CLEVELAND -- Kenyon Martin sat alone.
While his new teammates, most of whom he had just met 48 hours earlier opted to address their various needs, Martin merely sat back in a folding chair, shirtless, with his street clothes hanging above him. While this may have been the path Martin chose to take, it was one that had been augmented by circumstances well beyond his control.
Two lockers to Martin’s left stood barren quarters, housing only a chair and a nameplate. The blue-and-white decal placed on the locker door read “1 - Billups,” signifying where his friend-turned-recruiter would have been sitting had it not been for a freak, non-contact injury (a torn Achilles' tendon) that would in turn end the veteran point guard’s season.
It was Chauncey Billups who had played a major role in getting Martin to Los Angeles, citing a “friend-to-friend” conversation that encapsulated organizational philosophy as well as the potential for winning a championship. The two veterans would be joining up with arguably the league’s best point guard (Chris Paul) as well as the league’s most exciting power forward (Blake Griffin), but this would be their chance to win together.
“It’s definitely disappointing,” Martin said of Billups' injury. “I definitely wanted to play with [Chauncey].”
While Martin’s quantitive role with the Clippers can be filed under the “to be determined” category, the former All-Star appears ready to put his disappointment behind him and lead by example.
In his first game back in the NBA after playing in China, the 6-foot-9 bruiser struggled from the field but provided a large amount of the energy to fuel a Clippers comeback. Down 15 points with just over four minutes left in the third quarter, Martin was on the receiving end of a vicious alley-oop dunk, the pass fed from Griffin, typically the player in that very above-the-rim position.
Once the fourth quarter started, Martin picked up right where he left off, turning a Randy Foye missed jump shot into a put-back dunk. Just minutes later, a Martin offensive rebound had the potential to put his team ahead, but his efforts were thwarted after Mo Williams was called for an offensive foul.
“K-Mart is amazing,” Paul said. “The energy he brought on the offensive end as well as the defensive end is something that we’re going to need. I’m glad to have him.”
It says an awful lot about a player when an opposing team schemes as if Martin is going to play key minutes despite all of the unknowns that surrounded his conditioning, mental state and role in his new team’s offense. Factor in the litany of weapons that don Clippers uniforms, and a player who had not suited up in a professional basketball game since mid-December would rarely creep onto a pre-game radar.
Regardless, Cavaliers coach Byron Scott did just that, knowing that one of the most athletic front-courts in the NBA just got that much better. Antawn Jamison, the player forced to contain the athletic Martin, referred to the Clippers’ latest addition as “scary,” stating that Martin’s knowledge of the game, non-stop energy and all-around aggressive style of play can lead to the younger players following suit. “You’ve got a proven veteran who can point those guys in the right direction,” Jamison said.
It wasn’t long into Wednesday night’s contest before he was rushing to the defense of Griffin following what he would later call a “dirty play.” Though the result was a technical foul, it may have officially lifted the curtain on what was Martin’s “welcome back” party as the 34-year old laid claim to defend anyone who wore the same jersey as he.
Once that jersey came off and Martin was left to soak in his first game back on American soil, a man known mostly for his body art and filter-free attitude was left to revisit his first bout of playing time with his new team despite the teammate closest to him having landed in Los Angeles moments before tip-off with a grey walking boot replacing what should have been a red adidas high-top.
The juxtaposition and irony of a player coming into a situation as a hopeful addition only to essentially step in and fill a void is only the beginning of the Kenyon Martin era in Los Angeles. As the games pile up and the minutes increase, Martin’s focus will only continue to get stronger. He came to Los Angeles with the idea that he and Billups would help complete what would be a storybook ending for a once hapless franchise. Instead, Martin will be forced to represent the veterans on the floor while Billups serves as a player-coach for Vinny Del Negro.
After Wednesday's game, Martin eventually dressed, slowly buttoning up his big-and-tall man’s plaid shirt before boarding the Clippers’ bus which was set to start the team’s voyage to Philadelphia. Unfortunately for Martin, Philly is 400 miles farther from Billups who will nurse his injury and await the team’s arrival in L.A. on Monday.
“It’s a major loss to the team, but we all have to step up and be professionals,” said a dejected but determined Martin. “It’s what we get paid to do: go out and win basketball games.”
But if anyone knows about professionalism and how to overcome adversity, it’s a man now in his 11th year in the NBA. And if anyone is expected to go out and win basketball games, it’s Martin. Even if it’s without Billups by his side.