Mom's not that crazy about the tattoos. She never was. But each time Markus Kennedy ducked through the front door of his Yeadon home, a new one adorned some very exposed part of his body.

There's the arcing one, emblazoned on his left shoulder, "Barbara Christina," with the names separated by a crucifix. Then there is the new one, on his very large and very long right bicep in capitalized scripted letters that reads, "F-O-E," for "Family Over Everything."

Barbara Kennedy playfully rolls her eyes as Markus shows off his new artwork. Then Markus beams a smile back at his mother, the winning and brilliant smile of a humble star, the cause of it all - a living tribute to her.

Markus Kennedy will make a verbal commitment today that should make some college basketball coach happy. Sources have told the Daily News that he will select Villanova over West Virginia and Temple. Kennedy won't say officially until today at 1:30 at his press conference at Living Faith Christian Academy, in Pennsauken, N.J.

What Villanova will be getting is a 6-9, 250-pound rising senior power forward who has three-point range, can bang inside, if needed, and fill coach Jay Wright's void for a large presence near the basket in 2010.

Somewhere near Markus when he makes his announcement will be mom. She's always been there.

"I'm the end result, but if you really want the star of the show, it's her, it's my mother," said Markus, who averaged 22 points and 12 rebounds his junior year at Living Faith. "My mother is the hero in all of this, being a single mother raising me, my brother and sister by herself, and all the work that she does. It's hard and she still sticks with it.

"She's the backbone of our family. I would be nowhere without her. There is a discipline there, and that comes from her. The way I am, it's because of her. Without her, I'd be nowhere, because it is just us."

Barbara Kennedy is trying to absorb as much of this time as she can. She's been a correctional officer at Graterford State Prison since July 1990, and about to leave Friday for a 3-month tour with the U.S. Air Force Reserves at New Jersey's McGuire Air Force Base. Today's announcement is a special, parting gift to her.

Just as it is how Markus turned out.

The Kennedys have been living in Yeadon for 3 years, but Markus grew up in Southwest Philadelphia, around 61st and Pine. Always large for his size - "I was a short, fat doughboy growing up," Markus says, laughing - he was frequently approached walking through parking lots, schoolyards, 'Hey, young boy, can you sell for me?'

He would just keep walking. He saw kids around him with new this or new that. Sure he wanted, but he was willing to play with two left shoes if he had to.

It was drugs that almost ravaged his family. Ross Kennedy, Markus' father who lives in Pittsburgh, is getting himself together. But when he lived with Barbara and the children, he was a functioning addict. That didn't get past Markus. He grew frustrated and angry. He wanted to change his last name to his mother's maiden name. He was 13 and the walls of his young life, he felt, were closing in on him.

"I believe in forgiveness, and Ross is a good man, a good man, he just struggles with some issues," Barbara said. "Markus saw up close what drugs can do, he saw what it could do to a family. He learned early. You could be angry about it and dwell, or keep it moving. I never gave him a chance to feel sorry for himself."

By age 10, Markus was the de facto man of the house. He still takes a big role in helping his mother with his younger siblings. And he knows when to steer clear of danger.

"I don't have to be on the corner and deal drugs to make it," Markus said. "I've had a lot of 'BS' around me and I think I made the right choices in my life. Growing up on 61st and Pine, there were three people killed in the last week. I grew up with those kids. They wanted the easy road, to buy clothes and shoes and stuff. I was approached a lot. I've been through everything.

"I saw so many people go down the wrong road. But I realized I had talent, I wanted to make something out of myself, not be like others I grew up with. Basketball really did save my life. If I didn't have basketball, I honestly don't know what I would have done."

The first time Markus had a basketball thrown at him, he ducked. He was a swimmer and didn't fully immerse himself into basketball until he was 14, a comparatively late age when compared with other elite high school stars.

"I really hated basketball when I was swimming. I played because all my friends played basketball," said Markus, who each summer still volunteers as a lifeguard at the Cobbs Creek Recreation Center. "I loved swimming. I swim all of the time. I never thought of a future in basketball, not at all."

He attended Monsignor Bonner as a freshman, didn't exactly feel comfortable there, then transferred to St. Patrick's, a high school basketball powerhouse in Elizabeth, N.J. That was a sacrifice in itself.

Each morning, Markus would wake up around 4, Barbara would take him to 30th Street Station for the 5 a.m. train, and Markus wouldn't get home until 9 or 10 at night, if he wasn't staying at a friend's house.

The grind was too much. Markus was sometimes getting 4 hours of sleep a night. He was walking in a daze. That's when Barbara and Markus decided on Living Faith, which is an 80-minute roundtrip trek each day.

Switching schools, making it three schools in 3 years, created a bad and unjustifiable knock on Markus.

"It wasn't fair, but people see Markus' early high school transcript, and how it's disjointed. There is a stereotype these kids face in positioning to get themselves to the next level," said Pennsylvania state Sen. Anthony Williams, who's played a huge role in the development of Markus, as his godfather and in many respects a surrogate father. "That's not what happened with Markus. You meet this kid, you see his family, the focus his mother has always had was to be a student first, then an athlete, in that order. At Living Faith, he was getting the small classrooms, with individual attention."

Markus really wasn't "discovered" until last summer, playing for Team New Jersey. His game blossomed, and then-Villanova assistant coach Pat Chambers, now head coach at Boston University, noticed. Villanova was the first to show attention to Markus, and the first school to offer him a scholarship, something important to the family.

Sometime tonight, around 9, Barbara will gather her children into her bedroom, Markus, 12-year-old Mikeal (Markus' Mini-Me), and 10-year-old Morgan. Barbara will turn the mute button on her TV, and the family will pray, as they do every night, giving thanks for what they have - and maybe in the back of mom's mind, no more tattoos.

Markus honors her enough. *