Kevin Martin was only a few months into his rookie season when he decided to do an adopt-a-child program back in Zanesville during the holidays.
It was only the start.
Less than a decade later, the fingerprints of his generosity are all over Zanesville. He does summer basketball camps. Gives to the schools. Helps local scholarship funds. Donates shoes and jerseys to local fundraisers. Provides for local groups such as Christ's Table, Eastside Community Ministry and Tools for Schools.
He even buys a hog each summer at the county fair and donates it to a local youth center.
“Everybody in town thinks they're related to him,” said Jeff Moore, one of Martin's high school coaches. “Everybody in this town think they're Kevin Martin's cousin. I don't care if they're white, black, Chinese, whatever — they're related to Kevin.
“That's what he means to this community.”
The past two years around Christmas, Martin has done the Hometown Holiday Giveaway. He asks people to submit a short essay explaining what kind of impact they could have on Zanesville around the holidays if they had a thousand dollars.
His favorite entry: a dance troupe of little girls who wanted to brighten the town with their dance.
“It was cute,” Martin said.
He smiled, then turned serious.
“I think it's important to always help people in different situations,” he said. “It doesn't necessarily have to be a bad situation.
“I think we forget to really actually care about how somebody's feeling.”
Kevin was on his way to the gym one spring morning two years ago when he started getting texts from folks in Zanesville.
There'd been a bad bus crash.
He called his grandma to get the story.
Bus No. 26 had been on its way to a nearby school when it ran off the road and hit a light pole. The impact caused the bus to roll over, and when it did, it killed Kasey King-Thomas.
He was only 6.
“It was such a tragedy,” Martin said quietly.
Kasey was from a family of 10 kids. He was one of five foster kids who had been adopted by Randi and Joe Thomas.
Kevin knew he had to help them.
“I just didn't want them to have to worry about any expenses because they took on a lot taking in kids,” he said. “Just trying to let them focus on the other kids and their grieving ... and not worry about the rest.”
Kevin paid for all of the funeral expenses and then some. One of Kasey's grandmothers lived in Florida and didn't travel well. Kevin paid for her and a companion to get to Ohio.
Kasey's family wanted to let ESPN know about all that this NBA player had done for them.
Kevin said thanks but no thanks.
A week later, Kasey's mom wrote a letter of thanks to the community that appeared in the Zanesville paper. She said a special thank you to Kevin.
“Kevin, thank God both of us came from this little piece of the world,” she wrote. “Because of you and a little 6-year-old boy, you both have shown me that a little piece of heaven does exist down here in our community.”
Kevin still sends gift cards to the family around the holidays, and they always send him thank yous. Cards. Notes.
It's the kind of thing that happens often when he helps someone back home.
“I give to them, and they make me feel appreciated,” Kevin said. “You just want to keep on giving.”
Kevin Martin isn't just giving back to his hometown.
He is giving back to his home.
Zanesville is where he lives during the offseason. He doesn't go to the beach. He doesn't hang in a big city. He goes to the place that's always been home.
He'll call his dad during the season and tell him that he can't wait to be back there.
“My family, everybody's there,” he explained. “They never moved out to Columbus or Cincinnati or Cleveland. They just always stayed there, so I felt like I needed to stay there, too.”
Not only stay but also impact.
He knows what struggle looks like. He saw it as a kid when he was growing up, and when he looks around his blue-collar, one-zip-code hometown and sees it now, he can't help but want to do something.
He didn't divorce himself from his hometown like some athletes do.
He dug in and loved it even more.
“Just give the city hope,” Martin said. “I don't put too much pressure on myself, but I really do feel like I carry the city on my back.”