The ups and downs of Kenyon Martin's NBA career

ByOhm Youngmisuk ESPN logo
Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Kenyon Martin or Darius Miles?

This was the potentially franchise-altering decision facing the New Jersey Nets and then-new team president Rod Thorn in 2000 when they owned the top overall pick in the draft for the first time since taking Derrick Coleman a decade earlier.

The Nets' brass gathered together at the team facility for a pre-draft workout with Martin, the Cincinnati senior and consensus best player in college before he fractured his leg during the Conference USA tournament in March.

Only months removed from that injury, Martin was in poor condition and airballed some jumpers from 12 to 14 feet out during the audition.

Needless to say, Martin didn't leave the best first impression.

"That's being kind," recalled a chuckling Ed Stefanski, then the Nets' Director of Scouting and currently Grizzlies' executive VP of player personnel. "He collapsed about three or four minutes into the workout. He just laid on the floor, gasping for air. He hadn't done anything (since breaking his leg).

"His workout was absolutely god-awful."

Fortunately for Martin and the Nets, first impressions aren't everything. Even though Thorn was totally torn between taking Martin or Miles even up to draft night, the Nets trusted what they saw in Martin's overall body of work and Thorn's staff was unanimous in its support to draft the surly enforcer.

So began a 15-year career that ended this month when Martin quietly announced his retirement. Martin went from making Thorn wonder if he could make a jumper to taking the Nets to unprecedented NBA heights for the woeful franchise.

He outlasted second overall pick Stromile Swift and Miles -- the former high school phenom who played until 2009 in part due to a knee injury -- by playing with a Rocky Mountains-sized chip on his shoulder that helped him make an All-Star team and play in the postseason 11 times, including two back-to-back NBA Finals trips with the Nets.

He overcame two broken legs, two microfracture knee surgeries and an early reputation for being the league's next bad boy to forge a rock solid career.

The 6-foot-9 Martin averaged 12.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and 1.2 steals while playing for the Nets, Nuggets, Clippers, Knicks and Bucks. Only Mike Miller, Jamal Crawford and Hedo Turkoglu have lasted as long as Martin has from the incredibly disappointing 2000 draft class which also featured the likes of Michael Redd.

And even though he left the Nets over a decade ago, Martin remains one of the most beloved players in franchise history despite being in New Jersey for just four seasons.

"There was never any question, when that ball went up, whatever time of day it was, whatever the situation, no matter how I was feeling, you knew what you were going to get from me," Martin said by phone shortly after retiring. "And the fans knew that and they could hang their hats on that.

"Numbers and all of that are cool and people look at that. But you can't put heart on paper."

While he played the majority of his career with the Denver Nuggets for seven seasons, Martin might be best remembered for his time with the Nets as Jason Kidd's rim-wrecking alley-oop partner.

Kidd arrived in a trade for Stephon Marbury in the summer of 2001. Martin was recovering after fracturing his right leg again late during his rookie season but was ecstatic about playing alongside Kidd, whom Martin watched as a youngster while growing up in Dallas where Kidd started out as a Maverick. In their three seasons together in New Jersey, Martin and Kidd took the Nets to two consecutive NBA Finals and three straight Atlantic Division titles.

Together, they were a potent one-two punch as Martin scored 508 baskets off assists from Kidd -- trailing only Dallas' combo of Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki for highest field goal total off assists from one player during that three-year span, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

But the duo had the bad fortune of running into Shaq and Kobe and Tim Duncanin the Finals as they were in or just entering their primes.

"I wish it could have lasted longer," Martin said of his time with Kidd. "But for that short period of time, I don't think there were two NBA players to do it better."

Martin seemed to be the perfect power forward for Kidd. Both were fiery competitors. While the ultra-competitive Kidd rarely showed emotion, Martin wore his for everyone to see.

And while the two often made highlights for their flashy passes and dunks, the two had another common love: defense.

"It was a perfect tandem," Stefanski said. "With J-Kidd and Kenyon, we had two guys who could lock down the other guy. To have two guys like that defensively was just dynamic. Plus their personalities of take no prisoners was just fantastic."

After seeing Martin's athleticism in their first practice together in camp in October of 2001, Kidd remembered thinking that perhaps the daunting task of turning around one of the league's laughing stocks "might be a little easier than I thought."

The pair developed instant chemistry with Kidd serving countless alley-oops to Martin, who often raced Richard Jefferson on fast breaks as if the two wingmen were magnetized to Kidd's lobs.

Martin fondly looks back at his Nets days when remembering some of his favorite moments as a pro.

One of the game's fiercest dunkers, Martin said his vicious two-handed slam all over Jermaine O'Neal as a Nets rookie is tied with his game-winning jam over Samuel Dalembert as a Nugget as his all-time favorite dunks.

And even though he often caught alley-oops from half court and off the glass from Kidd, Martin says his best alley-oop (No. 2 on this top-10 highlight reel) came when Kidd drove baseline, looked as if he was going to put up a reverse layup only to somehow see Martin coming down the lane and lob a pass up for a two-handed slam at Philadelphia.

"He is up there with Dirk as one of my favorites to play with," Kidd said. "The beauty of playing with K-Mart, any time I went to the hole if I didn't make it, I knew that he would be hanging on the rim afterward.

"I knew crossing that line onto the floor that I had someone that was going to be in that foxhole and was going to fight."

Martin's never-back-down-from-any-challenge attitude was one of his greatest attributes. But it also was a major reason why he landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated in April of 2002 with a scowl and the headline that blared "Bad Boy."

