LaRue Martin: One for the Record Books, 1984

[The Arizona Republic’s Bob Cohn wrote lots of great stuff during his career, and that includes this short piece on LaRue Martin after his brief NBA career. The piece ran in the February 1984 issue of Basketball Digest.

No need to introduce Martin, whom Portland famously selected with the top pick in the 1972 NBA draft. Cohn takes care of that nicely. But it’s worth mentioning that Martin was very much Portland’s second choice. The Trail Blazers wanted Bob McAdoo, who, of course, had secretly signed with the ABA Virginia Squires in early 1972. But Earl Foreman, owner of the Squires, badly wanted out of the contract. It was an Olympic year, and Foreman told me he’d read weeks after the signing that McAdoo planned to try out for the United States Olympic men’s basketball team. Because only amateurs took part in the Olympics back then, Foreman feared McAdoo’s secret pro contract would leak at some point, and the entire nation would blame him personally for the team forfeiting a gold medal and embarrassing the country. 

In the meantime, McAdoo’s new agent Al Ross started poking holes in the ABA contract. He pointed out that Foreman had signed McAdoo while he was underage and, as legally required,  a guardian was not present. According to Ross, the contract was null and void. Foreman heaved a giant sigh of relief, knowing he wouldn’t be tarred and feathered after all. Ross then shopped McAdoo to the Trail Blazers, knowing Foreman wouldn’t put up a fight. 

“We planned to select McAdoo,” Portland GM Harry Glickman wrote in his 1978 book Promoter Ain’t a Dirty Word. Glickman flew Ross and McAdoo up to Portland to hammer out a contract before the NBA draft. 

“The meeting lasted from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. the following morning,” Glickman continued. “When it finally broke up, we shook hands on a deal and agreed to get a couple hours of sleep before returning to the office at 9 a.m., at which time the lawyers would draw up the contract which McAdoo would sign.

“When I returned in the morning, Ross told me that McAdoo had changed his mind. He insisted on his initial set of demands, which were astronomical and totally out of line. I called [owner] Herman [Sarkowsky] . . . to report this development. He said, ‘Tell them to go to hell.’ So, I sent them back to Los Angeles.”

Ross remembers the story differently, stating the Blazers’ brass insulted McAdoo by refusing to pay for his parents to attend the signing ceremony. Ross said he blew up at their “lack of class” and flew back to Los Angeles with McAdoo in tow. McAdoo told me he remembers Ross blowing up. But he said the blow up was over money. The Blazers refused to pay him as much as previous top picks.

In any case, with McAdoo out of the picture, Portland suddenly needed a top pick in a hurry. Stu Inman, then the team’s scout and interim head coach, came up with Martin—and the rest is NBA history. Just ask Martin.]

It happens every spring or early summer. LaRue Martin is in demand. The phone rings in his office in Portland, Ore., and people ask him how it feels to be the answer to a trivia question. 

The question goes something like, “Who was the player the Portland Trail Blazers made the No. 1 choice in the 1972 NBA draft? The guy who never did anything.”

Well, you already know the answer. There it was in the first paragraph.

But LaRue Martin doesn’t exactly consider it trivia. “I’m proud to have been the No. 1 draft choice, and it’s something they can’t take away from me,” he said. “I’m in the record books. For some reason.”

The trouble is, it is for no other reason. Martin played four years for the Blazers, was traded, tried to make it with Seattle, didn’t, tried to latch on with the Chicago Bulls, didn’t, and that was it. 

Four years, 1,430 points. A 5.3 average. He is 24th on the Blazers’ career-points list, if you’re scoring at home. But he wasn’t picked No. 1 for his offense. As a center, it was Martin’s defense and rebounding that intrigued Blazers’ interim coach Stu Inman. So, let’s see. Martin took 4.6 rebounds a game in his pro career and, to anyone’s knowledge, never made all-defensive team.

His best season was 1974-75 when he averaged seven points and five rebounds. About that season Martin said, “I understood my role. Things started to pop for me.”

That also was the first year for another center, a fellow named Bill Walton. The following season would be the last for Martin, gone in a massive housecleaning in which the Blazers also dropped Geoff Petrie, Sidney Wicks, and coach Lenny Wilkens. 

If you need to make judgments, there are two ways to examine the life of LaRue Martin. The first is to see him now. He is a success in real estate and insurance. Money never was much of a problem, mainly because of the six-year contract he signed with the Trail Blazers. He works for the governor’s commission on sports. He is a popular and respected member of the Portland civic community. He has been married 11 years to the same woman, and he considers that a nice thing. He has two children.

Judgment: A good life, a productive life.

Or is it? Despite all the good, Martin says he’s not entirely at peace with himself. “My regret is I wish I could’ve played basketball a lot longer,” he said. “I still could have been in the league today.”

What happened to LaRue Martin is an overused excuse in today’s society, but back then when you said it, you probably meant it. The word is pressure.

He was No. 1, drafted just ahead of Bob McAdoo. True, it was an otherwise thin draft year, with such notables as Dwight Davis, Corky Calhoun, Fred Boyd, and Russell Lee also picked in the first round. No. 1, however, is supposed to be different. No. 1 is supposed to be the best.

“It was a lot of pressure on a young guy,” Martin said. “I didn’t consider myself as a superstar. We all have natural abilities to do this and do that. But playing against some of the oldies but goodies, like [Wilt Chamberlain, I had my hands full.

“I was pretty tough on my wife. We were in a new place. I was being talked about in the media. This had never happened to me before. It was very hard to accept. I kept telling her, ‘Why me, honey? Why me?’”

Why him? He had caught Inman’s eye while playing for Loyola Chicago and having two terrific games against Walton and UCLA and Marquette and its big man, Jim Chones. It was a pretty good season all around for Martin, who was listed at 6-foot-11 but now admits to being 7-foot. He scored 19.5 points a game, and his rebound average was a whopping 15.7. A season earlier, he averaged 17.5 rebounds.

Martin figured he had a chance to go in the first round. But when he was summoned from his dorm room by Loyola basketball coach George Ireland to take a phone call, the news was a shock. “I was very surprised,” he says. “I never dreamed of anything like that happening to me.”

Neither did almost anyone else.

The problems began for Martin with new Blazers coach Jack McCloskey. “He just turned his head, or something,” Martin said. “He was a brand-new coach. He had nothing to do with the draft. He was a [Bob] McAdoo man.”

Martin claims he wasn’t given a chance to develop, and the numbers seem to bear him out. In two seasons under McCloskey, he played 12 minutes a game. In Wilkens’ first year, Martin played nearly 17 minutes a game.

But it was too late. Admitting to being “lost, in a sense” during his early years in Portland, Martin never materialized into the player Inman had hoped he’d be.

After failing with the Bulls, Martin lived in Southern California for a time, then returned to Loyola in 1979 to get his degree. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Portland. Martin still plays charity games with other former Blazers and, once in a while, ponders playing in Europe. He is 33 and not yet ready to let go.

“I’m just crazy about basketball,” he said.

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