Thunder's Kevin Martin remains a hometown hero

COMMENTARY — The folks in Zanesville, Ohio, helped Kevin Martin reach the NBA. Now he gives back whenever he can, however he can, without fanfare.
by Jenni Carlson Modified: January 16, 2013 at 9:53 am •  Published: January 15, 2013

The basketball coach and the athletic trainer sat in an office at Zanesville High School going through next season's roster.

In a central Ohio town where hoops are a big deal, they went kid by kid, talking about positives and negatives. When they got to their wiry sophomore guard, the trainer had an idea.

“We ought to make him a manager,” he said.

The trainer just wasn't sure the kid who always needed treatment could hack it.

Maybe it was the kid's grades or his family or his work ethic, but the coach thought otherwise.

Later that summer, the trainer watched the kid stand flat-footed under the basket, jump and dunk a basketball two-handed.

“He went from a boy who could barely walk to that,” said Doug Smith, the trainer, telling the story on himself and laughing now a decade-plus later.

Kevin Martin made believers out of both men.

They weren't the only ones in Zanesville, Ohio.

Long before Martin became the Thunder's first man off the bench and another one of Oklahoma City's good-guy players, he had a network of support in his hometown. The hardworking, blue-collar community about the size of Ardmore sits on the banks of the Muskingum and Licking rivers. It is known more for its pottery than its sports stars.

But in Martin, people in Zanesville saw a youngster who was fighting the odds just as hard as they were.

“You kind of pull for each other in that town,” he said.

Now, Martin is the one doing the pulling. He started giving back to his hometown the minute he had something to give. He's helped when no one was looking and in the most dire of circumstances, and he has no intention to stop.

***

Kevin Martin was born and raised in Zanesville. He and his brother, Jonathon, grew up in the same tiny three-bedroom house where their father was born.

The family, like most everyone in town, had modest means. Kevin Sr. worked in construction and did landscaping on the weekends. Marilyn worked as a welfare social worker.

“We struggled with a lot,” Kevin Sr. said. “We both had jobs, but it wasn't like we were making good money.”

They still found a way to get the boys involved in sports. Baseball. Football. Basketball.

It wasn't long before Kevin started gravitating toward basketball. Because his parents were working, he spent a lot of time down the street at his grandparents' house. They lived just across the street from a park. The basketball courts there became the place Kevin always wanted to go.

He had a dream — to be like Mike.

Kevin idolized Michael Jordan, plastering his bedroom walls with Jordan posters and pictures, asking for Jordan shirts and shorts and shoes.

“Man, look,” his dad would say, “we can't really afford to get you these Jordan shoes all the time.”

He'd tell Kevin to save his allowance and his lunch money.

Lessons like that stuck with Kevin.

“It definitely molded me into a young man who knows you have to sacrifice,” he said of his childhood.

Good thing. Basketball has been demanding of Martin.

***

Kevin Martin was a toothpick.

He weighed less than a hundred pounds as a high school freshman. But after he made that miraculous jump between his sophomore and junior years, he started to emerge as one of Ohio's best prepsters. He was fourth in the voting for Mr. Ohio Basketball as a senior, finishing behind the first sophomore winner in the award's history, LeBron James.

Still, scholarship offers were limited for the wiry kid who shot 3-pointers from the hip. Western Carolina, Ohio and Buffalo offered scholarships, but almost everyone else wanted him to attend prep school first.

His coaches and teachers scratched their heads, unable to understand how so few teams would take a chance on a kid with good test scores, great grades and obvious talent.

His parents and grandparents stayed positive, but they didn't get it either.

“Just hang in there, keep your head up, and don't let anyone tell you can't do what you know you can do,” his folks told him. “Keep giving it all you got.”

Kevin chose tiny Western Carolina, and three years later — after averaging more than 22 points and being one of the nation's top scorers every season — he declared himself eligible for the NBA Draft. The Sacramento Kings selected him in the first round.

He left for the West Coast, the NBA, the big time, but he didn't forget the place that helped him get there.


by Jenni Carlson
Columnist
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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