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THE FRONT ROW with MARK NELKE: Through it all, Marsell Colbert stood tall at Genesis Prep

| August 23, 2020 1:14 AM

Marsell Colbert had no reason to leave his hometown of Annapolis, Md., and come to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to play college basketball — except his friend and high school teammate had committed to play basketball at North Idaho College.

So Marsell joined him.

He liked it so much here that he’s lived in this area pretty much ever since.

“That was the greatest decision — a blind decision, but that was the greatest decision I ever made,” Colbert said of coming to NIC.

His most recent decision was perhaps the toughest decision he’s ever had to make.

Colbert, who put Genesis Prep on the map with a dominant basketball program that captured a pair of state titles in Idaho’s smallest classification (1A Division II), and more than held its own against much bigger schools, stepped down as coach and teacher in June to take another job outside basketball.

He cited “just some personal stuff” for his decision, declining to go into details. He said it took “months” to come to this decision.

“I love Genesis Prep. That’s my home, man,” Colbert said. “But it was the right thing. I’m at peace with my decision. It was just one of those things where I had to step away. It’s not a health issue; I’m as healthy as an ox. It was the right decision. Through prayer, and numerous discussions with close friends and family, I am at peace with my decision.”

COLBERT COACHED at Genesis Prep, a private school in Post Falls, for six seasons. His first year was the Jaguars’ last in the church-based Mountain Christian League. Genesis Prep moved to the North Star League the following year when the program was sanctioned by the Idaho High School Activities Association.

The Jaguars were an immediate threat at the state level, finishing third in 2016, then romping to back-to-back state titles in 2017 and ’18. Genesis Prep finished third in 2019, and fell short of a state berth this past season when the Jaguars lost to eventual state champion Lakeside in the District 1 title game.

Colbert was 110-34 at Genesis Prep, including 91-31 in its five seasons as an IHSAA-sanctioned school. The Jaguars won or shared four North Star League titles and captured four district titles.

“It was pretty devastating,” Genesis Prep athletic director Paula Thurston said, when she received the news. “Besides putting Genesis Prep on the map as a high school program, just his presence in the school — everybody loved him.”

YOU COULDN’T miss Colbert at a Genesis Prep boys basketball game — heck, anywhere that had to do with Genesis Prep.

Standing 6-foot-4, often with a smile on is face, he was an instant magnet to others — quick with a hug, and an encouraging word.

And not just for his high school players, as he worked the hallways at Genesis Prep. It didn’t matter whether you were a pre-kindergarten student or a senior basketball star.

“I wanted to make sure, when these kids come to school, when they leave school, they have one memory that’s going to stick with them the rest of their day, and hopefully the rest of their lives,” Colbert said. “When they think of me, hopefully they think of how I treated them, and how I interacted with them. I mess with the kindergartners, I mess with (all of them) ... I have fun with them. Even if it’s only for 30 seconds, it’s 30 seconds of fun. And we all need that.”

Colbert, who taught U.S. history, world history, health, geography and lifetime sports at Genesis Prep — “and that was last year” — said that came from teachers and coaches he had long ago — he didn’t know it at the time, but they would impact his life, many years later.

“You can’t miss him — not just his physical presence, but his emotional presence,” Thurston said. “He did so many things for those students; he’s pretty irreplaceable. The relationships he fostered with those kids; he cared for them, when no one in the world cared for them. He just has a way of bringing people together.”

BEFORE COLBERT came to Genesis Prep, he was an assistant coach at North Idaho College and at Post Falls High. He coached with Tim Mitchell at Post Falls Christian Academy, and for a few years he ran an AAU program, the River City Hoyas, coaching his sons, Malcolm and Marcus.

Shortly after college he worked for FedEx, but left because of a back injury and ended up going back to school.

Colbert came to NIC because his friend and high school teammate in Annapolis, Freddie Butler, signed with the Cardinals.

