The story of LaRue Martin begins in a high school gymnasium in Chicago, Ill. The Mighty Meteors, as they were called: LaRue Martin was the tallest player on his varsity team.
There was a very telling photograph taken of his team that year. A photograph that accidentally and impeccably illustrated Martin’s natural personality. In the picture, the team is huddled around their coach who is on one knee having a word with his players. Off to the left, somewhat behind the huddle, is the 6-8 sophomore with his hands behind his back, peering over shoulders, a slight hunch in his stance.
“I was a shy kid,” says Martin.
Ironically, that photograph appeared in the high school yearbook. A shy kid, captured in a shy moment, published for everyone to see. The story of Martin’s life.
Martin graduated from De La Salle High School in 1968, then took his introverted talents to Loyola University of Chicago. In four years, the 6-11 Martin became the school’s all-time leading rebounder, and was twice selected as an All-American. In 1972, his senior season, Loyola went up against powerhouse UCLA in the heart of their storied title run. Martin outplayed Bill Walton in that game, an astonishing feat that gained him national recognition and the attention of NBA scouts.
Martin was selected No. 1 overall by the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1972 NBA Draft; a surprise selection based heavily on his performance against Walton and UCLA. Much to their dismay, Martin was unable to sustain that level of play. In one of the many newspapers that professed harsh words for Martin, his local Oregonian described him as a “6-11 emotional basket case over his own inability to prove his worth as the number one college draft choice in America.”
During his four years with Portland, Martin averaged just 4.4 points per game, the lowest of any former NBA No. 1 pick. He was benched after his second year with the team, soon becoming a role player with minimal impact on the game. Martin was eventually traded to the Seattle Supersonics, followed by an immediate retirement from the NBA.
That year, the Blazers drafted Walton No. 1 overall, ultimately going on to win the 1977 NBA Championship – without Martin.
“I was crushed,” says Martin.
It was then that Martin turned to drinking; a dark path his father embarked on years ago.
“Playing ball on the corner of 61st street in Indiana, my dad would be coming down the street, I mean blitzed,” says Martin. “My friends used to holler at me, ‘LaRue, your dad’s coming around the corner,’ I was so embarrassed. I used to go hide until he went by.”
Years later, Martin’s father was found dead in his bed at the age of 40.
Though Martin was drinking, he was able to stay productive. He met a few men in his neighborhood who introduced him to UPS, the company they were working with at the time. Martin was intrigued by the opportunity and took a job driving a delivery truck. A job without spectators, media personnel or NBA-level pressure. In other words, a job better suited for the NBA “bust.”
However, Martin didn’t stay a truck driver for long. In time, he worked his way up in the company ladder, eventually landing a job as an executive working in community affairs and political relations.
But, he was still drinking.
This drink/work lifestyle lasted 15 years, until Martin received his first and forever lasting wake-up call: a DUI.
“That was a turing point,” says Martin. Done, over and out.”
Since then, Martin has been sober for 11 years. A once awkward and reserved young man, Martin is now a self-assured, confident adult.
“Is being a washout the best thing that ever happened to you,” asks Bryant Gumbel.
“Being a washout in basketball, I would say yes. There’s life after basketball,” says Martin. “I don’t consider myself being a failure. I made it.”
Martin is finally comfortable for the very first time; not in basketball shorts and a jersey, under bright lights or in front of a crowd, but in slacks and a jacket, and a really long tie.
HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel airs tonight at 10 p.m. EST on HBO.
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