Marcus Fizer’s presence and impact on the Iowa State basketball program cannot be disputed. The burly 6-8, 265-pound forward was not only the most dominant player in the Big 12 Conference by the end of his collegiate career, he was arguably the best player in all of college basketball on a team that ranked among the best as well.
Fizer’s final campaign as a Cyclone (1999-2000) ranks as one of the best in school history (Runner-up National Player of the Year by the AP, Consensus All-American, Big 12 Player of the Year, single-season scoring mark at ISU with 844 points). It might be safe to say that no ISU player ever conjured up as much fear as Fizer did for his opponents.
Fizer, who now lives in Las Vegas, is among six former Cyclone greats being inducted into the 2015 Iowa State Athletics Hall of Fame on Oct. 16.
We had the chance to talk with the Cyclone legend on his memories of Iowa State and what the school means to him.
The story of how Marcus Fizer came to Iowa State in the first place is an interesting one. Fizer grew up in Detroit and moved to Arcadia, Louisiana when he was 14 to live with his guardians Robert and Sheila Frazier. He quickly emerged into one of the best prep players in the nation. The high school hoops ranking systems in the late 1990s wasn’t as sophisticated as you see today, but Fizer’s name was on virtually every recruiting experts top-50. He is still to this day the only McDonald’s All-American to sign with the Cyclones out of high school, scoring 11 points in the nation’s top prep all-star game. Tim Floyd, Iowa State head men’s basketball coach at the time, heard about Fizer from his wife Beverly. Beverly’s grandmother, Ruth Hudson, was being taken care of at a retirement center by Fizer’s guardian Sheila. That relationship and a Cyclone basketball media guide were big assists in luring the greatest recruit in ISU men’s hoops history to Ames.
You were recruited by most of the top basketball schools in the nation. How did you end up at Iowa State?
Fizer: Well, it all started off by meeting Beverly Floyd when my mother was working at the retirement home that her mother was at. There has been a lot of talk and a lot of speculation about how a McDonalds All-American became interested in coming to Iowa State. It’s really dumbfounding to me to still be the only McDonalds All-American to come to Iowa State because I know we definitely have the facilities and tradition to get recruits of that caliber. My freshman year in high school I wasn’t even eligible to play basketball because I moved to Louisiana from Detroit and my biological parents didn’t make the journey with me, so by the high school regulations of Louisiana I had to sit out a year. I met Beverly when I was taking my mother to lunch when she was at work. I was maybe 6-5 or 6-6 at the time and she just looked at this tall basketball player and happened to have an Iowa State basketball media guide with her at the time. We spoke and she gave me the media guide as a gift and I looked through it. That was when (Shawn) Bankhead, (Dedric) Willoughby and all those guys were getting ready to play and everything. I already had researched Iowa State, and when I became a basketball star and everything, my heart was already on Iowa State. I guess it was fate.
Fizer had a solid freshman campaign in 1997-98, earning Big 12 Freshman of the Year accolades after averaging 14.9 points and 6.7 rebounds. The Cyclones struggled in his first year, finishing the year at 12-18 as the team was dogged by rumors of Floyd leaving for the Chicago Bulls. Floyd eventually did leave for the Bulls, opening the door for former Utah State head coach Larry Eustachy to take over the reins of the program for Fizer’s sophomore season in 1998-99. Fizer improved his game, earning first-team All-Big 12 honors, while averaging a league-best 18.0 points and 7.6 boards. Fizer and Eustachy often didn’t see eye-to-eye, however, and the transition wasn’t easy.
After your freshman season, you got a new coach in Larry Eustachy. It seems you two got off to a rocky start. How tough was it for you to deal with a new coach in your second year?
