by Adam Fleischer / @AdamXXL
As Portland Trail Blazer Rudy Fernandez walked out to mid-court for his first dunk of the 2009 Sprite Slam Dunk Contest, the retired players broadcasting the All-Star Saturday night events on TNT had some words of advice.
“He’s gotta do something,” said Reggie Miller.
“Yeah, he’s gotta, ’cause no one in this building knows who he is,” Kenny Smith added, overlooking the fact that the 23-year-old rookie had actually been voted in by the fans.
Fully focused on the floor in Phoenix’ US Airways Center, and thus unaware of the announcers, Fernandez picked up a ball and bounced it five times as he strolled toward the three-point line. Approaching the bend, he flicked his wrist down with a little extra force and let one final dribble continue on its own. While the bouncing ball slowly died, Fernandez took off his red No. 5 Blazer jersey to unveil a black No. 10 Blazer jersey. Above the 10 on the back of the black throwback read MARTIN.
“Who’s Martin? LaRue Martin?” asked Reggie, referencing the first overall pick in the 1972 Draft, made by Portland.
“Ricky Martin?” Kenny, ever the comedian, chimed in.
“Nope. This is for Fernando Martin,” Kevin Harlan added, aiding his colleagues, but continuing to pronounce the name like he was speaking about Kenyon or Kevin, rather than with the necessary inflection on its final syllable. Suddenly, a caption popped up on screen. “First Spanish-born player to play in the NBA,” it said, under an in-action photo.
“Well, if we knew who Martin was…” said Kenny, dismissing the graphic.
“You mean Martin from the show?” Reggie butted in.
“I don’t know who Martin is,” Kenny decided to state the obvious.
“Where’s Gina?” Reggie couldn’t get enough of himself.
“He’s wearing No. 10 in tribute to Fernando Martin,” said Harlan, interrupting the two former pros to his side. “Martin was the first Spanish player in the NBA and briefly played for the Trail Blazers. He died in a car accident, so, in tribute to him, it’s No. 10.”
The mood quickly changed.
Kenny suddenly had a new take. “Oh, OK. It’s a great tribute.”
He was finally right.
If nothing else, the evening’s event—ultimately won by the Knicks’ Nate Robinson—suggested just how little most knew about a man to whom many owed much.
Madrid is both Spain’s largest city and its capital. In ’62, when Fernando Martin was born, the city had a population of just over 2 million. Growth snowballed, and by the next decade, there were over 3 million people in the country’s geographically central city.
Even early on, Martin was a naturally gifted athlete, primed to stand out among those millions. Spain, like many European nations, is made up of fanatical and frenzied followers of futbol. It is the country’s most popular sport—a fact that rang especially true during Martin’s formative years, though it has lost some ground to basketball in the years since. Yet, neither of those were initially his game. He attended school at the Colegio San Jose del Parque, where he quickly excelled; by his teenage years, he was flourishing in an eclectic collection of sports and games, including handball, judo and table tennis. It was swimming, though, where he was really making his mark. Martin, with his long, lean build, became a five-time local champion.
He eventually shifted some of that focus to basketball. He took to the game later than most, but that didn’t hinder such a remarkable athlete. As is often the case, natural gifts merged with tireless effort to help Martin’s game steadily improve. In ’79, at just 17 years old, he began to play on the junior team of Madrid’s Estudiantes.
By ’81, not yet 20, the fresh-faced forward was ready for a grander stage. He again stayed at home, signing with the celebrated Real Madrid, part of Spain’s highest league, ACB. From there, he quickly became known as one of the team’s and country’s top talents. From ’81-86, Martin led Real Madrid to an impressive four ACB titles in five years and brought the club to the final in their only non-title season. During that same span, they twice won the Copa del Rey—or the King’s Cup, which pits Spain’s best teams against one another in a tournament—and were runners-up for the Euroleague championship in ’85.
The summer prior to that, in Los Angeles, Martin flourished on an international stage. He helped to lead Spain to a Silver medal at the Summer Olympics—easily its best finish as a nation—and a feat only duplicated more than two decades later, when the Spaniards again won Silver in the ’08 and ’12 Games.
Martin was the team’s second-leading scorer, averaging 16.8 points and 5 rebounds per contest over the eight-game tourney. The 6-9 forward’s output was particularly staggering in three contests in which he led the team in scoring. First, in the opening game, an 83-82 victory over Canada, he posted 27 and 6; he followed that up two games later, with 23 and 9 in a 97-82 W against France; then, in a 101-93 quarterfinal defeat of Australia, he put up 25 and 4. In 72 international games, during which Spain went 50-22, he averaged a tick over 13 points per.
“I was too young, but my parents do remember him,” says Pau Gasol, who would become the second Spanish-born player to suit up in the NBA in ’01, and whose parents played professionally in Spain. “Everybody from his generation, including the players from my [former] club [FC Barcelona] that played against his team remember him and talk about him as a pioneer, a great player, a warrior on the court, a really hard worker and great person and teammate.”
