Martin would have been hard pressed to single out the highlights of his illustrious basketball career. Longhorn fans wouldn’t have that much of a problem. They’d point to that 1947 season when Texas went 26-2 and finished third in the NCAA tournament following a last-second loss to Oklahoma in the semifinals. Or they’d pinpoint the NIT finals the following year when Texas lost to New York University 45-43.
Martin was joined in the “Mighty Mice” backcourt by 5’10” Al Madsen and 5’8” Roy Cox, and the big guys were 6’3” John Hargis and 6’6” John Langdon. They were playing Oklahoma for the Western championship, and held a 54-53 lead with six seconds remaining, when a substitute Sooner guard got off a desperation that swished through the nets. The Mighty Mites dreams were shattered. They had beaten Oklahoma earlier in the season by 12 points.
Could the speed of that group counter the size of today’s cage teams? Could those little guys play defense? Those questions are moot. But there’s little doubt in the minds of teammates and rivals alike that Martin could play today. “He was a great team man, a leader, a shooter, a passer, a great ball hawk,” said Bill Henderson, who coached the Baylor Bears against Martin and the Longhorns. “And he was a great influence on others. He was dedicated to basketball, and unhesitatingly helped others.”
That time Martin spent in the Navy didn’t completely halt his basketball progress. They set up a basket in the hold of an attack transport, and Slater merely rolled with the sea and fired away.
But despite his fabulous days at Texas, the pro experience had to be the most satisfying for Martin. Lasting 11 years in the land of giants was quite an accomplishment. When Martin reported to Minneapolis, he was just one of 18 rookies, and he was the smallest. All loved to shoot, but only one cared anything about playing defense. That was Slater. He stayed, while most of the others bombed out.”
“I was a holdout every year with the Lakers,” recalled Martin later. “I felt like I was worthy of one figure and they didn’t. We had a hard time getting together.”
Finally, the Lakers traded Martin to St. Louis, and Slater helped spark the Hawks to three divisional titles and one NBA championship. When St. Louis owner Ben Kerner fired Red Holzman as coach in 1957, he offered the job to Martin, but Slater politely said, “No thanks, I want to play, not coach.” But Kerner was persuasive, although he had to agree to let Alex Hannun share in the coaching duties. At age 35, Martin retired in 1960.
As the best guard the Lakers had, Martin was matched up against the other teams’ best guard, guys like Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Larry Costello and Max Zaslofsky. Ironically, Martin scored his pro career high of 35 points against Cousy, one of the NBA’s all-time greats.
“Basketball isn’t all just shooting,” Martin contended. “You had to be able to think. You have to know your man, whether he can go left or right, keep him away from his best shooting spots,” explained Martin. “As for my own shooting, I generally faked and drove to the basket , but I didn’t shoot all that much. Somebody has to run the offense and play defense.” That’s what Martin did. When the Hawks played against Cousy, Sharman, Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn and Co., and won the NBA finals in 1958, Martin scored 12 points per game but mainly fed the ball to Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagen and Ed Macauley.
Martin had his glory days in college as one of a trio of little guys, his challenges in the pros as one of very few little men. Now he stands tall in the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.