Fizer: Well, it was predominately my immaturity, without a doubt. I knew Coach Floyd brought me in, and I knew Coach Eustachy knew what he was doing. He was a great and excellent coach, definitely a great teacher. It was just my immaturity. You could say that I was a little upset in the way Coach Floyd left, there’s no question about that. I think I was more reluctant to accepting Coach Eustachy in, and I wouldn’t have been won over by him had he not taken the hard and stern approach that he had taken with me. He didn’t come in and treat me special and didn’t let up on me. He was harder on me than anybody and I responded from that. Once I grew up and became receptive to his coaching, we found success. To this day I’m totally grateful.
If there was a sign of better days to come for Fizer and Iowa State, it was in the final regular-season game of 1998-99. The Cyclones knocked off Kansas 52-50 in Hilton Coliseum and it was Fizer’s dunk in the final minute that sealed the deal.
Beating Kansas at home in the final game of your sophomore year was kind of your first taste of success at Iowa State. What do you remember from that game?
Fizer: What I remember most was (Kansas) Coach (Roy) Williams trying to congratulate me, but I was so wrapped up in everything that was going on I didn’t notice him. I thought he was just someone from the court trying to say something to me and I really wasn’t paying attention to him. I was so enamored by everything that was going on with the fans and celebrating. He congratulated me and we walked off the court. If you’ve ever been a part of it, being a basketball player, a fan, or an opponent, you definitely understand what Hilton Magic means to us.
Iowa State was still an unknown nationally heading into Fizer’s junior season in 1999-2000. Not much was expected out of the Cyclones. Most preseason magazines had the Cyclones finishing in the bottom tier of the Big 12 Conference, including one publication forecasting ISU to finish dead last. However, the backcourt problems which had plagued the Cyclones in Fizer’s first two years were to be solved with two huge additions in junior college transfers Jamaal Tinsley and Kantrail Horton. The new Cyclones would quickly bond with the solid core of returners in Fizer, Michael Nurse, Stevie Johnson, Paul Shirley and Martin Rancik. Perhaps the addition of Tinsley was the greatest. The future All-American was a wizard with the ball and could make passes on a dime. It didn’t take Fizer long to figure out he was playing with somebody special, a player who could elevate his game to elite status.
When did you figure out how good Jamaal Tinsley was?
Fizer: I knew from the moment that we first practiced and worked out together. I knew the potential of our team because he wanted to win just as bad as I did.
That team had a special bond and appeared to really enjoy playing together. Was that the case?
Fizer: It was no surprise to us as a ball club. We were just having fun as kids playing college basketball. We were looking forward to any and every test that they put in front of us, and the bigger they came the harder they fell. We were just looking to carve out our own niche. We weren’t trying to prove anyone wrong, we weren’t trying to be the David against Goliath. We were just trying to play college basketball. We knew the talent that we had, from myself to Paul Shirley, Stevie Johnson and Martin Rancik, and down the line to guys like Mike Nurse, Jamaal and Kantrail Horton. We definitely accepted the role of being the unknown. We took losses very, very hard and they were very devastating because we knew for a fact we were one of the most, if not the most talented team in the nation that year. We challenged each other. Anytime you can have a guard like Kantrail, who was maybe 4 or 5 inches shorter than me, but was as strong as me, you would get a lot of battles in practice. There’s never been a question about Stevie Johnson’s toughness. We even had a walk-on named Clint Varley that came in and should have been a football player. He came in and knocked guys around in practice. Even guys that weren’t bigger in stature, like Paul Shirley or Martin Rancik, still came out and gave 100 percent. We challenged each other every day in practice and made sure everyone was accountable for what was expected from the coaching staff.
Despite an inexplicable loss at Drake in the second game of the season, Iowa State quickly began to pick up steam. The Cyclones appeared in the national rankings for the first time in early February with wins over Arkansas, Iowa, Missouri (twice) and Kansas under their belt. Iowa State was 21-3 overall and 9-1 in Big 12 play heading into a top-20 showdown at Kansas on Feb. 16. The Cyclones hadn’t won in Allen Fieldhouse since 1982. Fizer had his national coming out party that night, registering a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds. ISU was down 59-53 with under three minutes remaining, but the Cyclones didn’t give up. Tinsley converted two steals for layups to jumpstart a 10-0 ISU run. It was Fizer who made the final statement with a highly-contested, fadeaway baseline jumper with 10 seconds left and the shot clock winding down to provide ISU with a 63-59 cushion. Game over. Streak over.