As the accolades were piling up, prospective suitors—not just fans and competitors—began to take notice. Martin was selected 38th overall in the ’85 NBA Draft by the New Jersey Nets. In the ’12 Draft, 15 foreign players were picked; at the time of Martin’s selection, however, it was a rare honor. Still, he elected to remain at home and in the ACB for another year. Before the following season, though, he signed on as a free agent with the Portland Trail Blazers. In doing so, he made history, becoming the first Spaniard to play in the NBA.
“He was a very personable guy, just a great teammate,” says Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler, who averaged just under 22 points per game during that shared ’86-87 season, his fourth in the League. “He was a hard worker, too.”
Martin joined a Blazer team that would go on to finish first in the League in scoring and with a record of 49-33, good for second in their division. Head coach Mike Schuler won Coach of the Year honors in his first season at the helm; meanwhile, Blazer teammates Kiki Vandeweghe and Terry Porter finished fifth in the League in scoring and assists per game, respectively.
“We just had a lot of talent on that team, so [Martin] didn’t play a lot,” says Drexler, who stresses it was more about personnel and experience than talent. “Fernando could play. He could really play. He just came along at a time when our team was very talented. He was strong—very strong. He would hit you to get that shot off. He liked contact. I tell you he was a skill player, too. He was a big strong guy who could run and played extremely hard.”
It wasn’t just the roster, though. Martin was plagued by injuries during his stint in the Great Northwest. He broke his nose in December of ’86 and then re-injured it a week later. He may have been a hero at home, but that didn’t make the reality at hand any less difficult.
“I think there were periods where it was definitely very tough for him,” says Porter, now an assistant coach with the Minnesota Timberwolves. “The Euro team setting is totally different than over here. Over here, sometimes everybody goes their own way after games, where over there they go out for dinner and hang out. There were times a couple guys took him out to lunch, or went by his house to hang out and welcome him and embrace him to our team. I think he was starting to feel comfortable by the end of the year.”
Even so, as the season came to a close, Martin’s numbers were a far cry from the production he had enjoyed in Spain. In 24 games that season, plus one game in the Playoffs, he logged 146 minutes, scored 22 points and grabbed 28 boards.
And so ended Fernando Martin’s NBA career—a period rightfully marked less by what he did statistically than by what he accomplished culturally. “Going through a door that nobody has ever gone through before,” says Gasol, “it’s something really remarkable, and that’s what Fernando did as a Spanish basketball player.”
Says Jose Calderon, an eighth-year point guard for the Toronto Raptors who was born in Villanueva de la Serena: “He was the first one and [did it] when nobody thought about being in the NBA. He made everything easier for us.”
Following his rookie year in Portland, Martin returned to Real Madrid as a barrier-breaking hero. Back in his comfort zone, Martin again led the team to the ACB finals. The following season, with Martin playing alongside Yugoslavian star Drazen Petrovic, Real again advanced to the ACB final and won the Copa del Rey.
With coach George Karl leading the way, despite the team’s loss of Petrovic to the New Jersey Nets, the ’89-90 season should have been another successful campaign for Real Madrid and its star forward.
But on December 3, 1989, to the horror of an entire nation, Fernando Martin was killed in a car accident. At just 27 years old, an international basketball pioneer was gone. (In ’93, in a tragic and parallel ending, Petrovic’s life also came to a close when he died in a car accident at age 28.)
Martin’s death sent shockwaves of devastation throughout Spain and the international basketball community. But what was likely too difficult to grasp at the time has now become abundantly clear: Fernando Martin was integral in infusing a new level of wonder and possibility with basketball between Spain and its people. The generation that was first learning to dribble as he broke barriers has come of age as the world’s second best breeding ground for hoops talent. It took 15 years for a second Spanish player to make the move, but since then, it hasn’t stopped. Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio, Calderon and more have become woven into the NBA’s fabric—with others surely on the way.
“He was such a great player and an amazing person that everybody remembers him and appreciates his legacy,” says Gasol. “It’s in our hands that the new generations continue to know about him. He was, is and always will be an icon of the Spanish basketball.”
Gasol, then at the peak of his powers for the Los Angeles Lakers, was in the building in Phoenix on that All-Star Saturday night in ’09. His Western Conference rival Fernandez, actually, had him assist with his second dunk, the one that followed the Martin tribute. In a way, choosing his fellow countryman—rather than a fellow Blazer—was another way to pay homage. And though the performance wasn’t perfect—they took almost a dozen tries to complete the attempt, and the 6-6 swingman didn’t advance to the second round—it was more meaningful than a mere couple of dunks.
After all, millions watched, wondered and started to find out the answer to that question Reggie Miller asked with such oblivion: “Who’s Martin?”
It’s pronounced Mar-teen.