Frustrated pivotmen around the country would have enjoyed the
lovers' spat that took place last Friday between Cincinnati
center Kenyon Martin and his fiancee, Fatimah Conley. The
subject at hand--or rather, on Martin's right pectoral--was his
most recent tattoo, BAD ASS YELLOW BOY, which comes from a song
by a rap group called (we're not making this up) UNLV. Kenyon
was explaining how BAD ASS represents his basketball image and
how YELLOW BOY is the term used for light-skinned blacks, like
Martin, back home in Dallas. That's when Fatimah finally broke in.
"I'm sorry to say," she blurted out, "but I hate it."
"Well, I like it," replied Kenyon. "That's why I got it."
"But it totally puts negative connotations on you!"
"Don't nobody see it, so what's the problem?"
"When you're in a game and you pull your jersey up and beat your
chest after you do something good, people see it."
"How many times have I done that?"
"Once is enough!"
On and on the domestic comedy went--Martin would all but bellow,
"To the moon, Alice!"--until it became clear that no matter how
many turnarounds the most prolific scorer on the nation's top
college basketball team put up, every one of them would be
majestically swatted away by Conley, a chemistry major who
stands no taller than 5'4".
Well, it's time somebody turned the tables. For while there's no
denying that he has been the badass golden boy of the college
season so far, time spent with Martin reveals that his fearsome
persona on the court is nothing but a fraud. But more later on
his lubricated tear ducts, violin virtuosity and sensitivity
about a childhood stuttering problem. For now, suffice it to say
that even though the No. 1 Bearcats are stacked at nearly every
position, their 20-1 record through Sunday is owed mainly to
Martin, who led Cincinnati in scoring (17.1 points a game),
rebounding (9.2) and blocked shots (3.6), to say nothing of
paint-melting glares. In the process he has emerged as the
favorite in the race for player of the year. "He's head and
shoulders above anybody I've seen this year," says Gonzaga coach
Mark Few, whose team lost 75-68 to the Bearcats on Dec. 4.
A 6'8 1/2", 230-pound senior, Martin is best described not as a
center or a forward but rather, in the tradition of Manuel
Noriega, as a Cincinnati strongman. After all, his dunks are not
dunks. They're detonations. He doesn't just block shots. He
often catches them. More than any other player in the nation,
Martin visibly frightens opposing players. "He gets a lot of
credit for the blocks," says North Carolina assistant coach Phil
Ford, who watched Martin get four rejections in the Bearcats'
77-68 defeat of the Tar Heels on Dec. 8, "but they haven't
created a stat yet for what I call 'scares,' all the shots he
makes people miss just by his presence around the basket."
Tales of Martin's blocks are legion on the banks of the Ohio.
Take last season, when he swatted the shot of Xavier's Lloyd
Price out of bounds...over the opposite baseline. Or this season
when, against Gonzaga, Martin appeared out of nowhere for a
two-handed denial of Axel Dench's breakaway dunk attempt. Says
Bearcats senior forward Ryan Fletcher, "If you're coming down on
a two-on-one break against Ken and you pump-fake before passing,
he's the only player I've ever seen who's quick enough to
contest your shot, land and then step over and block the other
In a remarkable transformation Martin has also morphed into a
dangerous scorer only a year after Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins
chastised him for taking just 7.5 shots a game. The awakening
began at last summer's World University Games, during which
Martin averaged more points (13.9), rebounds (6.6) and--get
this--field goal attempts (9.8) than any other player on a team
that included North Carolina's Brendan Haywood, Texas's Chris
Mihm and Ohio State's Scoonie Penn and Michael Redd. "The thing
that struck me most is Kenyon's basketball intelligence," says
Dayton coach Oliver Purnell, who guided the U.S. team. "You tend
to view him as a raw athlete who's really good on the defensive
end of the floor, but the guy studies the game. He adjusted to
the international style, the rules, the way the game was being
called, and he kept getting better."
Martin's long-term growth as a college player--an anachronism in
these impatient times--has almost perfectly echoed his slow but
sure maturation off the court. Born in Saginaw, Mich., he was
raised in Dallas's rough-and-tumble Oak Cliff neighborhood by the
two most important women in his life: his mother, Lydia, and his
older sister by almost four years, Tamara. (The last time Kenyon
saw his father, former New Mexico basketball player Paul Roby,
was when Kenyon was seven.) "Tamara has always been like a father
for me," says Kenyon. It was Tamara, after all, who took the call
from a concerned teacher during Kenyon's junior year at Dallas's
Bryan Adams High. "He was being a butt in math class, so I came
to school and started whaling on him in the hall," she says.
"He's 6'7" and I'm 5'5", but he sat there and listened to me, and
we never had any more problems out of him."
Well, almost. Martin went AWOL the summer before his freshman
year, when he had gone to Cincinnati to cram for the SATs.
Suddenly, he returned to Dallas, homesick. Once again Tamara took
the call, this time from an angry Huggins. "He said if Ken didn't
get back to Cincinnati before he got back from the trip he was
on, then don't come back at all," says Tamara, who promptly
deposited Kenyon on a Greyhound bus for the 23-hour journey back
to the Queen City. Three years later, Lydia and Tamara's efforts
are paying off, and Kenyon says he's set to graduate this summer
with a major in criminal justice and a minor in psychology.
