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‘Human Eraser’ battled demons until the end

by Peter Vecsey

NEW YORK — Rarely a day goes by anymore that sickness and death isn’t on my lips and in my ear, or dialing or e-mailing.

For years now, every time I see a certain identity show up on my cell I know he’s calling to report a sports friend of ours is either gravely ill or has passed away.

Pancreatic cancer and its treatments have shrunk Chuck Daly to his dating weight when he and Terry met as students at Bloomsburg State, Pa.

Maurice Lucas’ cancer-infected bladder was completely removed and reconstructed with his intestines in a nine-hour surgery; thankfully, he’s close to returning home and a full return to normal life is projected.

Don Chaney is afflicted by bladder and prostate cancer.

Marvin Webster’s death nine days before his 57th birthday, when many of us are just getting warmed up, came as no shock; it’s been prowling around his back stairs for as long as I’ve known him.

I introduced myself to Webster in 1975 when he was an ABA Nuggets neophyte. While Denver took the Nets to six games to close out the red, white and blue league, the 216-cm center’s campaign was discouraging (398 minutes in 38 games) due mostly to the lingering effects of hepatitis-C, contracted during his senior year at Morgan State.

The previous season, Webster’s astonishing carpet ride (22.4 rebounds, 21 points, an unreal eight blocks per game) catapulted the Bears to an NCAA Division II championship. That earned him the nickname “The Human Eraser” or simply “The Eraser.”

During his down time with the Knicks (1978-84), the Post’s fundamentally insensitive NBA columnist renamed him “The No. 2 Pencil.”

Few athletes in any sport, at any time, were less emotionally equipped to handle New York’s demanding fans, tactless media and overall pressure than the always polite and unpretentious Webster, the son of a Baltimore preacher.

Funny how often it happens; when I cover a friend up close, our relationship has a way of becoming strained. Before Webster joined the Knicks, we were tight.

So tight coach Larry Brown felt he was one of several sources regarding a less-than-flattering 1977 column on him. A month or so later, “The Eraser” was dispatched from Denver with Paul Silas and Willie Wise to Seattle.

The Sonics owe me big. Once Lenny Wilkens took over for Bob Hopkins 22 games (5-17) into the season (promoting Dennis Johnson was pivotal), they quickly evolved into “Ready for Prime Time Players” on tape delay, courtesy of CBS.

I picked the Sonics to win it all in ’78 and was assigned to cover them throughout the playoffs . . . beginning with their first-round upset of the defending champion Blazers (Lucas was outplayed by rookie Jack Sikma) . . . and ending with a seven-game loss to the Bullets in the finals.

Webster averaged 16.1 points, 13.1 boards and nearly three snuffs in the post season. Despite being seamlessly suited for the Sonics and the city of Seattle, he found the Knicks’ five-year, $650,000 per season offer irresistible.

As per the league’s free agent system, commissioner Larry O’Brien compensated the Sonics for their loss by awarding them Lonnie Shelton, a Knicks’ No. 1 pick and $450,000.

The fallout couldn’t have turned out more booming for the Sonics (1979 title) or more disastrous for Webster, through no fault of the Knicks. After a fairly solid first season (11.3, 10.9 and two blocks, 60 games) injuries and illness plagued him for the remainder of his 10-year career.

The reoccurrence of hepatitis during his last season or two with the Knicks stalked and haunted him until the day he died technically of coronary artery disease in a tub at a Tulsa upscale hotel; he was in town apparently searching for alternative medical help.

Ex-FBI agent Charles Bennett succeeded Larry Fleisher as Webster’s agent toward the end of his career. When Marvin got sick, his older brother Steve and the Albuquerque, N.M., CPA handled his finances (investments that put him in good shape had he lived until 80) and tormenting health issues.

The hepatitis affected his liver, compelling him to take medicine. That led to other symptoms; there were calamitous side effects.

“He would display paranoia and signs of schizophrenia,” Bennett said last week by telephone. “That would take Marvin out of circulation. He didn’t want to be around people. He preferred to be in a room by himself.

“Sometimes we had to put Marvin into a hospital (the last time, a couple years ago, for three months) to get him back on his meds and back on track,” Bennett said.

“When he was on the meds he was a pleasure to be around, just the same regular guy he always was. When he was off the meds, his mind would go to some other place and he would be some other person. When he would get better, he had no idea where he was or who he was. When we brought him back from the state he was in he would be so thankful he was normal again. He hated being in that abnormal state.”

I asked Bennett if Webster’s family tragedies contributed to his mental meltdown. Surely the deaths of Marvin, Jr., 18, from heart disease and ex-wife Mederia, 39, five years earlier from a ruptured aneurysm had to push him over the edge.

How much grief can one person take?

“Marvin’s misfortune and his health issues were unrelated,” said Bennett, also 56.

“Of course Marvin was depressed. I get depressed every time I think about what happened to him and his family.”

Peter Vecsey covers the NBAfor the New York Post.