Kenyon Martin has no problem telling it like it is. Throughout the course of his NBA career, he developed a reputation as one of the most candid and honest players in the league. During his 15 NBA seasons, he averaged 12.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks. Since retiring from the NBA, the 41-year-old has played and coached in the Big 3 (winning the first-ever Big3 title with Trilogy).
HoopsHype caught up with Martin to discuss his NBA career, how the game has evolved in recent years, his work with The Stuttering Foundation of America, his experience in the Big3, his transition to coaching and more.
I’ve always respected your physicality and toughness. I’ve talked to a lot of retired players who feel like the game is getting softer. The style of play has evolved so much in a short period of time too. How much has the NBA changed from when you started your career to now?
Kenyon Martin: It’s changed, but it’s changed for the better because players’ skill sets have evolved. Before, you had bigs who could only do one thing. Now, if you’re a big, you have to be multi-faceted, which I think is great. That just shows you how much the game is evolving. Would I like to see some things go back to the way they were? Yeah. Basketball is a contact sport, but they’ve taken that part out. I wish they’d get rid of some of the flopping and things like that. But the fact that skill sets are improving is good. The league should always be evolving. I’m with it.
Who were the toughest NBA players you ever guarded?
KM: I guarded pretty much everyone, so it’s a long list. I guarded 1-through-5; it would all depend on who’s out there. Sometimes, I’d get stuck down there on Shaquille O’Neal, then come out of a timeout and guard Kobe Bryant. If we were playing Philly, I might start a game guarding bigs and then switch to Allen Iverson at some point. I chased around Reggie Miller and Jalen Rose, and then I’d be down there banging with the Davis boys (Antonio Davis and Dale Davis). I would guard Dirk Nowitzki and then switch on the pick-and-rolls and have to guard Jason Terry. If you name them, I guarded them. I had a tough match-up nightly, but I took on the challenge. I’m not going to say I shut everybody down, but if you ask anybody I’ve defended, I’m sure they’ll have some stories for you. I always made sure they had a tough night at the office. I’ve guarded some of the all-time greats – Kobe, Dirk, Tim Duncan, Chris Webber, Glenn Robinson, Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell… you name it.
I know you’ve worked with The Stuttering Foundation of America and won awards from the American Institute of Stuttering. One of our readers asked: As a fellow stutterer, what was it like growing up with a stutter and how did you deal with it day-to-day in the NBA?
KM: Growing up with a stutter in the inner city was rough. Kids don’t have a filter, so I got teased a lot. My schoolwork suffered a lot because they’d want me to read in front of the class or present something in front of the class and I just wouldn’t do it. I’d just take the zero for class participation. I’d tell the teacher, “I’m not doing it,” and my grades suffered. I had to develop a thick skin because I was getting teased a lot. I fought a lot as a kid. One day, I drew a line in the sand and decided if you teased me about my stutter, we were going to fight. I fought a lot, but I grew out of that. I realized that fighting wasn’t smart. Eventually, I learned not to let it affect me. I was doing well, but then it kicked in again when I got to college. That was my first time doing interviews and, suddenly, there were cameras and microphones in my face. When I’d answer their questions, sometimes I would stutter. Then, I just stopped thinking about it and being self-conscious about it.
I stutter now to this day – it’s something that I’ll have forever – but I don’t think about it. I just live my life and keep going. I don’t let it consume me. If people want to listen to me, they’ll listen to me [even if I stutter]. If they tease me, I’ll have something to say. If I hear you teasing someone else with a stutter, I’ll have something to say about that too. I’ll always have something to say if I see that because it’s not cool. Now, instead of defending myself and others physically, I stand up to people using my words because I am much better at articulating my thoughts now.
What advice would you give to kids who are dealing with a stutter or being picked on because of it?
KM: Don’t let people’s ignorance affect you. They aren’t going to change. You can’t change the stripes on a zebra; I’m a firm believer in that. You can’t change people, so all you can do is live your life and be the best person you can be. Try not to let it control you. That might be easier said than done since I’ve dealt with it for much longer, but I was in your same spot when I was younger. I got to this point by [not thinking about it] and refusing to let people’s ignorance control me. Focus on the people who love you and care about you. You can be great in this world, no matter what you’re dealing with – whether it’s stuttering or something else. Everybody has something going on with them. For those of us who stutter, this is what we have to deal with. But you should still strive to be great. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. It’s a part of you. I’m not afraid of it. I still sit down and do these interviews, and if I stutter? Oh well! Who cares?! It doesn’t matter! People still want to talk to me. If someone chooses to have a conversation with you, it’s because they want to talk to you and your stutter shouldn’t change that. And if they don’t like it or are mean about it? Well, excuse my French but f*ck them.
