HOUSTON — Here’s what to know about Slater Martin.
When star point guard T.J. Ford led the University of Texas to the 2003 Final Four for the first time since 1947, the surviving members of the old team sent coach Rick Barnes a letter of congratulations. At the end of the letter, Dr. Vilbry White, a retired dentist and a Longhorn teammate of Martin’s added a line at the end:
“Slater still doesn’t think T.J. could drive around him today.”
When told about the postscript, then 77-year-old Martin laughed loudly and said, “Well, I’d like to see him try without palming the way they let these guys do today.”
It goes without saying that Martin, who passed away at 86 on Thursday, came from a much different time, a different era of basketball. But every one of today’s stars from Kobe Bryant to LeBron James to Kevin Durant would have loved to have had him at their back on the court.
Martin was tough and rugged and feisty and, quite fittingly as a Texan, was a particular burr under the saddle of Celtics star Bob Cousy.
“Cousy never liked to see me coming,” Martin once told me, “because he knew I wasn’t going anywhere. And I told him he wasn’t pulling out any of that fancy hotdog stuff out on the court with me unless he wanted to wind up down on the court.”
Martin won five NBA championships, four with the Minneapolis Lakers and one with the St. Louis Hawks. He was a seven-time All-Star and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1982.
But in Houston, where he led Jefferson Davis High School to state titles in 1942 and 1943 and eventually settled down, Martin was an outgoing restauranteur, a gregarious host and a man who never met anyone who couldn’t become an instant friend.
The first time I met Martin in 1982 — he’d been retired from the game for more than two decades — I was immediately pulled into his world of NBA tales, observations, camaraderie and blunt opinions. He still loved the game, but especially not the liberal interpretation of the palming rule. He marveled and admired the wondrous athleticism of today’s NBA players, but cautioned that too many of the early stars — George Mikan, Jim Pollard, Bob Pettit — were under-appreciated. And still he liked to get in his jabs at his favorite nemesis.
“If you ever see Cousy around at a game these, tell him that I’m in the building,” Martin said, “and watch him flinch.”
That was Slater.