The shot you hit in the final seconds against Kansas was one of the most memorable in school history. What do you remember from that game?
Fizer: Going into that game, we knew it was going to be a grind. We just tried to stay poised. In terms of the shot, I still remember it like it was yesterday. Being on the post and sitting there when Kantrail was dribbling the ball and I was thinking he was going to shoot it. Then we locked eyes, and when you lock eyes with somebody, you know what they’re going to do. I said, “My God, this boy is going to pass me the ball.” So, he was still dribbling and then he passes me the ball. I knew I had to get a shot off. Honest to God, I was aiming to go glass because of the angle. The way I was shooting it from, and I guess the way the trajectory was from me trying to get it over the defender and the fadeaway, it just worked out perfectly where it went straight in. I’m not going to argue with the result (laughs). As long as it goes in the hole and we get the victory that’s all that I’m concerned about.
The upstart Cyclones couldn’t hide any longer. Now ranked 17th nationally and holding a 22-4 mark and a 10-2 Big 12 record (the only two losses were road overtime setbacks to Oklahoma and Colorado), the Cyclones were now aiming for their first conference regular-season title since 1945. The buzz around Ames was at a fever pitch. Next on ISU’s schedule were home games vs. No. 14 Texas and No. 10 Oklahoma State. A pair of victories would give the Cyclones a stranglehold on the Big 12 crown, and Fizer and company didn’t disappoint the sold-out Hilton Coliseum crowd.
The build-up of those two games against Texas and Oklahoma State was incredible. What was the psyche of the team at the time?
Fizer: I can just remember at that point in the year saying to myself, “Whoever comes into this place has absolutely no chance.” The way that we were playing and the way that I was playing, we were peaking. The only thing we were focused on was playing and winning the basketball games and knowing that these guys have absolutely no chance. I don’t care if you put those two teams together and made an all-star team between the two of them, they still wouldn’t have had a chance. That’s the roll that we were on and that’s the only thing that I was focused on. We knew Hilton Magic was called Hilton Magic for a reason. We knew the importance of that place, we knew the fan base and the support we got there, and each and every time that I stepped out on that court, I always had to compose myself. I would get chills before the game started.
In the Texas win, you had a posterizing dunk over future NBAer Chris Mihm. Do fans still bring that play up to you?
Fizer: Pretty often. There’s a lot of Cyclones out here in Las Vegas and I was just in the grocery store the other day and a guy brought up the Chris Mihm dunk. I don’t really know what Chris is doing. I don’t really talk about it much personally, but it’s something that happened at that moment. I knew I had to score and I didn’t think he wasn’t going to jump. The fact that he did jump made it worse on him, I guess.
Iowa State’s 55-year drought of not winning a league title ended when the Cyclones trounced Baylor, 75-54 in Waco, finishing the conference season at 14-2. Fizer was now the talk of college basketball. Beginning with the Texas game, he recorded the greatest five-game offensive scoring outburst in school history. His five-game scoring output went like this: Texas (35 points), Oklahoma State (29 points), Texas Tech (35 points), Baylor (34 points) and Baylor (38 points). Iowa State was the top seed at the Big 12 Conference Tournament in Kansas City and still had unfinished business to take care of. Fizer showcased his drive and determination when he was handed the Big 12 Player of the Year trophy prior to the first round game vs. Baylor.
You mentioned that when you were awarded the Big 12 Player of the Year Trophy prior to the Baylor game at the Big 12 Tournament it upset you. How so?