I met this kid several years ago through my work with The Stuttering Foundation of America. When I first met him, he couldn’t get a sentence out. He was the same way I was. If he tried to talk, he would stutter. If he tried to read, he would stutter. But that kid was fearless. Fearless. He worked really, really hard at The Stuttering Foundation and got to the point where he wasn’t scared of it. Even if he stuttered, he’d keep talking and keep reading. A year after we met, he presented me with an award in front of a big crowd of people. He read in front of everyone! He stuttered a few times, but it didn’t bother him at all. He did such a good job. Seeing how much progress he made in one year was amazing. I’ve also met older men in their 60s who have trouble getting a sentence out and you have to stay patient with them. Their stutter was never addressed throughout their life. People just pushed them aside and said, “You have a problem. We don’t know what’s wrong with you.” They were just ignored. We need to do more to help.
You played four seasons with the New Jersey Nets and had a lot of success there. What was your reaction to the Nets landing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving this summer?
KM: That was dope for them. It’s great for the organization that they were able to do that. Being able to sign Kyrie allows them to be patient [and still compete] while they wait for KD to get back. Those guys clearly saw something in [the Nets], and they seem to have the same mindset and goals. They know what it takes to be a champion, so they can take that championship pedigree to Brooklyn. It should be an exciting year.
You also played for the New York Knicks later in your career. What do you think the Knicks need to do to attract a star player going forward?
KM: [Laughs] What don’t they need to do? If I knew [how to help the Knicks land a star], I’d go play the lottery. There’s a laundry list of things, but there’s been one common denominator in this whole thing: James Dolan. There’s a reason things keep happening within that organization. It starts at the top. He’s picking the GMs and presidents and then they pick the coach, and it’s the wrong people in place. Hopefully, they got it together with Fiz (David Fizdale) being there and with them drafting RJ Barrett. It seems like they’re moving in the right direction. From afar, it seems like Dolan is being less hands-on and letting the basketball guys do their job.
How difficult is it when you’re on a team and the owner is holding the franchise back? Is that something players notice and get upset about?
KM: Yeah, look at my situation in New Jersey. It was solely the owner [holding the team back]. It was a group, but one guy had majority ownership (Bruce Ratner) and he had the final say. He cost the Nets a championship, I believe. They’ve could’ve had Jason Kidd, myself and others for a very long time. Who knows what could’ve happened [if the core stayed together]? Ownership definitely plays a role. If you have an owner like Steve Ballmer and Mark Cuban, who are willing to open their checkbook and put the organization’s success first and spend whatever is necessary to win, that’s huge too. The owner plays a role both ways, good or bad.
You played with Carmelo Anthony in Denver and New York. He recently sat down with Stephen A. Smith and talked about how he still loves the game and wants to play in the NBA again. How was Carmelo as a teammate and do you think he can still help an NBA team?
KM: My experience with Melo was cool because I understand Melo. I understand basketball, I understand people and I understand situations, so my with Melo experience was fine. Can he still help an NBA team? Of course. It’s unfortunate that he’s in the situation that he’s in. Him sitting down with Stephen A. Smith? Oh well, it is what it is. I wouldn’t have done it, but it is what it is. He definitely deserves a spot in the NBA. I do think “farewell tours” are f*cking overrated. He wants to play the game of basketball. That’s what it should be about.
Are you saying that he shouldn’t have done that interview in general or that he shouldn’t have done it with Stephen A. Smith specifically?
KM: He shouldn’t have done it with Stephen A. Smith, especially after what he’s had to say [about Carmelo]. If you’re opening your mouth and saying negative things about me – whether that’s your opinion or not – [I’m not doing that interview]. Keep it to yourself. I just think Stephen A. speaks about situations that have nothing to do with him. Melo took the high road. He’s a better man than me in that situation.
