When you think of Kenyon Martin’s brilliant career at Cincinnati, what highlight immediately comes to mind?
Is it one of his two triple-doubles? Is it the blocked shot off of Xavier’s Lloyd Price that sailed out of bounds on the opposite end of the court? Is it the game at DePaul when he scored 21 points in the second half to rally the Bearcats from a 17-point deficit? Is it Senior Day when he wiped the tears out of his eyes after a lengthy bear hug with Huggs and scored 23 points in his final home game?
Kenyon’s fondest memory from his Bearcats career will undoubtedly surprise you.
“Probably my first practice,” he told me. “I would say my first practice because of everything that led up to it.”
To understand that answer – and the person that gave it – you have to turn the clock back to the fall of 1996 when Martin was ruled academically ineligible and couldn’t practice or play until January.
“I had to miss the first part of my freshman year because of my test scores and all of that crap that goes on with the NCAA,” said Martin. “So when I finally got to take part in that first practice, I knew that I was going to be able to play college basketball and I was going to make the best of it. It was my opportunity and somebody believed in a kid from Dallas, Texas. That meant the world to me.”
The beginning of his college career came late, and the end of it arrived too soon when Kenyon broke his leg in the Conference USA tournament before being named the National Player of the Year. To this day I marvel at the composure he showed in handling such heartache.
“It was minute compared to the things I had been through leading up to that injury,” said Martin. “Me and my mom being homeless at times and the things we went through as a family – on a scale of life, (the injury) was minute. If I was able to walk again, I was going to play again. I’m a strong-willed person and I don’t get down too easily. That was one of the times that I probably should have been down, but I was just worried about the guys and how they were going to react.”
After rehabbing the injury, Martin was picked first overall in the draft by the New Jersey Nets and embarked on a 15-year NBA career that came to an end last season. He played in the All-Star Game in 2004, and appeared in back-to-back NBA Finals with New Jersey, losing to the Lakers in 2002 and the Spurs in 2003.
“I had a great run,” said Martin. “Everybody doesn’t get to win it all and we all know that. There have been some guys on that ‘50 Greatest Players’ list that didn’t win a championship and they get picked on, but I had a great run and I have no regrets. Every day that I stepped on the court I gave it my all.
“If you put your jersey on and stepped on to that court to face me, you knew you were in for a dogfight. I knew no other way to play the game. I came in with that mentality and left with that mentality. That’s still my mentality. I take the game of basketball very, very personally. And when we’re in-between that 94-by-50 feet, everybody can feel it. No one is exempt.”
At the age of 38, Martin now makes his home in California where he is trying to make up for lost time with his family.
“I have three girls and two boys – the oldest is 15,” he told me. “Everything revolves around them which I am more than OK with. I’ve been on the road playing for so many years that I missed out on birthdays, school plays, basketball games, and ballet recitals, so being able to be there now is well worth it.”
He left home this week, along with former teammate Shawn Myrick, to attend the Bearcats’ games against Memphis and Tulane and the practices in-between.
“The players see that Kenyon and Shawn flew here from California because they care about the program, and it helps them realize that they’re a part of something bigger than themselves,” said head coach Mick Cronin. “They see the local guys come around often and that matters, but it really means something when someone of Kenyon’s magnitude comes in from California to spend time with them.”
And it meant something to Kenyon when he walked on to the court in the first half of the Memphis game and received a lengthy standing ovation.
“It was chills,” said Martin. “I haven’t been on that floor since Senior Day. It’s been a long time coming and it was a great reception. It was a great, great feeling.
“Now that I’m not playing, I’ll be back a lot more.”
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