Tamara also stood up for Kenyon in the one area that he remains
painfully sensitive about, the stuttering he has worked
diligently to overcome. While walking home with her from
elementary school, Kenyon would often endure a stream of taunts
from older boys. "They would mock him by saying, 'Duh-duh-duh,'
and they'd call him retarded just because he stuttered," says
Tamara, who would push her brother out of the way and throw
punches at the perpetrators. Recalls Kenyon, who began seeing a
speech pathologist at age nine, "It made me mad and sad. When
someone's making fun of you, no matter how old you are, it's
going to have an effect on you."
While Martin proudly acknowledges that his stuttering has
diminished significantly, he adds that it occasionally flares up
when he's upset or excited. Last summer, in fact, he turned livid
when two of his World University Games teammates started cracking
jokes about his speech impediment. "They didn't know me well
enough to be doing that," he says. "I was at the point where if
they had done it again, I probably would have fought one of
Don't let the tough talk fool you, though. Conley points out that
Martin has been known to "boo-hoo," as she puts it, on several
occasions, whether it was in April 1998, when he proposed to her
on one knee at a restaurant, or in July '98, when he served as a
groomsman at Tamara's wedding. Martin's sensitivity is also
evident when he speaks to children's groups, as he often does. He
makes sure to sit, not stand, when addressing the kids. "You
don't want them to feel smaller than you," he says, "so you sit
down, make them feel comfortable."
Then there's the violin. Though he's no Itzhak Perlman, Martin
played a mean fiddle in middle school, and (the cat's out of the
bag) Conley plans on giving him a violin for Valentine's Day.
Although Martin and Cincinnati have achieved near-perfect pitch
this season--the Bearcats' only loss was a flukish December defeat
to crosstown rival Xavier--the only question dogging Cincinnati is
what happens next. At around this point last year, recall, the
21-1 Bearcats collapsed with a 6-5 finish and lost for the third
straight year in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Martin
in particular went into a funk. After blocking 70 shots in the
season's first 24 games, he added only eight over the final nine.
What's more, he didn't have a single double-figure rebound game
after Feb. 1 (his career high is 23) and only once scored more
than 11 points.
Will he and the Bearcats repeat last year's fall? Don't count on
it, for three reasons:
--A new, improved K-Mart. Chastened by experience, Martin has
rid himself of the chronic foul trouble that caused him to
disappear down the stretch a year ago. (He had four DQs in the
final 11 games but has only one this season.) Certainly Martin's
most revealing stat in Cincinnati's easy win at Louisville last
Thursday wasn't his 14 points, seven rebounds or five blocks,
but his zero fouls in 37 minutes.
--A Broadway-quality 'Cats cast. Cincinnati is solid--and
getting even better--at every position, which keeps opponents
from double-teaming Martin. Pete Mickeal, a rugged senior
forward, is the Bearcats' best defender and a resourceful
scorer. At point guard, freshman Kenny Satterfield leads
Conference USA with 5.3 assists a game, good enough for him
finally to crack Huggins's starting lineup last week. Yet the
Bearcat to watch over the next two months may well be DerMarr
Johnson, a 6'9" freshman guard who had a breakout game against
Louisville, scoring 21 points in the first half--thanks to the
five three-pointers he made.
--A more huggable Huggs. Can it be? The same coach who made the
Bearcats run 24 suicides the day after a 28-point win over
Oakland last season, the guy who threatened to make his players
run in front of their home crowd if the team allowed Mississippi
Valley State to score 50 points earlier this season, has
mellowed in recent weeks. During his gut-busting three-hour
practices, Huggins has cut down on running-as-punishment in
favor of gathering the team for pep talks. Likewise, those
practices have been regularly concluded before the three-hour
mark. "Going that long this late in the season really wears our
legs out," says Fletcher, "and when we've lost in March, it's
been because our legs are tired and we haven't made shots."
It always comes back to March, doesn't it? "Until we win the big
one, we're never going to be seen as a different Cincinnati
team," says Mickeal. "Look, there are no misconceptions around
the nation that we're not the best team. The only way we'll lose
is if we beat ourselves. If we don't win it all this year,
everyone will say we're underachievers."
Maybe so, but whatever outcome awaits these Bearcats, it would be
terribly unfair not to recognize Martin's already remarkable
season. Whether he would have deserved another tongue-lashing
from Conley last Saturday night was another matter. Earlier in
the evening, during Cincinnati's 89-72 win over South Florida,
Martin had gotten so excited that he'd pulled his jersey over
(stop!), revealing his bulging right pec (don't do it!) and
exposing BAD ASS YELLOW BOY to the masses. Reminded of his
transgression later, Martin put on a look of mock horror. "I
don't know what she's going to say," he cracked.
Here's our advice, Fatimah. Give your man a break. As the
Bearcats' victims will tell you, the tattoo's correct, after
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BRETT HANSBAUER/BRSP TOWERING INFERNO Martin had a hot hand against South Florida, making eight of 14 shots while scoring 19 points.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO UP AND AT 'EM The cat-quick Martin blocks 3.6 shots a game, the best rejection rate in Conference USA.
More than any other player in the nation, Martin visibly
frightens opposing players.