Revisting LaRue

The incredible run by Loyola University of Chicago in the NCAA tournament this year made me wonder about the school’s history with NBA players it has produced over the years.  In fact, Loyola has rarely produced NBA players, even by the standards of a mid-major school.  Currently, Milton Doyle is having a cup of coffee with the Nets.  Doyle is the first NBA player from Loyola in 30 years.  Besides that gap, the players who did make it were all fringe players. The only former Loyola pro to average double figures in the pros was Les Hunter (his numbers are mostly from the ABA).  Since 1973, only one player from Loyola was drafted in the first round (Alfredick Hughes) and he also barely lasted in the NBA.

But there was one very well-remember NBA player from Loyola, the immortal LaRue Martin.  Martin was drafted first overall in 1972 by Portland and was a legendary bust.  There is little doubt that Loyola’s run will set the reporters back to Martin to revisit his story.  I thought we could revisit the Martin story of being the first super bust draft pick in the NBA and see what we can learn with 45 years of hindsight.

Let’s do a brief recap of Martin’s brief career:

Martin at Loyola

Martin went to Loyola, a small and not very good independent school.  As a sophomore (freshman were not permitted to play on varsity back then), Martin put 16.6 ppg and 14.4 rpg on .506 FG% for a team that went 13-11 in 1969-70.  Things got little wonky with Martin from there.  Loyola crashed to 4-20 in 1970-71 but Martin’s stats kept growing (18.7 ppg, 17.6 rpg).  But there was a warning sign.  Martin shot only .409% from the field, which is astoundingly low for a 6’10 center playing for a mid-major school.

Despite his terrible team and his bad shooting, Martin created enough buzz that both the New York Times and Sports Illustrated mentioned his rebounding prowess in their 1971-72 preview editions.  Martin’s number as a senior were pretty good too: he put up 19.6 ppg and 15.7 rpg but still shot a poor .443% from the field (Loyola went 8-14).  Martin’s real big coup was playing UCLA star Bill Walton to a standstill.  In a March 1972 Sports Illustrated, Martin was mentioned in passing: “Loyola’s quick, acrobatic LaRue Martin was the only center to play Walton even all year—and that was merely on the scoresheet.  Martin led Walton in points, 19 to 18, and in rebounds, 18 to 16.  UCLA won the game by 28 points.”

Martin and the 1972 Draft

Martin was considered a pretty hot draft prospect in the 1972 Draft.  Portland had the first pick and had a choice between North Carolina star Bob McAdoo and Martin.  We don’t have any previews of the draft describing whether Martin was the likely pick but Jet Magazine, reporting from the draft, described Martin as “shocked and obviously pleased” when he was drafted first overall.

In 1981, David Halberstam wrote “Breaks of the Game,” the seminal diary of season sports book.  The book tracked the 1979-80 Blazers and touched back on the Martin pick.  Halberstam wrote that McAdoo would have been the pick over Martin but that “McAdoo’s agent had added new requirements [to his contract demands] about a car and tickets, and that had blown it.”  In addition, the Blazers saw Martin’s game against Walton as another strong game against Jim Chones of Marquette, whose coach Al McGuire, also recommended Martin even over Chones.  Halberstam further wrote that Portland “reluctantly….decided that Martin was the best available big man in the draft, a ‘project’ whose skill would take some time to develop.”

The notion that Portland would choose Martin based on McAdoo’s demand for a car and some tickets sounds pretty silly post hoc rationalization for picking the wrong guy.  More likely, Portland did want draft a player leaving school early for public relations reasons and also thought they had a Nate Thurmond-type defense/rebounding center in Martin.

In Porltand’s defense, the 1972 Draft wasn’t exactly great.  Yes, Portland should’ve taken McAdoo but most of the rest of the first round crapped out even worse than Martin, with notable exceptions of Paul Westphal (drafted 10th) and Julius Erving (drafted 12th but went to the ABA for years), neither of whom were considered top prospects.

Martin in the NBA

Martin, though 6’10, was very thin and was muscled in the post, which made him a problem and offense and defense.  He put up an anemic line as a rookie in 1972-73: In 12.9 mpg, 4.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg, .396 FG%.  Martin remained a bench player over the next three years, peaking in 1974-75 at 7.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg on .452 FG% in 16.9 mpg, when he backed up Walton during Walton’s rookie year.

Advanced stats didn’t love Martin any more than conventional wisdom.  His career PER was 12.1, which was your standard back up forward and his BPM and VORP were decidedly negative.  On top of that, while his rebounding was okay, he didn’t block many shots and fouled at a very high rate.

Before the 1976-77 season, Martin was traded to Seattle for a fresh start.   But Martin couldn’t make the team and was cut and his career ended.  At that point, Martin was considered the worst first pick in NBA history.  He still holds that distinction.  There have been some disappointments but no one who combined the brevity of career with poor stats.   Kwame Brown and Michael Olowokandi weren’t good but they lasted longer and played more.  Greg Oden’s career was really short but he was much better when he did play.

Martin’s Continuous Redemption

Almost immediately after his career ended, books and articles came pouring out revisiting his career and post-career path.  Here’s a sampling…

In “Breaks of the Game,” Halberstam wrote: “[Martin] returned to Portland [after his career ended] and became, to his surprise, an immensely popular figure, a kind of living historical monument.  He bought season tickets and went to every game, and often took LaRue III to the games, and people always clustered around him and talked about the good old days, which of course were, so far as he was concerned, the bad old days.”

In 1983, Sports Illustrated interviewed Martin, who was still only in his early 30s.  Martin, at the time, was still playing pickup ball and said “I’m playing great these days.  I know that if I’d been picked lower, I’d still be a pro today.  But I have to go on living my life, and as long as my family is behind me, what more do I need?”

In 2004, Sports Illustrated again interviewed Martin and the interview did focus on Martin’s success in business after his career.  He worked his way worked his way up from driving a UPS truck to becoming an executive at the company [in fact, Martin still has that job today].  Martin stated about his career: “[i]t still bothers me but it was one of those things, and I don’t have any regrets.”

In a June 2011 interview with HBO Real Sports, Martin revisited his career and talk about some of the shame he felt I not excelling in the NBA.  HBO also acknowledged his success at UPS.

In a May 2016 interview with The Oregonian, Martin reflected on his NBA career: “You have to get minutes in order to produce. You can practice day in and day out, but if you don’t get the minutes in the game to play against other guys, how can you produce.”

In March 2017, NBC Sports spoke with Martin and he reflected “[a]s a young man, reading the papers all the time, that bothered me, I must admit that. But I hold my head up high now because I’ve been very successful in the corporate world.”

By running through Martin’s intermittent interview, I really felt for the guy.  Sure he wasn’t a great pro, but having to answer questions about his career pretty much every time he goes out in public couldn’t be easy.  Expect the next round of LaRue stories soon and pity him for having to rehash his career yet again when there is little left to say.


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