James Worthy may feel his performance as a rookie has been hampered because he plays for the defending champion Lakers, but more typically, the numerous No. 1 picks who failed to become Rookies of the Year were victims of their own shortcomings in the face of the special pressures brought to bear on the league's first choice. Of no one was this more true than of LaRue Martin (right), top selection in the 1972 draft. The closest he gets to NBA action nowadays is Section 16, Row EE of Portland's Memorial Coliseum, and the view from there isn't much different from the one he had from the Trail Blazers' bench, where he spent much of his pro career.
Given his stats as a center at Loyola of Chicago (18.2 points per game over three years), Martin should have been a low first-round pick at best. But what he did on consecutive nights in January, 1972 changed that. Loyola, which would finish with an 8-14 record for 1971-72, met No. 1-ranked UCLA and No. 2 Marquette in Chicago. Although Loyola lost both games, Martin outrebounded and out-scored UCLA's Bill Walton (18-16 and 19-18) and Marquette's Jim Chones (22-14 and 32-23). The scouts were smitten, but none more than Portland's Stu Inman, who wanted a "franchise" player to turn around the fortunes of his 2-year-old team.
"After 10 minutes, we knew he wasn't the player they thought he was," says Jack McCloskey, then the Blazer coach and now the Detroit Pistons' general manager. "I was always rushing," says Martin, who'd signed a six-year, $1.2 million guaranteed contract. "I wanted to do everything and do it perfectly." He ended up doing neither, averaging only 4.4 points and 4.7 rebounds per game as a rookie and losing the starting job to Lloyd Neal, a first-year man from Tennessee State who'd been picked in the third round. What was worse, North Carolina's Bob McAdoo, who had left college after his junior year and was chosen second in the '72 draft by Buffalo, led the league in scoring from 1973 through 1976, was the MVP in '75 and is still a productive player with the Lakers.
"They would call me LaRue Who? and say I was the worst pick in history," Martin says. "It wasn't fair. I was 22 at the time, and it hurt me. It hurts me still."
Martin played better for Lenny Wilkens, who took over as coach after McCloskey, but then in 1974 the Blazers used their No. 1 pick to draft Walton, the man who unwittingly had gotten Martin into this mess. Martin was traded to Seattle two years later and finally retired in 1978. He's had a series of jobs, and is now a sales rep for Chicago Title Insurance, living in Portland with his wife, Claudia, and their two children.
But Martin still has a love for basketball and performs for the Blazer alumni team. "I'm playing great these days," he says. "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?"