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Friday, August 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley / Times staff columnist

Parkinson's is no match for Marsh

ISSAQUAH — A few years ago, during its 50th anniversary season, when the NBA was announcing the top 50 players of all time, a colleague suggested it would be fun to read a column about the league's 50 all-time worst.

The first player I thought of was Jim Marsh.

Not because he was bad. Jim's a great athlete. He played on some of USC's best teams, was drafted by the Sonics and played with the Portland Trail Blazers.

I thought of Jim because he's probably the best-natured person I know, and I knew he'd get a kick out of being on the list.

"That's great," he said when I told him he was my first call. "But I want to be No. 1 on the list."

That's Jim Marsh. Self-effacing. Funny. Comfortable enough with himself that he doesn't take himself seriously.

He will be the first to tell you that in college he "held" Lew Alcindor to 56 points. He'll practically brag that he played on a Portland team in 1971-72 that was "0 for January."

Marsh is one of these guys who makes you feel better just being around him. He's not afraid to be silly. He makes you laugh. Every city has unsung heroes. Jim Marsh is one of Seattle's.

He almost never says "no" to anybody. If you have a problem, he has a solution. If you need to get a group of people together to raise money for a good cause, Marsh pulls them together — Democrats, Republicans. He's a bipartisan people person.

You need somebody to work out your son in a sweltering gym in July, Jim's there. You need to organize a statewide mentoring program that works, you make him your executive director.

You need someone to spend the summer traveling around the country coaching one of the finest collection of high-school players ever assembled in Washington — Friends of Hoop — a volunteer position, you ask Jim Marsh.

This summer, he coached a team that included Martell Webster, Jon Brockman, Mitch Johnson and Spencer Hawes to the championship of the prestigious Las Vegas AAU Tournament.

While he was coaching the team, Marsh was learning about a personal drama that will affect him for the rest of his life.

Jim Marsh has Parkinson's disease, a chronic disease of the nervous system that results in a gradual decrease in muscle control. He was diagnosed in April.

"I put off going to the doctor a couple of times," said Marsh, sitting in his new offices at Washington State Mentoring Partnership. "Being a physical person all my life and still playing a lot of basketball, tennis, golf, it was something I didn't want to find out. Once I found out, things popped into my mind. Things people had said.

"They had noted certain things about my physical look. And for a couple, three years, I've noticed that it seemed like when I pick up a cup of coffee with my right hand, it would shake a little bit. I didn't think anything of it. Just figured it was cold or whatever."

Marsh, who turned 58 at the same time he was diagnosed, wasn't sure how he was going to tell his two daughters. He didn't know how to tell his team.

"For the first couple of months, I was trying to hide," Marsh said. "I didn't sleep a lot. I laid awake and wondered how much longer I could play basketball. It was a little bit dicey. You can get all kinds of gremlins in the dark."

His daughters came through the way adult daughters always seem to when you need their support. And his players didn't miss a beat. Instinctively, they began helping Marsh carry bags to and from the gym and in the airports.

"They've been absolutely unbelievable," Marsh said.

His eyes redden and his throat gets scratchy when he talks about his daughters and his players — his family.

Recently, "out of the blue," as Marsh says, an old friend and one-time tennis partner, former Washington governor Booth Gardner, called him. Gardner has been living with Parkinson's for about 12 years.

He has given Marsh several pep talks. He has lifted the spirits of the man who has spent his life lifting others.

"The second hand doesn't go around many times without me thinking about this and noticing something," Marsh said. "You have to watch out for depression, or lack of motivation. But that's not me. I'm competitive.

"But talking to Booth was a terrific pick-me-up. I think with the medicine kind of stabilizing me, it just seems like the little momentary glitches that I'll have during the course of a week, they don't bother me as profoundly as they did the first couple of months."

Marsh will continue coaching. He will continue as executive director of the mentoring program. He will do what he has been doing, bringing people together. And all of us will benefit from it.

And the Parkinson's disease? He'll laugh about it. He'll cry about it. But I guarantee you he won't let it beat him. Self-pity would be subjugation, and that's not Jim Marsh.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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