Raised by Lydia Moore, a single mother who taught Martin and his sister to be respectful but not to accept being disrespected by anyone, the Nets' emotional forward often chose to retaliate whenever he felt he was being slighted. During his second season, Martin tiptoed nightly by playing on the edge, collecting six flagrant fouls that led to a total of seven games in suspensions and $347,057 in fines during 2001-02.

"People don't know that I had a fight every year in practice when I was in school," Martin said. "Just the mentality I always had from a kid. I didn't know how to walk away from situations. My way to diffuse a situation was fight. So when I was challenged in a certain way, that is what I reverted back to."

That's what happened during a Nets practice early in the 2003-04 season when Martin had a heated exchange with teammate Alonzo Mourning. Mourning wasn't happy to run suicides with the second unit after losing a contest. The brooding former Heat franchise center took exception to Jefferson laughing on the side during the conditioning drills.

Soon, Mourning was trading words with Martin and Jefferson, eventually challenging Martin's leadership and toughness. The power forward countered by mocking the center and saying "my kidney, my kidney" in reference to Mourning's kidney transplant.

"People don't know it was a back-and-forth thing," said Martin, who patched things up with Mourning. "I said something more hurtful than he said. Where I am from, if you say something about me, I try to say something worse. I apologized to him, that's all that needed to be done. It was a heated argument, things got a little out of hand. I was dead wrong, 100 percent."

That, though, was all part of a maturation process for Martin. At the age of 27, Martin started to put it all together that same season, harnessing his emotions and averaging 16.7 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.3 blocks, earning his first and only All-Star selection as a reserve.

Even when Martin faced the Knicks -- a team he despised -- and Tim Thomas tried to bait him into losing his cool in the first round of the playoffs that season, the Nets' firecracker kept his composure.

Thomas labeled Martin as "fugazy" -- a fake tough guy. Martin responded by taping the back page of the New York Daily News that featured a photo of Thomas and the headline "Whiny Tim" to his practice jersey during a media session. He later did his talking with one of his best games as a Net with 36 points and 13 rebounds in Game 4 to complete a first-round sweep of the Knicks. Martin could explode for games like that, and the 35-point, 11-rebound effort he had against the Lakers in Game 4 of the 2002 Finals was just another example.

"Go back and listen to that Game 4 (against New York) and listen to what they were saying during the commentary," Martin said. "Like John Thompson said, 'if that man is fugazy, I'll take five of them.'"

"I never changed," Martin said of his overall approach on the court. "I just eliminated the over-the-top stuff. I could still take it to the edge but not go over the edge."

Even though his greatest team achievement is helping the Nets reach two straight NBA Finals, Martin says his favorite moment as a Net was sweeping the Knicks.

Martin and the Nets couldn't stand the fact that the Knicks got all the headlines and fans in the metropolitan area while the highly entertaining Nets played nightly before a half-empty Continental Airlines Arena in the swamp.

So they took out their frustration on the Knicks every chance they got, saving their flashiest plays for when they played at Madison Square Garden. Martin, in particular, assaulted the rims even more against the Knicks.

"We were clowning people," Jefferson said of when the Nets tried to run the Knicks off the Garden floor. "J-Kidd threw one off the glass to Kenyon in the Garden and you heard a Nets chant break out in the Garden. That was the most disrespectful thing."

"As far as a dominance thing, there was only Nets basketball," Jefferson added. "I don't care if there is one Garden. When we were there, there was only one team in town and that was the Nets."

After averaging 19 points and 11 rebounds in that postseason and looking like he was on the cusp of becoming a perennial All-Star, Martin was sent to Denver in a financially driven move by then new owner Bruce Ratner.

Having turned down a six-year, $66-million extension the year before, Martin drew a front-loaded max contract offer from the Nuggets that would have forced the Nets to pay the forward $23 million in salary and bonuses by that August. The Nets balked at the idea of making their former top pick a max player and having to pay so much early on with a hefty luxury tax. Martin was shipped out in a sign-and-trade for three first-round picks that would later help New Jersey land Vince Carter the next season.

The Martin deal, which paid the big man $92 million over seven years, effectively ended the Nets' days as a title contender.

"It wasn't on me!" Martin said when asked if there was anything that could have happened differently. "Of course I wanted to stay. I told everybody. To not get an offer (from the Nets) at all? It wasn't like I turned down some money. They didn't offer. That was like a slap in the face."

Kidd never really looked at New Jersey in the same way again.

"It took a lot of wind out of our sails," Kidd said looking back. "There are so many things that happen that are not related to playing [on the court] that destroy things. That started the downfall of the Nets. We couldn't replace him."

Martin joined Carmelo Anthony in Denver and helped the Nuggets reach the Western Conference finals in 2008-09. But his health kept him from reaching his full potential. He had microfracture surgery on his left knee in May of 2005 and another microfracture operation on his right knee in November of 2006.

After playing in a total of 103 games in his last four seasons for the Clippers, Knicks and Bucks, Martin opted to retire at 37. He says he feels he can still play but his "pride" won't let him continue to sit by the phone and wait.

It's that same pride that helped Martin overcome broken legs, microfracture surgeries, a disappointing 2000 draft class and a "god-awful" first impression.

"I don't think I was able to perfect the things that I needed to perfect as far as my game because I always spent summers recovering," Martin said of injuries stunting his growth in Denver. "(But) I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me. I worked my ass off.

"My number one goal is for people to respect the way I played the game... Everything I went through made me who I am."