Pavel Podkolzine drew the most stares in Chicago last week. Whether it was walking around the Wyndham hotel lobby, or working out for NBA, the 7-foot-5, 303-pound Siberian teenager was a sight to behold.
But there was another large man in town who drew similar attention, not to mention more than a few double-takes from any NBA personnel who caught a glimpse of a perceived ghost of lottery picks past.
Chris Marcus -- yes, that Chris Marcus, was in town last week. And, while he did little more than turn heads in the Wyndham lobby, his arrival was just as startling as the sight of the Siberian giant.
You see, Marcus was supposed to be done playing basketball. Five ankle injuries requiring two surgeries on the same left foot had produced two lost seasons at Western Kentucky. Word out of Bowling Green, Ky., was the one-time lottery lock had been sent into retirement before he played a minute in the NBA.
But those reports were apparently about as correct as sightings of Big Foot.
Marcus is indeed back playing basketball and is adamant about playing in the NBA next season. Still, someone who was projected as recently as 2001 to compete for the top spot in the NBA Draft, is now more likely going to end up as a worthy gamble in the second round.
Just seeing Marcus and hearing him talk about an NBA future was among the biggest surprises out of Chicago.
"I'll be in the NBA next season and back to my old self, I have no doubts about that," Marcus said. "I can help a team out with my size, play defense and rebound the ball."
Measuring 7-1 and 334-pounds, the Western Kentucky senior was cleared last week to pick up a ball and walk on a court. He still can't work out for teams leading up to the draft, but will go through the interview process and rely on his potential and past dominance when healthy. Before injuries cut short his junior and senior seasons, Marcus led the nation in rebounding (12.1 rpg) and averaged 16.7 points a game in guiding the Hilltoppers to the NCAA Tournament.
Marcus said last week that doctors told him he would have no long-term health risks, but that he had to take a "long time off" to allow the stress fracture in his foot to heal. He expects to be given complete clearance to play competitive basketball this fall. He plans to do so at the highest level.
"I tried to come back so many different times and that's what hindered it," Marcus said. "I don't know why people said that rumor that I didn't want to play basketball. I was frustrated that I wasn't playing basketball and the only time I wondered was, 'what if it never heals?'"
But Marcus stressed that he never wanted to quit and still loves the sport. The question about his passion and desire to play has irked everyone around Marcus.
"That's never been his problem," said Georgia coach Dennis Felton, Marcus' former coach at Western Kentucky. "He never had a lack of desire. This has been one of the most frustrating experiences of his life. All of us around him know how badly he wants to play. It's been horrible for him. He loves to play.
"If he's healthy then he would be one of the five best centers in the NBA," Felton added. "I know we're hearing about these other foreign guys, but he'll be in the league for 15 years and be one of the best."
Felton may be getting a little ahead of himself, but there is no denying Marcus' dominance when healthy. He was the Sun Belt player of the year as a sophomore, and had he left WKU, would have been in the same company of top-five high school senior centers Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry. But after deciding to return to school, his junior season was hampered by the initial foot injury.
Marcus played only 15 games during the 2001-02 season after turning his ankle in preseason practice and suffering a stress fracture in October, 2001. Even though he was limited, he still led the Hilltoppers in scoring (15.9 ppg) and rebounding (8.9 rpg), and through his junior year, had a school-record 212 blocks. Marcus returned in time to go against Curtis Borchardt and Stanford in a first-round NCAA Tournament loss.
Marcus declared for the 2002 draft, but withdrew after never working out for any team. The reason? His ankle, of course.
The ankle needed surgery, but Marcus wanted to put it off as long as possible. He finally relented and had the procedure done in June, 2002. Without an agent to explain his health or basketball future, Marcus said there was confusion as to whether or not he wanted to play. He said he had no one speaking for him.
"Do you want to know about how much he wanted to play?" Felton said. "Last summer, the doctor had to put off his appointment to take the cast off, and (Marcus) was threatening to cut it off and just start playing. He was so frustrated that he wanted to play so bad."
Felton penciled Marcus in as WKU's starting center for the 2002-03 season. But, once again, there was mystery surrounding whether he could or wanted to play as a senior. Marcus sat out the preseason, and then continued to sit idle on the bench and in practice until January. He played 39 minutes across four games before doctors told him to rest his foot. He had a second surgery performed in December, and the rehabilitation process began anew.
"The toughest part about it was all the cross-training and biking," Marcus said. "Then I was just doing pool workouts and light lifting. The doctor (Robert Anderson, a orthopedic surgeon in his hometown of Charlotte) made it clear that they were tired of hearing about me coming back too quickly."
Now six months into his recovery and the ankle feeling better than it has in two years, Marcus said his goal is to get back to his optimal playing weight of 300 or 295 in time for NBA training camp.
"He can flat out rebound and he'll be one of the best rebounders in the league," Felton said. "He can score over a ton of people with his touch and turnaround jumper. He's got a jump hook and it's tough to score on him."
"Basketball isn't the problem," Marcus said. "The biggest concern everyone has is my foot. What I'll tell teams is that I'm the same player, but I've been hurt for two years. They know I can play the game. I've been out for a while but I'm on the road to recovery so just give me some time."
Showing up in Chicago was the first step. Marcus hopes getting drafted June 26 is the second.
After that, any further steps he takes toward playing in the NBA will depend on his ankle.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.