From Rejection to Acceptance

With college basketball season finally tipping off, we’re running a number of previously published print features that documented a current NBA player during his NCAA come-up. Below you can read a Kenyon Martin piece—originally from SLAM 42—penned while the power forward was hooping at Cincinnati, and you can find links to the other articles we’ve ran in this series at the bottom of Page 3.—Ed.

by Michael Bradley

Basketball fans have always loved great shot-blockers. They exude primal energy that serves as a menacing last line of defense. They practically invite shooters to their turf. Come closer. Try me. Learn the hard way, stupid.

“It’s an attitude,” Cincinnati center Kenyon Martin says. “If somebody disrespects me by coming into the lane, I have to make them pay, I hold a grudge during games.

“If you block so many shots or alter many shots, they try to find alternative routes to score. But I’m going to be there. I want to be in position to make plays. If somebody scores on me, I take offense to it.”

That’s the shot-blocker’s mentality. How dare anybody try to shoot from close range? Don’t they know? Haven’t they seen the tapes? I’m big. I’m bad. Put it up, and it’s coming back in your face. And don’t bring that garbage in here again.

It was somewhat tragicomical to watch helpless opponents try to solve Martin and the Cincinnati defense this past season. A guard would penetrate, all happy with himself for shaking his defender. Then came the realization. “What am I going to do now?” It was one thing to get past the foul line, quite another to finish the job. There, looming large at 6-8, 235 pounds of coiled muscle, was Martin. Suddenly, the basket looked barely big enough to accommodate a pea, much less the pumpkin. The result was that all season long, opponents took the type of awkward shots that one might see in a pick-up game between accountants—fallaway heaves that barely grazed the backboard, much less threatened the rim. Shots into Martin’s armpit. High-arcing moonballs that cleared the Bearcat’s fingertips but fell hopelessly short of the hoop. It was enough to make you check if those guys were wearing high, black dress socks and $15 sneakers from Payless.

Take those poor slobs from Memphis. Had their stuff packed 10 times by Martin back in January. Lost to Cincy by 20. You do the math. Ten times two equals a big loss. “They just kept coming, so I guess they didn’t learn,” Martin said afterward. There were others. Misguided souls who mistook stupidity for courage. It’s one thing to challenge a force like Martin once. It’s another to keep going back for more. All that old crap about challenging a shot-blocker sounds great when it’s coming from some TV analyst. It isn’t such a good idea when the leather starts coming back at shooters’ faces, rejected for insufficient manhood. “Memphis kept bringing it in there,” Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins says. “Most people don’t.”

Yes, we love our shot-blockers. And if that were all Kenyon Martin could do, he would still be a big-time force. His strength, timing and ridiculously quick leaping ability—”I can jump two times, when somebody else can just jump once,” he says—would allow him to dominate games whether he touched the ball or not. The Defensive Player of the Year honors would pour in. Even the NBA would take a look, because we know the League loves big guys.

That’s why it’s so impressive to watch Martin play at the other end. Once barely able to convert a five-foot jumper, Martin has developed into a legitimate offensive option. He can hit the 15-footer. He has some low-post moves. He runs and finishes. We’re not talking Karl Malone or anything, but Martin has rounded his game to the point where NBA scouts and GMs now talk about him as a complete power forward, not merely a defensive specialist. He isn’t a project; he’s a future star. “He’s got a combination of strength and explosive leaping ability,” San Antonio assistant GM R.C. Buford says. “That’s a helluva combination.”

You want an advertisement for hanging around college for the duration? You want to see what happens to guys who work hard and actually listen to their coaches without copping an attitude about changing “their game?” Check out Kenyon Martin. Two years ago, he might have been a second-round pick. Might. Now, “He’s the number-one pick in the draft,” Nets’ general manager John Nash says. “He’s the most physically dominant player in the game today. He’s a special talent.”

Back when Martin arrived on Cincinnati’s campus, he was perfect for the decathlon, not so perfect for the basketball court. Run and jump. Jump and run. Martin dunked with authority. He could swat down shooters the way a bouncer tossed out the undesirables. Man, was he something to see. Huggins was moved to call Martin “the most athletic big man we have ever recruited.” This from a guy who gives out compliments as though they were kidneys. Run and jump. But shoot? Well, that was another story. “He was dreadful,” Huggins sniffs, the sound of Martin’s paint-chipping mortars still ringing in his brain.

Hey, Martin knew that. He had made his mark at Dallas’ Bryan Adams HS as an energy guy, willing to play harder and tougher than anybody else. He was 6-8 but only 215 pounds then, not the rocksolid force we know today. That didn’t matter to him. Martin considered himself an enforcer, and he acted that way. “I tried to be a physical player in high school. I wasn’t bigger than everyone else, but I did play harder,” Martin says. “I couldn’t settle for just going through the motions.”

He arrived at Cincinnati still short of the SAT score required for eligibility. So, he went to work. “I was determined to pass the test,” he says. “I put the time in. If you do that, you can do anything.”