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LaRue Who? Ex-Blazer makes name for himself

HBO chronicles Martin's rise to successful businessman with UPS
by: COURTESY OF PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS LaRUE MARTIN

When I tracked him down Tuesday at his office at UPS headquarters in Chicago, LaRue Martin hadn't yet seen his segment on HBO's 'Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.'

Through an advance DVD courtesy of HBO's publicity department, I watched it at home Monday night.

'I'm waiting to watch it with my wife when they first show it tonight at 11,' Martin told me.

Doesn't seem right.

But Martin has been enduring such indignities ever since that fateful night 35 years ago, when the Trail Blazers made him the first selection in the 1972 NBA draft.

One of four segments on Gumbel's Emmy-winning show features Martin, entitled 'The Big Bust.' (It will run periodically on HBO through July 16.)

They aren't talking about Holly Madison, either.

The reference is to the player widely regarded as the worst No. 1 pick in NBA history.

Blazer fans remember Sam Bowie's selection over Michael Jordan in 1984 with unbridled disdain, but for historical perspective, Martin over Bob McAdoo was probably worse.

The Blazers drafted the 7-1 Bowie because shooting guards Jim Paxson and Clyde Drexler were already in the fold and they needed a center.

Portland took Martin over McAdoo because of money.

That - along with a lot of other important parts to the Martin story - is missing from HBO's 12-minute piece.

Ironically, Gumbel attended the same high school as Martin in Chicago - De La Salle Institute. Gumbel was a senior when Martin was a 6-8 sophomore.

Martin grew to 6-11, but weighed only 205 when the Blazers chose him after four years at Loyola of Chicago. He averaged 19.5 points and 15.7 rebounds as a senior, but Portland had decided on taking McAdoo out of North Carolina.

The Blazers brought McAdoo and his agent, Al Ross, to Portland for a negotiating session before the draft. Stu Inman, the team's vice president/player personnel, and executive vice president Harry Glickman met with Ross and a couple of his attorneys in a meeting that began at 11 p.m. and concluded about 5 a.m.

'We shook hands on a deal and said, 'Let's get a few hours of sleep, come back and sign the contract,' ' Glickman recalled.

When they reconvened at 10 a.m., Glickman said, 'they had changed the deal. They wanted more money.

'I called Herman (Sarkowsky, the majority owner), and he said, 'Tell them to go to hell,' ' Glickman said.

Martin drew the attention of Inman with back-to-back performances that season. He had 19 points and 18 rebounds in a 92-64 loss to UCLA, in which Bill Walton collected 18 points and 16 rebounds. The next day, Martin outscored Jim Chones 32-23 in a 69-67 loss to Marquette.

So the Blazer chose Martin with the No. 1 pick, a possibility that Martin told Gumbel had never crossed his mind.

'I never thought about it,' he said. 'That's the God's honest truth. I found out after my coach told me. ... I was kind of stunned.'

Signed to a six-year, $900,000 deal - McAdoo reaped five years and $1.5 million from Buffalo as the No. 2 pick - Martin set about trying to live up to his billing in Portland. It never happened. 'LaRue Who?' echoed derisively through Memorial Coliseum as the years went by.

With no heft and little offensive game, Martin played sparingly his first two seasons under McCloskey. Martin got more playing time under McCloskey's successor, Lenny Wilkens, averaging 7.0 points and 5.0 rebounds in 16.9 minutes his third season.

After four mostly inauspicious seasons, though, he was traded to Seattle and waived before the start of the 1976-77 season.

At 26, his NBA career was finished.

Glickman looks back on the decision to draft Martin over McAdoo with some interesting rationale.

'In the short term, we'd have been way better off with McAdoo, a Hall-of-Famer,' Glickman said. 'In the long term, we never would have gotten Walton, and we might not have won a championship (in 1976-77). Funny how things work out sometimes.'

Gumbel read a local newspaper account at the time, which called Martin 'an emotional basket case over his own inability to prove his worth as the No. 1 draft choice.'

Martin says he rejected several offers to play professionally in Europe. He returned to Portland after his release by the Sonics, told Gumbel his failure in the NBA 'took away a lot of the self-esteem I had. I had the makings of an ulcer. I'd go home crying sometimes. Here I am, a grown man, crying.'

He was at his Portland home drinking the night the Blazers clinched the NBA title with a Game-6 victory over Philadelphia at the Coliseum.

'I was crushed,' Martin told Gumbel. 'Oh boy, that hurt.'

By that time, Martin - whose father was an alcoholic - was drinking heavily.

'Vodka, beer ... I didn't care what it was,' he said.

Martin stayed employed, working first for Chicago Title Insurance, then for Nike, then for UPS, starting out as a driver in 1987.

'I had a ball,' Martin told Gumbel. 'Met some good people out there. Good customers. Drove down some country roads. It was real nice.'

The rest of the piece detailed Martin's successful rise to a prominent position as an executive vice president with UPS after moving to Chicago in 1990. 'More comfortable and respected in the world of business than he ever was in sports,' Gumbel pronounced.

Martin, now 61 and sober for 11 years, clearly takes pride in his destination.

'I was the No. 1 draft choice,' he said. 'I didn't do too well. But I went back to get my (college) degree and moved on in life.'

As for basketball, Martin told Gumbel, 'I don't consider myself being a failure. I made it. They can never take that No. 1 draft choice away from me.'

I'd spoken to Martin - a true gentleman, by the way - several years ago for a story on former Blazers. He said he remembered.

I asked him how he felt the interview had gone with Gumbel.

'I've always been an honest person,' he said. 'I just told him how I felt.'

I told Martin it had to be hard for him talking about the bad ol' days with the Blazers.

'It brought up some old bad memories about basketball, but life goes on,' he said. 'Sports gave me a career, no matter how short it was. And when it's over, you move on. That's what I've done.'

I expressed surprise that Martin would choose to live in Portland for 14 years after his playing days ended.

'Portland was very good to me,' he said. 'Even though my basketball was up and down, the people were very nice. They treated me very well. You want to be in a place where people treat you like you'd want to be treated. It's a nice city.'

Martin recalls with fondness former teammates such as Lloyd Neal, Greg Smith, Bobby Gross, Michael Harper and Shaler Halimon, all living in Portland.

'I still talk to Greg and Lloyd once in awhile,' he said. 'I'm going to come out and visit sometime later in the year.'

Does he harbor a grudge, I asked, against McCloskey?

'Jack wasn't a believer in my ability,' Martin said. 'He came from Wake Forest in North Carolina, and he wanted Bob McAdoo. Hey, Bob was a hell of a player. I know that. Maybe I wasn't the right guy for Jack. So be it.

'But I never gave him any grief when I was playing for him. I'm not into that. I just kept my mouth shut and did what I was told. I guess it wasn't good enough.'

It wasn't. But as the HBO piece emphasizes, there is more to life than basketball. LaRue Martin, scorned during his NBA days, has made the most of his life since then. That's really good to know.