CHICAGO – The tall man in a business suit peered intently through his reading glasses as he read aloud the proclamation from the Illinois governor, celebrating the National Basketball Retired Players Association for its relocation from New York to the Windy City.
In a swank restaurant at Navy Pier, in front of many former NBA and ABA players and well-connected members of the Chicago business community, LaRue Martin got to the part in the formal document about the NBRPA’s mission to help players “transitioning to life after basketball.” Very briefly, he looked up and broke that fourth wall.
“I’m a good example,” the 62-year-old Martin smiled, before quickly resuming his task on Gov. Pat Quinn’s behalf.
Fact is, LaRue Martin is a great example. Most basketball fans who know of him at all think of Martin as some sort of failure, based on his status as one of the NBA’s most notorious draft “busts.”
Back in 1972, fearful that they wouldn’t be able to cut a deal that would keep Bob McAdoo out of the ABA, the Portland Trail Blazers used the No. 1 pick on Martin. He was a skinny 6-foot-11 center out of Loyola in Chicago, underdeveloped both physically and in his skills, in what was a spotty draft class.
Martin lasted just four seasons, averaging 5.3 points and 4.6 rebounds in a sketchy 14.0 minutes over 271 games. He became the punchline to some unfunny draft jokes and was the precursor in Portland to other big-man disappointments (Bill Walton ultimately, Sam Bowie, Greg Oden).
Now, though, Martin is a successful, prosperous businessman, a community services manager for United Parcel Service and, as a UPS public-affairs executive, a man who has rubbed elbows with governors, senators and even the President.
“Being a No. 1 draft choice, getting that big zero on your back, you are a marked man,” Martin said cheerfully Thursday after the luncheon. “My career was up and down. They called me the worst draft choice in the nation, and that bothered me. But I had the opportunity to move on and get into the corporate world, and I’ve moved on ever since.”
A few minutes earlier in the program, before Martin spoke, another tall man in jeans and a sport coat moved through the room. At 6-foot-9 and probably 50 pounds beyond his playing weight of 225 pounds, there was no sneaking to his spot near the front for Antoine Walker. He scooted along, shook a few hands on the way, then took his seat, a new face open finally to what the retired players association is all about.
Walker, 36, is best known as another sort of bust: he blew through more than $110 million in NBA career earnings through bad decisions and investments, abused generosity, lavish spending and gambling. He was only 31 when he played in the NBA for the last time, coming off the bench for Minnesota in 2007-08. By May 2010, amid flirtations with a comeback that led to a humbling stay with the D League Idaho Stampede, Walker filed for bankruptcy, citing $12.7 million in debts and just $4.3 million in assets.
He was a man-child out of Kentucky, another Chicago native drafted high, No. 6 overall in 1996. Walker averaged 17.5 points and 7.7 rebounds across 12 seasons. He won a championship ring with Miami in 2006, played in three NBA All-Star games and still ranks among the top 25 in NBA history in 3-pointers made and top 100 in minutes, field-goal attempts and offensive and defensive rebounds.
Fact is, Antoine Walker is a great example of why the NBRPA has value for both current and soon-to-be retired players. He was, by most standards, a terrific success in the NBA. He is very much a work in progress now, though.
“That probably hit me six, seven months ago, when I was trying to figure things out,” Walker said after the dining room cleared. “Because even if I do go back and play basketball, my window is going to be very short. It’s not going to be playing four, five, 10 more years. So it’s very important I get started with the next phase of my life. I’m just starting now.”
Starting over, really. Walker hit bottom financially. For Martin, the descent after his career ended in April 1976 was more personal. He turned away from basketball, worked at a few odd jobs and staggered under the burden of his unfulfilled potential as the NBA’s top draft choice.
“I had an issue with alcohol years ago,” Martin said, “trying to hide behind that bottle because I was ashamed of my career. But thank God I was able to move away from the drinking. I don’t miss it.
“When I was a young man, they beat the heck out of me. The media, on radio – they wore me out. But thank God for my mother and my faith, and being myself. People tell me, ‘LaRue, you’re just too nice of a guy.’ “
Martin worked briefly for Nike in Portland, then landed a job as a UPS driver there. The company’s practice of promoting from within moved him quickly from his brown uniform to a coat and tie, from Oregon back home to Illinois and soon enough up the corporate ladder. He still credits basketball for the education he got at Loyola, which he uses today more than those long-ago basketball moves.
Martin also knows it’s not easy. The event Thursday featured former NBA players from all levels — Hall of Famers and stars such as Rick Barry, Spencer Haywood, Mark Aguirre, Otis Birdsong, Bob Love and Walker to role players like Steve Bardo, Jeff Sanders and Ken Battle, and all sorts in between.
They all are part of a fraternity already, but in its move from New York to Chicago, the NBRPA is trying to firm up those relationships and bulk up resources and programs for them. The NBA and the NBRPA announced Thursday a four-year extension to their partnership. The association works with former players on completing college educations for those who seek that, while offering financial literacy, health and civic programs.
“We’ve been in existence for 20 years and we’re not shooting from the hip,” Martin said. “We all come from a corporate background, and we’re sitting around strategizing about what we can do for our members and what we can do for the community.”
Bill Wennington, the former St. John’s and Dallas/Chicago center who sandwiched 12 NBA seasons around a stint in Europe, considers himself fortunate to have a job in basketball: He does color commentary of the Bulls’ radio broadcasts. But he values the NBRPA for its connections and relationships, he said, and he knows the stereotype of the highly paid pro athlete who winds up broke exists for a reason.
“The problem is, the shortsightedness of players,” Wennington said. “If you’re working on Wall Street and you have a couple of bad years, you still have a job. In the NBA, you have a couple bad years, you’re cut, you don’t have a job anymore. Your income stops and you’re living above your means … it’s tough.”
A member of the Bulls’ second three-peat teams (1996-1998), Wennington said a first-round pick today earns more on his rookie contract than he earned in his entire career. “Guys don’t think about it when they’re earning it and they may even be saving some money,” he said. “But then you stop, and you’re still doing everything you’ve been doing, and it’s gone.”
That’s where Walker is at, or close to it, now. He still holds out thoughts of a comeback, then eventually would like to get into coaching, scouting or broadcasting. But eventually could be gaining on him.
Martin nods. He remembers all sorts of bad stuff that was sneaking up on him until he seized control and got some opportunities. He completed his degree work at Loyola, joined the NBRPA about 10 years ago, reconnected with some old friends and came out of his shell about his past, facing down the regrets he had from his Blazers stint.
Of Walker, Martin said: “It’s still going to take time for him to come back. He needs us. He needs to surround himself with some familiar faces. Of course, we’ve all been through stuff – none of us is perfect.
“Come to us, we’ll sit down, we’ll be a substitute for a coach for him. We’ll challenge him. He’ll be OK. Forget about the past. That’s over. I had to. You know what they say about a horse, put blinders on him, he’ll never look back. That was me.”
Difference now is, LaRue Martin can look back. Proudly.