Would you be interested in adding Carmelo to the Big3?
KM: Man, I would love to have him because I’m a basketball fan. Having him be a part of it would be great for basketball and great for the Big3. But I don’t think Melo wants to be a part of the Big3, man. Not at this point.
Your son, Kenyon Martin Jr., decided to go pro rather than play college basketball. Last month, he had a pro day for NBA teams at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas. Given your experiences in college and the NBA, what advice have you given him as he figures out his own path?
KM: I tried to show him that everybody’s path is different. I told him my story and I told him Stephen Jackson’s story. Stephen and I came out of high school in the same year (1996). I went to school for four years and [was drafted No. 1 overall], whereas Stephen played at a junior college and went overseas before getting to the NBA. But we were both rookies together, so we both ended up in the same spot. Everybody’s path is different. You have to follow your heart and go with whichever route you feel will get you to your ultimate goal. If your ultimate goal is playing in the NBA, then I’m all for you [going pro now]. I’m not going to force you to be somewhere if your heart isn’t in it. I’m not that kind of parent. This isn’t about me, it’s about him and his future. We’re going to do what’s best for him. We’re still exploring our options at this point, [whether he’ll go overseas, play in the G League or train for the draft privately]. He’s put the work in up to this point to be able to make that decision. He feels his game has evolved enough to compete at the next level, so why not put him in a situation where he can continue to develop as a player and as a man?
More and more kids are choosing to go pro instead of going to college, and most top prospects who do go to college only stay one year. You were the last senior to be drafted No. 1 overall. Now that you’re seeing what the draft process is like today through your son, how much has the process changed since you went through it as a player 20 years ago?
KM: It’s unfortunate that if a guy stays in school longer, it can hinder his career. You [used to] go to school to get better. Some guys are ready early and some guys are not, but the age thing is real. Guys are being punished for their age, for staying in school longer. Everyone is different, but I needed those four years in college to develop into the player I became. Without those years in college, I wouldn’t have been drafted No. 1. Nowadays, the quickest route [to the NBA] is going to a big-name school, putting in work for a year and being one-and-done. That’s been the trend as of late, going to Kentucky and Duke and schools like that. That works for some guys, but my son chose a different route. Again, everybody’s path is different. The draft process is way different now. They look at your ranking before your skill set; there’s a lot that goes into it now, not just basketball.
You’ve had success playing and coaching in the Big3. I love that players are able to extend their playing days after leaving the NBA. How much have you enjoyed competing in the Big3?
KM: It’s been great, man. I spent the first two years as a player and was able to win a championship in that first year. We got off to a rocky start in the second year, but we were still able to be competitive. Now, in year three, I’m coaching. The competition is great. It allows guys to extend their careers without the grind of running up and down the floor. The NBA has a way of telling you that you’re too old and too slow, but the Big3 is a great way for guys to keep playing and stay competitive. We all still have that competitive edge and this is an outlet for that. It’s been a great opportunity.
What’s it been like making the transition from playing to coaching?
KM: It’s a little bit different. I have to keep my emotions in check. I was a very emotional player. I have to keep those in check and be the voice of reason for my guys. I have to come up with game-plans and different things like that. You have to be on point and hold [people] accountable. There are certain things that you do as a player that carry over into your coaching, but there are also things you have to tweak. I know that I can’t be on the refs as much; I have to be smart about that. There are those little things you have to do differently, but it’s still the game of basketball, which I know well.
Do you have any interest in coaching at the NBA or collegiate level at some point?
KM: Yeah, maybe one day. One day soon, hopefully. I’d [be interested] in scouting or working in a front office too. Coaching has been fun. I know the game well and while the game has changed a bit, I still think I can provide valuable input and help guys develop. That’s what it’s all about: helping the game along. If you don’t do that, you cheated the game. I was once told that and I agree; it’s my obligation to help the game grow. I don’t know what level I’d coach at next, but getting started here in the Big3 has been great.
What did it mean to you to win the first-ever Big3 championship?
KM: Winning is always the ultimate goal, no matter when or where you’re doing it – especially when it’s something you’ve been doing at a high level for your entire life. I’m really competitive, just like a lot of guys in this league. It was great to pull that off in year one. I know a lot of guys are joining because they want to experience the feeling that comes with winning a title.