Slater Martin: A David Cutting Down Goliaths, 1950s

[In the mid-1990s, John Kundla was honored as one of the NBA’s 10 greatest coaches. His selection seemed like a no-brainer. Kundla piloted the George Mikan-led 1950s Minneapolis Lakers to four NBA titles (and two earlier championships in rival pro leagues). He was the architect of the NBA’s first great dynasty. 

For some, however, Kundla’s selection deserved a long, loud Bronx cheer. “Johnnie,” as everyone called him, had indeed sat on the Lakers’ bench with a clipboard and technically “coached” the likes of Mikan, Jim Pollard, and Vern Mikkelsen. But the guy who really ran the Lakers’ show and had everyone’s ear during their championship runs wasn’t Kundla. It was the Lakers’ savvy, win-at-all-costs playmaker Slater Martin. In fact, while working on my book Shake and Bake: The Life and Times of NBA Great Archie Clark, I interviewed a couple of credible sources from “back in the day” who Bronx cheered Kundla and told me all about Martin’s leadership. 

I can’t prove who is right or wrong. The Kundla-Martin question also went way beyond the scope of Shake and Bake, though I did once call Martin to ask his opinion. Martin was near the end of his days and, though polite and soft-spoken, didn’t want to talk to me. 

Even if Martin deferred to Kundla’s instructions from the sidelines, he was the team’s unquestioned coach on the floor. Martin orchestrated all those victories and championship banners with brains and grit, and he should be remembered in some of the same hallowed tones as Boston’s Bob Cousy. He isn’t and never has been. This short chapter, pulled from a book published in the early 1960s titled Basketball ‘s Greatest Stars, tells Martin’s story. The great Al Hirschberg, author of the book Basketball is My Life: Bob Cousy’s Dramatic Life Story, is on the call.]

Martin (22) for two.

Slater (Dugie) Martin was the last of the great truly little men in pro basketball. There are still a few considered “little” but, unlike Martin, all are over six-feet tall. Martin, a diminutive bundle of dynamite from Texas, stood only 5-foot-10, yet held his own in the company of giants for 11 years. When he retired at age 34 in 1960, he left the legacy of a bulldog, for every man who ever played against Martin remembers him as the toughest little guy in the NBA. 

He once squared off with Wally Dukes, the seven-foot center of the Detroit Pistons, and it took three men to pull him away. He was the only man who could hold the fabulous Bob Cousy in check with a fair degree of consistency. Bill Sharman, Cousy’s former Boston Celtics backcourt partner, once said of Martin, “I’m glad to see him guard Cousy. I only get him when I’m hot.”

Other backcourt men all over the league felt the same way. They hated to face Cousy and Sharman, but Martin sometimes scared them more. “The trouble is,” one said, “he never lets you alone. He’s a perpetual motion machine. I don’t know where he gets all the energy.”

Martin, being short and so near-sighted that he had to wear contact lenses, had a ready answer. “I exist on energy in this game,” he said. “I haven’t got much else. And I learned a long time ago that if you keep running, the guy against you is gonna get tired.”

Nobody was ever sure what made Martin great. He was too small to cope with the huge stars of the game, yet he often played them to a standstill. He wasn’t considered an outstanding shooter, yet he ranked 11th in playoff scoring and was among the top 25 all-time scorers when he retired. He didn’t seem to be an unusual ballhandler, yet he controlled the ball as much as anyone whenever he was on the court. 

A close observer remarked one day, “Dugie is the Eddie Stanky of basketball. He is too small to play, he can’t shoot, he’s not a fast runner, and he doesn’t do tricks with the ball, yet he’s one of the greatest clutch players and defensive stars the game has ever seen.”

Although he played on four championship teams in seven years at Minneapolis, Martin was never really appreciated until he went to St. Louis in 1956. He helped transform the Hawks from a so-so team into the best in the Western Division, and he was a big factor in the world’s championship they won over the Celtics in 1958. 

“I’ve never seen a tougher competitor in the clutch,” Cousy said later. “He simply refused to let us beat him.”

Martin got so much satisfaction out of winning that he never cared about his own performance. In the final game of the 1957 playoffs, which went into two overtime periods before the Celtics beat the Hawks, Martin held Cousy to two baskets in 20 shots and outscored the Boston star, 23 to 12. But in later years, he refused to talk about it. 

“I want to forget that game,” he said. “We lost.”

He didn’t do anywhere nearly as good a job on Cousy in the last game of the 1958 playoffs, for he collected only four points to Cousy’s 15, but his face lights up when anyone mentions it. “That was a great game,” says Martin. “We won.”

Once the season began, his dedication to basketball was absolute. He ate, drank, slept, dreamt, and lived the game from the beginning of the season to the end. He talked of nothing else until the last playoff battle was over. 