Fizer: Once we won the Big 12 title outright, we still went into the Big 12 Tournament with people thinking we didn’t have a chance despite having the No. 1 seed. I was given the Big 12 Player of the Year trophy and I turned and immediately gave it to the guy standing beside me. I was pissed. The only thing I was focused on was playing that basketball game and I was trying to get that trophy and pass it to whoever so I could get back to warming up because we had business to take care of. They actually had to hand it back to me so I could hold it up and acknowledge the crowd. Even that wasn’t on my mind. My mind was on facing Baylor and winning that championship. At the end of the Big 12 tournament I was finally able to celebrate. My face was hurting from smiling and just proving everyone wrong about us and we were very happy at that point.
The Cyclones completed the sweep by winning the 2000 Big 12 Tournament title with two hard-fought victories over No. 13 Oklahoma State (68-64) and No. 21 Oklahoma (70-58) in the semifinals and finals, respectively. When the Cyclones made the trek back to Ames Sunday afternoon, they learned they were a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament with a throng of Cyclone fans waiting their arrival in Hilton Coliseum. The Cyclone women’s basketball team also completed the sweep with Big 12 regular season and tournament titles, and the ISU Athletics Department honored both teams for their historic achievements with a championship celebration in Hilton Coliseum. It was a special moment in ISU athletics history, and a memory Fizer still treasures.
The celebration in Hilton Coliseum for both the men’s and women’s basketball programs winning all four conference titles has to be one of the greatest moments in Iowa State athletics history. What do you remember from that night?
Fizer: It means so much. It means so much to be the underdog and come out as champions. Stacy Frese was the leader of the women’s team and to be able to see them come home with the championship, and us came home with the championship, that was humongous. The feeling is so surreal to be a part of something special like that. You can’t really put it into words how special that was. In terms of popularity, we aren’t like Duke, Kentucky or UCLA. We’re the Cyclones. We’re the underdogs each and every time we step onto the floor and to be able to go out there with powerhouses like that and be the victors, it’s very, very special.
Heading into the 2000 NCAA Tournament, Sports Illustrated picked Fizer to grace its cover previewing March Madness, the first and only Cyclone to appear on the cover of the magazine. He was also named to the Associated Press’ First-Team All-America squad. Behind Fizer’s 27 and 22 points, the Cyclones defeated Central Connecticut State and Auburn to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. Perennial power UCLA was next in the Midwest Regional semifinal at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich. UCLA was considered one of the hottest teams in the tournament after throttling No. 2-seed Maryland. The Bruins then ran into a ferocious Cyclone.
What were your memories of the 80-56 win over UCLA to go to the Elite Eight?
Fizer: That game was so special to me because of my floor general Jamaal Tinsley. Earl Watson, who was a childhood friend growing up, was the floor general for UCLA, and I know he had a monstrous game vs. Maryland. Tinsley had a humongous game (14 points, 11 assists, nine rebounds) and destroyed everyone. We came out of the locker room and we knew that Iowa State had never beaten UCLA. They (UCLA) were chanting in the hallway about how they were going to keep the tradition alive and that pissed us off. I mean, that’s as mad as I’ve seen Stevie Johnson ever in my life. We went out there with a vengeance and a purpose and the end result definitely showed. I told them in the press conference we were very, very focused on doing what we had to do and we had one goal and that was winning.
Most Cyclone fans want to forget the controversial Elite Eight game vs. Michigan State, and so does Fizer. Questionable calls down the stretch aided in ending Iowa State’s magical season with a school-record 32 wins. Michigan State was the eventual national champion and Fizer still feels anger on what transpired in the final five minutes of the game.
How often do you think about the Michigan State game?
Fizer: Not often. Honestly, I have probably only watched a couple of clips because my kids were checking it out on YouTube the other day and they asked me, “Dad, do you remember it?” I told them I remember some of it. I don’t really remember much of it at all because it was definitely one of the lowest points of my life, the way things took place in that game. I just really try not to think about it a lot. I can accept being beat, but I can’t accept being cheated, and that’s the way I felt after the game. Honestly, up until three weeks ago, it had been 15 years since I had watched anything from that game.
