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Markquis Nowell Went Home and Became a March Madness Legend

The Harlem native put on a show at Madison Square Garden, setting an NCAA tournament record with 19 assists and propelling Kansas State to the Elite Eight

Getty Images/AP/Ringer illustration

Things looked lost for Kansas State when Markquis Nowell went down with an ankle injury. The 5-foot-8 point guard had played virtually every meaningful minute for the Wildcats all season long, and already had 10 assists in the first half. But early in the second half of Kansas State’s Sweet 16 matchup against Michigan State, he needed to be helped off the court and couldn’t put any weight on his ankle. K-State’s offense was in disarray, and it quickly gave up a 9-2 run.

Nowell is from Harlem and was playing in Madison Square Garden for the first time. New York dudes don’t need painkillers. They just need to feel disrespected, and they’ll play on a broken leg. Hobbling and hopping, and spurred on by a little trash talk, Nowell got back in the game and made March magic.

The game went to overtime, but all the Wildcats agree it was probably over when somebody on Michigan State started talking to Nowell. “[Nowell] said, ‘I’m the wrong guy to talk to,’” explained Kansas State forward Ismael Massoud. “I was like, yeah! Let him talk!” Nowell’s competitive pettiness was contagious: “He got me going by saying that,” said his alley-oop partner Keyontae Johnson. “I just wanted to get this dub for him.” (The Wildcats kindly protected the identity of the Spartan who cost his team its season via trash talk.)

Nowell put both Manhattans on his back (New York and Kansas) and set an NCAA tournament record with 19 assists to send 3-seed Kansas State to the Elite Eight. He’s like if the Hulk were 5-foot-8 and from Harlem: You won’t like him when he’s yapping.

Everything was set up for Nowell to have a storybook evening on Thursday. The New York native was back home for the first time in years, and Harlem hero Cam’ron showed up to the game wearing Kansas State gear—the dude loves wearing purple—to cheer on Nowell and two other Harlem-raised Wildcats, Massoud and guard Nae’Qwan Tomlin. It doesn’t seem like anybody on K-State knows Cam’ron personally—he just heard Harlem guys were thriving and showed up.

The three New York guys remember how clutch it felt when they showed up in Kansas and learned they’d share a locker room with two other guys from their neighborhood. “We have our own kind of language,” said Tomlin. All took roundabout routes from the Big Apple to the Little Apple: Massoud transferred from Wake Forest; Tomlin never played high school hoops and went to two junior colleges; Nowell was overlooked because of his size and played at University of Arkansas–Little Rock for three years. “We bring a different vibe and energy to everything,” Massoud said. “You’re not homesick when you’re with those guys.”

All three played well Thursday night, with Massoud scoring a season-high 15 points. (NYC native Tyson Walker also had 16 for the Spartans.) But the star was Nowell, who kept whipping diabolical passes to semi-open cutters. From the press seats, it looked like Nowell was just throwing the ball into crowds of Spartans. Only Nowell knew that his passes would have a teammate on the other end.

Nowell’s record-tying assist came on a stunningly nonchalant play in a critical moment. With a minute remaining in overtime and the game tied, Nowell pretended to talk to his head coach before whipping a no-look pass to a cutting Johnson for an alley-oop. It was huge and historic … and … casual?

Before throwing the lob, the senior point guard reportedly turned to the Michigan State cheering section and said, “Watch this,” part of a game-long feud with 2000s-era MSU star Mateen Cleaves, who was sitting with Isiah Thomas in the first row of the stands. Nowell acknowledged the war of words after the game … but seemed not to know who Cleaves was. ”I was talking to Isiah Thomas because I think he had a friend over there, and he was rooting for them,” Nowell said after the game. “I’m like, y’all not going to win today, and I just kept looking at him for some added motivation.” It’s the college hoops version of Reggie Miller vs. Spike Lee—and only a few feet away on the MSG sideline from where that famous fan-player showdown went down—except if Miller had thought Lee was just a more famous person’s friend.

For whatever reason, New York tends to produce point guards—Nate “Tiny” Archibald, Stephon Marbury, Kenny Anderson, Kenny Smith, Kemba Walker, Rod Strickland, Rafer Alston. My theory has always been that the rims in our city parks and playgrounds are too tight for anybody to hit a jumper, so the coolest thing to do is learn to dribble and pass really well. (I think this is also why there aren’t NYC superstars anymore in the 3-point era.) But there’s also something about the bravado of the position that fits the NYC flair for leadership via showmanship.

I can understand why non–New Yorkers roll their eyes at this stuff. I know, I know, they think that we think we invented convenience stores because we use a different name for them. (THEY’RE FUNDAMENTALLY DIFFERENT FROM REGULAR CONVENIENCE STORES! But I get it.) We think we’re the best at basketball because of … well … I think the most recent name on that list was Kemba Walker. We can hype ourselves up a bit.

But Thursday night was special. Nowell has played hundreds of games, many in relative anonymity. He became a star this season, ranking second in Division I in assists per game. But it took the atmosphere at the Garden and the tournament stage to bring out his best performance. Amid the cheering from Cam’ron and the jeering from anybody wearing green, the tiny point guard with the huge chip on his shoulder made himself a March Madness icon.