Buddy Blattner, the radio announcer traveling with the Hawks a few years ago, once roomed with Martin. The team got into Boston at three o’clock one morning, and Blattner immediately fell asleep. Three hours later, he woke up and saw Martin pacing the floor. When Blattner asked what was wrong, Dugie replied, “Nothing. I’m thinking about Cousy.” 

“At six o’clock in the morning?” Blattner asked.

“I’m always thinking about Cousy,” Martin said.

Martin always thought ahead, too. For that reason, he hated to stay around locker rooms after games. Asked why he got dressed and out so quickly, he answered, “Why stick around? If we lose, I don’t want to hear any more about it. If we win, I want to think about the next game.”

Martin never collected what he was worth until he left Minneapolis. He had constant salary disputes with the Lakers’ front office, which failed to give him what he considered a decent salary, even after he first made the All-Star team in 1954. 

The Lakers’ big man was George Mikan, followed in importance and salary range by Vern Mikkelsen and Jim Pollard. By the time these men were paid, there wasn’t much left for anyone else. During the seven years that Martin played for the Lakers, he held out at least four times before signing his contract. Once, a Laker executive, in answer to Martin’s demands for more money, sneered, “We can win with Mikan, Mikkelsen, Pollard, and two bellhops. Who needs you?”

The Minneapolis Lakers win another championship. Martin, his chin obscured, stands to the immediate left of George Mikan (shirtless, with glasses).

In 1956, Martin held out the night of the opening game of the season, finally signing for $9,000. Not having had a moment of practice with the rest of the team, he sat on the bench at the start of the game against the Hawks at Minneapolis. By the end of the first period, the Hawks were ahead, thanks to 15 points by Frank Selvy. Johnny Kundla, the Lakers’ coach, turned to Martin and asked, “Can you stop him, Dugie?” When Martin nodded, Kundla sent him into the game, and he held Selvy to three points in the remaining 36 minutes.

Bob Davies of the Rochester Royals was one of the top backcourt men of the game. Martin once actually shut him out, the only time in 16 years Davies failed to score a basket from the floor. 

Martin was born in a town that went out of existence when his family moved. There was nothing in Elmina, Texas, except his grandfather’s general store. The family went to Houston, 70 miles away, when Dugie was two. By then, everyone called him by that nickname. It was given to him by his grandfather after Dugan’s Tavern, then featured in the Mutt and Jeff comic strip. 

Dugie was always a great all-around athlete. He played baseball, basketball, and football at Jefferson Davis High School, and he even did some amateur boxing. The basketball team won two straight state championships in Martin’s junior and senior years. 

At the University of Texas, Martin became the highest basketball scorer in West Texas history. During a three-year career interrupted by service in the Navy and World War II, Dugie piled up 1,140 points. When he scored 49 against Texas Christian, he set a Southwest Conference record that stood for years. 

By the time he joined the Lakers in 1949, Martin was married and had a family. He could have made more money doing something else, but he was so eager to play pro basketball that he accepted a low salary just for the opportunity. With all the grief this led to, it was a decision he never regretted. 

“I wanted to play basketball for a living,” he said later. “I wouldn’t have been happy doing anything else, even though I might have made more money.”

Dwarfed by Mikan and the other big men of the mighty Lakers, who won four titles in five years, Martin seldom had much chance to standout offensively. His biggest night came at the end of the 1952 season when, with Mikan, Mikkelsen, and Pollard all well covered in the final playoff game against the New York Knickerbockers, Martin scored 32 points to clinch the championship for the Lakers. 

His refusal to sign until the last minute of the 1956 season made it almost imperative for the Lakers to trade him, for neither he nor they were happy. Ben Kerner, the Hawks’ owner, made a good offer for him, but the Lakers didn’t want Martin in the same division with them. They sent him to the Knicks for Wally Dukes. Three weeks later, New York traded him to the Hawks for Willie Naulls, so Martin ended up in St. Louis anyhow. 

That was the end of his financial troubles and the beginning of the Hawks’ golden era. When the season was over, Kerner said, “Martin saved the franchise. I’d have gone broke without him.”

Bob Pettit, the Hawks’ great center, put it another way. “Dugie gave us the leadership we needed. He was the glue that held us together.”

Kerner made Dugie the Hawks’ coach soon after he arrived in St. Louis, but Martin hated the job [Note: Kerner was a notoriously difficult personality to work for.] After one game, he delegated authority to Alex Hannum, his roommate, then resigned a week later. Hannum succeeded him and took the Hawks through the 1957 playoffs and the 1958 championship. 

The only thing that caught up with Martin was age. He limped through the 1959-60 season, hampered by injuries which wouldn’t have bothered him five years before. He quit when the playoffs were over, ending one of the game’s most-remarkable careers. 

Basketball buffs will never forget him. He was the little man’s little man, a David who spent 11 years cutting down Goliaths.

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