I know that helps keep him strong."

Roy Marble said his goal is to be around to watch Roichelle play for the Badgers next season.

"That's the plan," she said.

The fight continues, long odds or not.

"Sometimes I call him and I think he might be down," Horton said. "But he's the same Roy Marble I played with in the 1980s. I know Roy's a fighter. He's going to fight this to the end."

Roy Marble was presented a trophy after becoming Iowa's all-time leading scorer in 1989.


•University of Iowa's all-time leading scorer with 2,116 points. He's the only Hawkeye to reach the 2,000 mark.

•Played on four NCAA Tournament teams, including an Elite Eight appearance in 1987 and a Sweet 16 berth in 1988.

•Second-team all-Big Ten Conference, 1987 and 1988, and third-team all-Big Ten, 1989.

•Selected in the first round of the 1989 NBA Draft.