Fizer, now a consensus All-American, had a difficult decision to make. With one season of eligibility left at Iowa State, Fizer knew his NBA stock couldn’t rise much higher. He ended the year averaging 22.8 points and 7.7 rebounds, breaking ISU single-season marks in scoring (844) and field goals (327), records that still stand today. He loved Iowa State and knew the Cyclones could possibly be preseason favorites to win it all in 2000-01 if he returned. He also had to think about his family, which ultimately was the reason for his decision to turn pro and enter the 2000 NBA Draft.
How tough of a decision was it to turn professional after your incredible junior season?
Fizer: It was extremely tough because I don’t think people totally understand the reason that I did go pro. The reason I turned pro is because my parents’ house had burned down because of electrical problems. That happened in the end of January and my parents told me absolutely nothing about it. We went through the rest of the season and went through the tournament and everything, and I had no idea about it. I was actually sitting at home after we had returned from Detroit and I’m sitting on my couch watching TV in total disgust and I got a phone call from my dad and he told me everything that was going on. They had been staying in a hotel in our local neighborhood because their house had burned down. Right then and there I knew what my decision was going to be. I was leaning toward returning with the team that we had coming back and I was looking forward to coming back to finish my career. When we had that talk, I prayed about it and it was just the thing I had to do at that moment.
Fizer made the correct decision, as the Chicago Bulls made him the fourth pick in the 2000 NBA Draft, the highest selection in school history. However, Fizer’s NBA career was mired by unfortunate injuries. He had multiple knee surgeries, depleting his quickness and bounce. He played six seasons in the NBA for four teams.
Unfortunately, you suffered numerous injuries during your NBA career. How tough was that for you?
Fizer: I blew my knee out my third year and blew my knee out the last game of the season in my fourth year. I guess it was just some bad luck, and that’s the thing that really bothers me the most. When you talk about players not living up to their potential or being busts or whatever, you can never see what’s going to happen in terms of players who could have become stars, who were stars or good players and unfortunately were injured. It happened to Grant Hill, it happened to Penny Hardaway, it happened to Brandon Roy and it definitely happened to Greg Oden. You do have players that were selected extremely high but played their entire career and didn’t even have as much as a twisted ankle. You never know what’s going to happen. If it would have happened to Michael Jordan, you never know what would have happened with him. Even though I was injured, I always worked my way back. Even though I played in the NBA, I also played over in Europe. I still played professionally for 16 years. It’s not like I got injured and I just laid down and didn’t do anything for the rest of my career. Playing overseas and playing in different countries is much harder than the NBA. Now, people always look at me strange when I say that. I’m not saying that the talent in the other countries are better. I’m talking about in terms of physicality, preparation, in terms of taking care of your body the next day, it is a lot harder, a whole lot harder. In terms of being injured and things like that, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. It’s just something that unfortunately happened to me. I’m not bitter about it, but it helped me learn about myself as a person.
How excited are you to come back to Ames for your Hall of Fame Induction?
Fizer: I’m just totally speechless. I don’t think people understand how special Iowa State is to me. It’s such a mystical place. There is a family feeling of being a part of Iowa State University. It is definitely one of my fondest memories of my lifetime.
How emotional will you be when you see Hilton Coliseum again?
Fizer: Oh my god. I’ve been thinking about it for the last couple of days. I told my wife I am going to need a handkerchief or a lot of tissue around. I know I’m a very emotional guy, especially with things that are dear to me and I hold close to my heart. Just to be back in Ames again. It’s going to be an emotional rollercoaster without a doubt. I’m very much looking forward to it.
It’s not too late to purchase tickets to the 2015 Iowa State Hall of Fame ceremony, Oct. 16 at the ISU Alumni Center by clicking here.