by Chris Foss
As the latest NBA draft class was announced in late June and ESPN college basketball analyst Andy Katz read off the draftees’ platitudes and ran through their career highlights, I was struck, as I am every year, by an inescapable conclusion. Some of these players might be stars, some could have fairly decent careers, yet most will be busts who leave the league within a few years. Even Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball, the most heralded choices in the draft, know that they aren’t necessarily guaranteed to be superstars. Since the NBA draft became a big deal when it became televised, the league has seen its share of its celebrated draft headliners turn into busts, from Greg Oden and Michael Olowokandi to Kwame Brown and Pervis Ellison. These names are relatively well-known to NBA fans as busts who have had trouble shaking the shadows of their would-be fame. Today’s busts could learn, however, from the life of a once-heralded player from the NBA’s relatively-forgotten 1970s timeframe, a Chicagoan named LaRue Martin.
When I was a little boy and the number two came up, sometimes my dad would sometimes yell out “Two for LaRue!” For years, I had no clue what he was talking about, nor was I even curious. Then when I was ten years old, I got a copy of Steve Cameron’s book Rip City! for my birthday. This celebration of the Blazers’ 25th anniversary covered Blazers highlights and lowlights, including, I noticed, a brief discussion of a guy named LaRue Martin. I asked my dad if this had anything to do with “Two for LaRue!” He explained to me that when he was a young man listening to Blazers radio broadcasts, announcer Bill Schonely would sarcastically yell out “Two for LaRue!” every time Martin scored. Turns out Schonely was pretending to celebrate the unfortunately rare occasions—typically in garbage time—when Martin would finally get a basket. As a result, I began to wonder what happened to LaRue.
LaRue Martin was born March 30, 1950 in Chicago, one of the country’s great basketball cities. Martin stayed close to home for school, coming up through the city’s Catholic school system at De La Salle Institute and Loyola University of Chicago. Loyola is today perhaps best-known as the alma mater of Bob Newhart, but when Martin arrived on campus, it seemed a great choice for basketball: the Ramblers were only a few years removed from a legendary 1963 NCAA title-winning game in which it broke with a race-based gentleman’s agreement by playing four black players at once.
The 6-foot-10 Martin achieved All-American honors in 1970 and 1972 and averaged 18.6 points per game and 15.9 rebounds for his career, but never led the Ramblers to the postseason. Legendary coach George Ireland’s best days were over: the Ramblers went 13-11, 4-20, and 8-14 during Martin’s years on the varsity squad. Great NBA players have rarely come from losing college teams, so this should have given the league pause when it was time for Martin to turn pro.
The top pick in the 1972 NBA draft belonged to the Portland Trail Blazers, a third-year expansion team which had suffered a horrendous 18-64 season the year before. The Blazers had drafted well in their first two seasons, picking Rookies of the Year in Geoff Petrie and Sidney Wicks. But they were a team in turmoil, having fired head coach Rolland Todd midway through the season and about to bring aboard a young Jack McCloskey, then years away from his prime as the general manager of the Detroit Pistons, to be the new coach. The consensus was that the best player in the draft was Bob McAdoo of North Carolina. Like Martin, McAdoo was an All-American who put up big numbers. Unlike Martin, McAdoo had led one of the nation’s most prominent college basketball bluebloods to the Final Four, under the tutelage of Hall of Fame head coach Dean Smith. The pick seemed like a slam-dunk, as the Blazers needed a big man to complement wings Petrie and Wicks.
However, McAdoo and Blazers brass couldn’t come to terms on a contract prior to the draft. Blazers president Herman Sarkowsky said McAdoo and his agents could “go to hell” when they reportedly tacked on additional contract demands. Desperate for a big man, the Blazers went with Martin in what Cameron called a “pitifully thin” draft. The Buffalo Braves (now L.A. Clippers) picked McAdoo second, and there he promptly put up four MVP-type seasons. Later he helped the L.A. Lakers to two NBA titles and four Finals appearances.
As for Martin, he averaged a mere 4.4 points per contest as a rookie. He “peaked” in the 1974-75 season, as he was pressed into duty when another No. 1 overall pick—Bill Walton—missed much of the season due to injury. Martin averaged 7 points and 5 rebounds per contest before his numbers swooned the next year. Martin never played another NBA game after 1976: according to the “similarity scores” on Basketball-reference.com, his career is similar to those of forgotten players like Wang Zhizhi, Mike Novak, and Joel Przybilla. Perhaps Martin’s biggest deficit was that, for his career, he shot 41.6% from the field, an appalling number for a center. Critics like Boston Globe writer Bob Ryan contended that “he didn’t get any playing time because he [stunk].” Martin, however, blamed his inability to get consistent playing time for his lack of NBA success.
In the end, Martin didn’t disappear completely into obscurity. After a stint with Nike, he returned home to Chicago and joined UPS. In June 2017, the Chicago Sun-Times profiled Martin’s remarkable post-basketball career trajectory. A driver when he began his UPS career, Martin rose to become UPS’ employment manager in Chicago, and eventually took charge of the company’s community services and relations with Illinois politicians. One of Martin’s early political contacts was with a young state senator named Barack Obama. Martin later earned invitations to Obama’s 2009 inauguration and, at that year’s meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus, the two briefly met up after Obama gave a speech. Not bad for a bust!
In hindsight, Martin’s pick may have been the beginning of the end of NBA wisdom that a big man should be a team’s key draft choice. That certainly was true for the Blazers, whose next three No. 1 overall picks (Bill Walton, Mychal Thompson, and Greg Oden) all went on to mediocre careers or suffered debilitating injuries. In the case of Thompson, Oden, and their No. 2 draft choice in 1984—Sam Bowie—the Blazers passed on three of the greatest wing players of all time: Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and Kevin Durant. The Blazers aren’t the only team to have taken a bad big man over a good or great wing, but they are perhaps the most conspicuous example.
This year’s selection of Fultz and Ball as the top draft choices demonstrates how far conventional wisdom has come since the days when it was thought that to take an iffy big man was better than taking a guard or forward. Five centers were taken No. 1 overall during the 1970s; of them, only one—Walton—went into the Hall of Fame. In the 1980s, seven big men went No. 1, four of whom are now Hall of Famers. But starting with the Sacramento Kings’ disastrous pick of Ellison in 1989, the wisdom that even the best big man had to go at or near the top of the draft began to fade. Only six centers have been chosen No. 1 since then. The failures of Olowokandi, Brown, and Oden, coupled with the tightening of foul calls and the legalization of zone defense, further led general managers to look smaller at draft time. Even the Blazers’ thinking has evolved. In 2012, after consensus top big Anthony Davis went No. 1 to New Orleans, the Blazers could have gone with the next best big man in Andre Drummond; instead, they chose Damien Lillard.
There is still a great chance, of course, that Fultz or Ball could turn out to be busts (sorry, LaVar!) Martin’s post-retirement career holds both signs of hope and caution should Fultz or Ball flame out. He has a pretty good gig now, but Martin had to claw his way up the corporate ladder, and in the Sun-Times interview, he disclosed that he had to overcome a bad bout with alcoholism, perhaps brought on by the criticism he faced for failing to live up to expectations in the NBA. Even with bigger contracts and endorsements out of the gate than were available for NBA players 45 years ago, Martin (and Oden, Bowie, Ellison, and others) still serve as cautionary tales about how fast fame and money can flee under the weight of unmet expectations.
 In 1966, Texas Western would do them one better, starting five black players in their championship victory over Kentucky.
 Steve Cameron, Rip City! A Quarter Century with the Portland Trail Blazers, p. 89.