So he knew there would be at least one person he knew out here.

“Me being young and naive, I had played in an AAU tournament out in Yakima, Wash., in ’88. So I looked on the map and I saw Yakima and Coeur d’Alene and thought, ‘That ain’t that far from Yakima.’ I didn’t realize how cold it was out here, though,” Colbert said with a laugh.

Colbert played one season at NIC, said he got “burnt out” and went to work.

HE SAID he’s encountered his share of racial incidents, but mostly shrugs them off.

“In the spring (of 1990), we were in the dorms, and one or our ‘dorm mates’ told us not to go downtown, this was on a Saturday,” Colbert recalled. “They (the Aryan Nations) were having their parade.

“We didn’t go downtown.”

Sometime in the mid-1990s, he went out to get in his car to go to work for FedEx, “and there was a whole bunch of racial stuff written on my car, a whole bunch of notes on my car,” he said. “It pissed me off, but there’s not much you can do when you don’t know who it is, and it’s probably a good thing I didn’t know who it was.”

One time, his wife Amy, who is white, was driving, and Marsell was in the back seat with Malcolm, who was a baby at the time.

“And a policeman pulls her over, and his excuse was, it looked like she was having a bad day. And it pissed me off. I said, ‘This is my son.’”

What do you mean, having a bad day?

“Meaning, I’m carjacking her,” Colbert said.

Though he notes things aren’t much different than they were 100 years ago, he said he’s “pessimistically optimistic” things will change.

“I have my views on (Black Lives Matter),” he said. “When you have a movement like that, people tend to shift the focus off the main issue, and focus on disrupting. They want to disrupt what the focus is, what the main cause is, instead of focusing why do we have to have these movements.

“If we understood there was only one race, and there were different ethnicities in that race, none of this would exist.”

COLBERT SAYS he’s proud of what he built at Genesis Prep, but notes there were lots of people around him who deserve credit as well.

“We had good ballplayers, but you can have good ballplayers and not be successful, if they don’t like each other, and don’t understand to be successful, you have to work together,” he said. “In our case, it came down to love, loyalty and trust. We all love each other, we were all loyal to each other, and we all trusted each other. I thought that was the most important piece, that we were all together. Teams are built for seasons, but families are built for life. Genesis Prep is a family — and that has to be the mindset.”

Others, of course, locally and statewide, claim Genesis Prep’s success also came down to recruiting — especially in bringing in F1 (international) students, several of which were key members on his basketball teams.

Colbert says he just laughs at the notion that he was recruiting.

“When someone says that we recruit, I want to get their definition of recruiting,” he said. “Because when they say we’re recruiting, they’re referring to me. I don’t know what their definition of recruiting, but this is my definition of recruiting — I’m going to call you, I’m going to come by your house, I’m going to sell you on coming to Genesis Prep to play basketball. I did a lot of that at NIC, so I know what recruiting is.

“Now, I don’t own a passport. I did not reach out to any kid that’s come to Genesis Prep,” Colbert said. “I know who I am, I know what I am, and I know where I am.”

In reference to international students, “I can’t control kids that reach out, that want to come here to come to school,” Colbert said.

He claims public schools could admit F1 students, but “they just choose not to.”

“At the end of the day, I know what the truth is, we know what the truth is ... and that’s all that really matters,” Colbert said.

COLBERT, WHO turned 50 in January, said if it was the right fit, he would coach again.

“I’m not retired now. I just changed jobs,” he said with a laugh.

Colbert said he’ll miss “everything” about Genesis Prep — not just the staff at the school and the high school students, but every student, from pre-K through 12th grade.

“And of course, I’m going to miss that whistle and my guys in the gym,” he said.

And he’ll miss one of his favorite sayings.

“Like I always say, ‘It’s a great day to be a Runnin’ Jaguar,’” Colbert said.

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at mnelke@cdapress.com. Follow him on Twitter@CdAPressSports.