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.”