NBA Center and Duke alumnus Marshall Plumlee is an oak — if I’m allowed to borrow a line from Tombstone. Hang out with him all day and you’ll have to look closely to see a movement, an utterance, an expression that didn’t seem to go according to plan. He said he watches The Matrix on most road trips (more than 30 viewings this season by his estimation), and I don’t doubt it for a second.
You’d be tempted to just call him intense. But that’s not quite it. People in the service call it military bearing — a sort of self-restrained composure acquired after multiple life lessons in the form of cause (i.e., doing something you shouldn’t) and effect (doing pushups for so long that your fork can barely carry your food from your trembling hand to your mouth). Considering he’s an officer in the National Guard, this characteristic self-discipline is no surprise.
It’s also a disposition that helped ensure his success as a player. He’s the guy who won’t be outhustled, who doesn’t give up on loose balls, who doesn’t take plays off. He’s the kind of player coaches love — and opposing players love to hate.
That never-ever-quit attitude isn’t limited to the court. Along with his status in the National Guard, he’s also learning to code — building apps and whatnot — with his eyes on life after basketball. Really, though, he just loves to learn about everything, constantly challenging and improving himself.
I got to spend some time with Plumlee over a two-day span in early May when he was the featured guest at two Jack Black events held in Brooklyn. Lots of handshaking and picture-taking, with a steady stream of double (and triple) takes from passersby. Not once was Plumlee caught off guard by a nervous fan encounter or a friendly-ish jab at the Knicks not-wildly-successful season.
At one point, I saw him startle one bystander, awestruck by the seven-freaking-foot-tall guy standing before her, and he dispatched the awkward air with a warm greeting and an outstretched hand. Not long afterward, he calmly explained to a nonplussed fan why his Air Jordan I Retro Highs were black and red, not the Knicks’ signature blue and orange. He then transitioned into what became a solid 30-minute conversation about skincare regimens with Jack Black co-founder Curran Dandurand. An oak, I tell you.
Plumlee grew up in Warsaw, Indiana, the son of a lawyer and a pharmacist. At 14, he became the third Plumlee brother (all 7 feet tall, all play pro ball) to attend Christ School, an elite prep school not far off the Appalachian Trail, more than 500 miles from his hometown. Having his brothers around helped with the transition.
“I give my brothers a lot of credit for paving the way for me in more ways than one,” said Plumlee. “If I’m ever dealing with an obstacle or facing a challenge, chances are they’ve dealt with it before.”
Suffice it to say their methods for overcoming obstacles worked. Together, the brothers won five state championships in a row at Christ School — particularly remarkable for a boarding school outside Asheville, North Carolina, with a total enrollment that doesn’t even crack 300. Marshall followed his brothers’ 2010 NCAA National Championship with his own in 2015, all playing under Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. Marshall’s desire to match his brothers’ success carried over to the NBA too.
“We’re all equally competitive,” Marshall said, “and that’s probably why we’re all playing where we are today. I see them and their success in the NBA, and I want to be there too.”
The chance to play pro ball in New York is a dream come true for Plumlee, but he’s not one to forget where he came from. His formative years at Christ School and his time playing under Coach K still provide guidance in the lifestyle he leads now. He’s still friends with mostly the same group of people he went to school with, and as for Coach K, the two had shared dinner a mere two nights before my meeting with him.
“Christ School and Duke are invaluable resources. They’re still helping me grow,” Plumlee said. “I like to go back there [North Carolina] to recharge, to take a look and say, ‘OK. These are the things and the people that made me what I am. This is what I need to stick to.’”
Google Maps pegs the distance between Asheville, where Marshall calls home, and Manhattan right at 700 miles. But the distance between the city that never sleeps and the idyllic town tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains might as well be measured in light years.
So I asked him how his grooming routine had changed since making the move. He chuckled.
“Yeah, so I’ve had to crank it up a notch since coming to New York,” said Plumlee, who’s dressed sharp in a black tailored suit and a fitted white button-up, his cufflinks peeking out from his jacket sleeves.
“First of all, with the NBA, you’re under such a microscope,” he said. “So every time I step out the door, I want to be the best version of Marshall Plumlee I can be.”
It’s a stark contrast to his experience at Christ School. He didn’t have 68,000 Instagram followers ready to critique the color of his shoelaces at any given moment.
“It was different in high school, when you might have a date on Saturday and you could just turn it on for one day,” Plumlee said. Now, with the introduction of New York media and the notoriety that goes along with being a Knick, he doesn’t get as many off days to lounge around in sweats and old T-shirts.
“I’ve had to really get more disciplined with how I take care of myself and developing a routine,” he said. “It’s about taking the time to make myself better — whether it’s skincare, fashion, anything.”
He’s tried to get his teammates to step up their skincare game too. Earlier in the season, during an extended lull when players were pretty much confined to their hotel rooms for several hours, Plumlee convinced a number of Knicks players to try a clay mask treatment. He cracked up when describing the scene: a bunch of alpha-males sitting around a hotel room while he explained the importance of using an exfoliating mask on a regular basis. (No photos exist. I asked.) There seems to be a sort of give and take when it comes to advice among the players. Plumlee helps with skincare, and he takes some fashion tips from a few of the guys.
When it comes to his own fashion choices, Plumlee admits he’s a bit of a maverick.
“My oldest brother [Miles] is the fashionable one. He’s super into designer clothes. And then my middle brother [Mason] is the big confidence one. He could wear a brown paper bag, but he believes that it’s all about how you wear it.”
Plumlee cracked a smile and said, “I try to buy into both of those philosophies, and I feel like I come out looking OK.”
“My brothers will be the first to tell you that I march to the beat of my own drum,” he said. “I might not do some things that are the most popular or part of the latest fashion trends, but it’s the stuff that I love, stuff that makes me feel good. And frankly, I don’t give a damn what other people think.”
That’s the kind of attitude you’d expect from the youngest of three seven-footers playing in the NBA, and it’s that characteristic self-confidence that allows him to stand out both on and off the court.
Pretty good way to make a name for yourself if you ask us.