GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Flanked by his mother to his right, his father to his left and more family behind him, Marcus Bingham Jr. bent over and signed the symbolic letter of intent before him on Nov. 9.
It was purely symbolic. Bingham Jr. already had become an official member of Michigan State’s 2018 basketball recruiting class the day before. This day was about bringing people together to celebrate the Grand Rapids Catholic Central forward’s achievements. Decked out in green, Bingham Jr. thought about what he wanted to accomplish in East Lansing.
“I want to go there and leave a legacy and make sure my name is known there,” he said. Then he turned to his mother, Jonie Bondon, who whispered to him.
“Oh,” he added. “And graduate.” The room burst into laughter as Bondon rolled her eyes.
Progress. Not too long before, graduating from high school seemed like a lofty goal. Through his sophomore year, Bingham Jr. attended nearby Ottawa Hills High, where he began to take basketball seriously. He tried out for an organized team for the first time and made it.
But his father, Marcus Bingham Sr., said he shouldn’t even have been eligible. Grand Rapids Public Schools require a 2.0 grade-point average to participate in athletics. Bingham carried a 1.3.
“I was failing,” he said. “I was doing real bad in school, and I needed to get away from everyone I knew.”
His focus lapsed, and with the school’s negligence in letting him play, there didn’t seem to be much motivation to get back on track. Bingham Sr. and Bondon agreed. He needed to transfer.
“His time at Ottawa was terrible,” Bingham Sr. said. “He was taking classes that he wasn’t getting credits for and retaking classes that he had no reason to take. We just kind of looked around, and Catholic had the best academic program. I guess it’s kind of a plus that the coach is part of it.”
Basketball needed to be a factor. Anyone who saw Bingham Jr. could tell he had a future. Going into his sophomore year, his father stood next to him at the barber shop. And for the first time, he realized he had to look up.
Bingham Sr. stands 6-foot-7, and his son had passed him. Eventually Bingham Jr. would reach 6-10. He might still be growing. The question gets asked a lot, but he doesn’t know. At least the pains in his knees have subsided.
When he enrolled at Catholic Central, Bingham Jr. already held an offer from Ferris State, one of the best programs in Division II. But officials and teachers at his new school wouldn’t let his grades slide solely because of his talent. His parents could see his perspective change.
“Pretty much the environment he’s got here and his teammates, it was a whole 360,” Bingham Sr. said. “If you don’t have anyone behind you that wants to see you succeed, then you kind of give up on yourself. He’s got a lot of people here that want to see him succeed.”
The differences have been stark. Bingham Jr. has boosted his GPA to a 3.0, his father said, and it continues to rise. There’s been talk about pursuing a business degree in college, though he remains undecided.
On the court, he has proved to be a rare talent. With guard skills developed before he sprouted up, Bingham Jr. can shoot from outside, pass and dribble the ball like few others his size. He said he can both play and defend any position. His development has been rapid, considering how recently he began to play organized basketball.
— Spartan Basketball (@MSU_Basketball) November 8, 2017
“He’s a gym rat,” Catholic Central coach TJ Meerman said. “He’s in the gym with me for two hours and then a half-hour lift, and then he goes home and does his homework. I’ll call his mom later on that night and ask where Mark’s at, and he’s back at the gym.”
Bingham Jr. averaged 16 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks as a sophomore. Before many Division I schools took notice, AAU powerhouse Spiece Indy Heat did. The coaches recruited him with promises of exposure that local programs couldn’t provide.
Playing on the Nike EYBL circuit, Bingham Jr. quickly reaped the benefits. He averaged 6.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks at the first session in Hampton, Va., in April, landing him his first Power 5 conference offer from Washington. That’s also when he started to hear from Michigan State coach Tom Izzo via text messages.
Ten days after that session, having shown improved production in the next, he took a visit to Michigan State. As it wrapped up, Izzo invited Bingham Jr. into his office and told him the Spartans wanted to offer him a scholarship. Bingham just smiled, making sure not to let loose until he was back in the car with Meerman.
“It was mind blowing,” Bingham Jr. said. “I was so excited. … My eyes got so big. That’s what everybody said. All I can remember is me getting in the car after and just screaming, ‘Let’s go!’ ”
The offer elicited plenty of excitement from Bingham Sr. as well. He had never told his son, but he grew up dreaming of playing basketball at Michigan State. It didn’t happen for him, but maybe it would for the kid who shares his name.
The decision would be Bingham Jr.’s alone. His offer list had grown to include Butler, Missouri, Ohio State, Xavier and more. After a workout in June, though, he knew where he wanted to go.
He began to watch the video of Izzo’s induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. He thought about how the coach had told him what he thought he needed to hear, rather than what he wanted to hear during the process.
“I just took it as, why not?” Bingham Jr. said. “He’s a good coach. He’s keeping it real with me. He’s gonna put me in the right positions to be successful. Why not?”
And he couldn’t think of a reason why not. So he texted his mother, father and coach with his decision. Then he called Izzo with a simple message that brought just as excited a reaction as the offer had given him.
“I’m gonna be a Spartan Dawg.”
— Marcus Bingham Jr (@Marcusbingham0) June 30, 2017
And with that, Michigan State landed its highest-rated recruit in the class. A 4-star prospect in the 247Sports composite ratings, Bingham ranks No. 67 in the nation. His length and skill makes him an intriguing NBA prospect down the road.
But Bingham Jr. isn’t thinking that far, and neither are his parents. They just want the progress they have seen at Catholic Central to continue when their son goes to college. Their visits to Michigan State have given them confidence that it will.
“The love that was shown amongst each other was amazing,” Bondon said, “the way that they just took Marcus into their arms and they took him away from us and they were all in union.”
Bingham Sr. echoed those thoughts. Surrounded by family and friends, he couldn’t help but smile thinking of the rapid transition.
“It’s kind of crazy just looking at two years ago,” he said. “We never thought this would have been going on.”