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Two years after his prolific shooting and trash-talking, jersey-popping, renegade attitude made him one of college basketball's most electrifying – and polarizing – players, Marshall Henderson now leads a much more humble professional existence.
In Baghdad, Iraq, of all places.
Henderson plays in the Iraqi Super League. The former Ole Miss star hears gunshots from time to time in the city. He doesn't leave his Baghdad hotel too often, where working electricity can be a daily challenge. And there are rarely female spectators in the stands at his games.
Henderson is about as far away from his NBA dream as possible, and yet he finds himself in a much better place personally while playing in Iraq.
"It's not as bad as people make it seem back home," Henderson told Yahoo Sports in a Skype audio interview last week. "We just chill in the hotel. We don't go anywhere. We could go places and it would be safe. We wouldn't be worried about getting captured or anything. It's definitely better than I would've expected."
Two seasons ago, before arriving in the Middle East, Henderson became one of the most colorful characters in college basketball at the University of Mississippi. He scored big, shot deep and talked brash, quickly turning him into one of college basketball's biggest stars – or villains, if you were an opposing fan. The skinny 6-foot-2, 172-pounder averaged 20.1 points per game while making more than a third of his 3-pointers as a junior during the 2012-13 season. With Henderson leading the way, Ole Miss won the 2013 SEC tournament. He then scored 19 points in the Rebels' upset of Wisconsin in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
"He was one of the most clutch players I ever played against," said former Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes who is now with the Memphis Grizzlies. "He had a fan base everywhere he went."
Henderson, 24, made the most of his sudden rise to stardom. After a victory over Georgia, he famously ended his news conference with just 10 words, implying he had better plans for a Saturday night.
"As a kid you dream that something like that would happen," Henderson said. "But to actually be in it was definitely mind-blowing, especially at a place like Ole Miss, where, if you're an athlete, and you're something on a national level, there is love coming from all over the place. I was able to make contacts in the NBA and even rappers made comments where I was like, 'That's cool.' "
Henderson was told he could be a second-round pick when he initially entered the 2013 NBA draft. The 2013 SEC tournament MVP eventually decided to return to Ole Miss with hopes that a great senior season would improve his draft prospects.
Henderson, however, had a history of drug and alcohol problems dating back to high school, and those issues returned during the summer of 2013 when he was caught with possession of marijuana and cocaine. Ole Miss suspended him the first three games of the 2013-14 season. Henderson said the season went downhill from there.
"I got a lot of good feedback about being drafted in the second round," Henderson said. "Then I got in trouble that summer and then it seemed like that was the end of [the NBA interest]. There was really nothing after that. I have to live with that."
Henderson's averages dipped as a senior with 19 points per game on 39.1 percent shooting from the field. The negative publicity and catcalling bothered him, too. This time, there were no postseason tournament heroics from him.
Henderson wasn't invited to the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, which showcased the top seniors in the country, primarily because of his off-the-court issues, an NBA scout said. That NBA scouting combine showcased the top seniors in the country in Portsmouth, Va., and would've been a major platform for Henderson's draft hopes.
"It's been my dream to play in the NBA," Henderson said. "To be close and to think that a couple of decisions that I made harmed me from getting the necessary looks this past summer, that hurt."
Henderson's reputation worsened when he tweeted on May 11, 2014, that he was boycotting ESPN for showing St. Louis Rams draftee Michael Sam kissing his boyfriend during the NFL draft. Henderson called the kiss "nasty" and "SICKENING," and said it was too vulgar to be viewed by children.
Henderson would later tweet he was purposely offensive to get a reaction for a gay friend's psychology report. He continues to maintain his tweets were an experiment for his friend's report – a report he says he still has on his computer and includes background on Glenn Burke, the first openly gay Major League Baseball player who died of AIDS in 1995. Regardless, he wishes he had more worded the tweets differently.
"I've replayed so many situations so many times," he said. "I think I've created a false sense of what happened now."
Henderson's agent, Andre Buck, told him he should have zero expectations of being selected in the 2014 NBA draft. Buck was right. The only NBA team that worked out Henderson was the Houston Rockets, and that was for their Development League team. The Sacramento Kings also inquired about Henderson for a spot on their D-League team.
For a while, Henderson couldn't even get an offer overseas. He was prepared for a backlash, but not to that extent.
"There really was nothing out there," Henderson said. "This is just crazy.
"I got close with some people with the church and my family, and they told me I needed to get back to how I was raised and my values and morals with God. I did that, and things started to turn."
Henderson eventually landed a tryout in Italy that led to short contracts with Orsi Derthona Basket Tortona and OpenjobMetis Varese. After the Italian jobs dried up when teams became more interested in acquiring a true point guard and a veteran, Henderson's next stop was Qatar. He signed with Al Rayyan SC where most of his teammates had regular jobs during the day. He was a member of the 2014 Arab Club championship team, where he earned MVP honors – albeit without much fanfare.
"In Qatar, there might have been like 20 people in the stands, and that was like the families of the players," Henderson said.
In mid-February, Henderson signed to play for Nift Al-Janoub in Baghdad. He initially was nervous, but making a salary upward of $10,000 per month – according to Buck – with full room and board helped convince him to take it.
"The owners of these clubs are like buddy-buddy with each other," Henderson said. "It's kind of like a big competition on whose team wins. If you're an American and you're getting buckets, they will keep you happy if you're doing well for the team and you win."
The terrorism concerns in the Middle East aren't lost on Henderson. Players from the Al Shurtah Police team were in a hotel in Baghdad that was attacked. Luckily, none of the players were harmed.
"I was talking to the Americans [on Al Shurtah] and they had to switch hotels because a car bomb went off and blew up half of their hotel," Henderson said. "They showed me pictures. It was crazy that they were telling me the story so calm. That would have freaked me out a little bit. The picture the guy showed me, the room right across from his room was destroyed."
The Iraqi Super League season will soon be over, but Henderson could find another job on a different team in the Middle East. He said he's stayed away from drugs and alcohol since going overseas – "I've been really good about not testing those waters."
"I'm really proud of Marshall," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "He's really done a 180 in his approach to life in a good way, so I'm extremely happy for him. I think it's certainly been an educational experience for him in year one with all his travels. I'm proud that he's playing and I'm proud of the strides that he has made personally."
Henderson plans to spend his offseason in his hometown of Dallas, where he just bought a boat, and at his old college town of Oxford, Miss. Buck is hopeful to get Henderson an invite from an NBA summer league team.
More than anything, though, Henderson hopes to stay on the right path once he returns to the United States.
"The real test is going to be going home with thousands of dollars," Henderson said. "What am I going to do with that? I will be excited to see what I do when I get home and whom I'm going to surround myself with.
"You can't really say much until you're in that situation. So we'll see."
Yahoo Sports college basketball reporter Jeff Eisenberg contributed to this story.
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