Skip to main content
Original Issue

Good and Nasty

To beat the Pacers, the Nets will need some intimidating play from bruising Kenyon Martin, who walks the line between tough and dirty.

Lydia Moore had flown all the way from Dallas to see her son, and
she sure as heck wasn't returning home without a keepsake. Which
explains why she was in a supermarket in New Jersey two weeks
ago, rifling through cases of Sprite and doing what any proud
mother would: digging past the Kobe cans to get to the Kenyon
Martins. "She was going through them, right there in the store!"
says Martin, the Nets forward who is immortalized in aluminum,
along with stars such as the Lakers' Bryant, as part of a new
promotional campaign. "I was like, 'C'mon, Mom, you can't do
that.' But she was determined."

In all, Moore took 48 cans of soda back to Dallas, where, she
grumbles, "You can only get the Michael Finleys." That she was
able to buy 12 ounces of any product bearing her son's likeness
is a testament to the rising profile of the second-year forward,
who has gone from raw rookie to budding All-Star by improving his
jump shot, dunking on anything that moves and bringing a tough,
physical presence to a Nets team heretofore as soft as chocolate
left out on a sunny day.

Considering the season Martin has had, however, it might be more
fitting if his image adorned a beverage with a little more kick
to it, say Red Bull or Jolt! At the same time he was emerging as
a player, Martin was gaining notoriety for committing flagrant
fouls, six in all, which earned him seven games in suspensions
and $347,057 in fines. By the end of the season--as refs watched
his every box-out and the media questioned his volatility--the man
known as Kmart felt as if he had a giant Target on his back. He
even asked coach Byron Scott if he could sit out the final three
games of the regular season, just to make sure he didn't pick up
another flagrant and a suspension that would spill into the
playoffs. (Martin played those meaningless games and survived

The irony, of course, is that the qualities that make the 6'9",
230-pound Martin so effective--his intense, bruising style and
fierce passion--have also led to his foul problems. As Scott says,
"Kenyon has to be physical and play with emotion. If you take
that away from him, he's just a normal player." Ask his teammates
what Martin's most valuable attribute is, and they will answer,
without hesitation, "Toughness." And, while they won't condone
the flagrants, they won't condemn Martin for them either. After
all, especially during the half-court, bump-and-grind ritual of
the playoffs, every team needs an enforcer to ensure that there
are no free rides, much less free layups.

And when Martin doesn't play full-tilt, neither do the Nets. That
was painfully obvious last Saturday during their playoff opener
against the Indiana Pacers in East Rutherford, N.J. Martin was so
anxious he barely grazed the rim with his jumper, while Pacers
power forward Jermaine O'Neal was the one sparking his team with
windup dunks and chest-thumping roars. The result: an 89-83 upset
for eighth-seeded Indiana behind a game-high 30 points from

After vowing to come out a different player in Game 2, Martin
kept his word on Monday, exerting a manic energy worthy of Sam
Kinison in his heyday, as New Jersey romped 96-79 to even the
series. Martin hounded O'Neal into awkward fadeaways on D--lending
a nastiness to that chore that Keith Van Horn couldn't summon in
the opener--while scoring 19 points, inciting the crowd with
waving arms and soaring for monstrous jams. "Kenyon started us
off," said Scott, "and we just followed."

Monday's aerial assault was almost mundane by Martin's standards.
Fully healed from the broken right leg that ended an already
disappointing rookie season in March of last year, he has spent
much of the last nine months throwing down two to three
did-you-see-that? dunks every game, any of which would qualify as
the career highlight for most players. Ask teammate Kerry Kittles
to name his favorite Martin jam, and he scrunches up his face as
if forced to choose his favorite album of all time. "Well, there
was that one in Miami, where he cocked it on Zo," Kittles says,
"but then there was Philly, where he got [Dikembe Mutombo]--man,
that was nasty. And then there was Orlando.... It's too hard to
pick just one."

Dunking on Alonzo Mourning and Mutombo, two of the best defenders
in the league, is quite a feat. Not surprisingly, lesser
defenders have learned to stay out of Martin's way when he
attacks the rim, something he finds disappointing. "A lot of
times I'm wishing people will jump with me," Martin says. When
some hapless help-side defender does rotate over, Martin often
offers him some post-posterizing advice: "Just mind your own
business, and you won't get dunked on."

Martin could always throw down. What has made him more dangerous
this year (he led the team in regular-season scoring with 14.9
points per game) has been the refinement of his offense,
specifically the improvement in his jump hook--his go-to move--and
his outside shot, which is now respectable out to three-point
range. But where Martin really earns his keep, along with the
undying affection of his teammates, is on defense. As quick a
leaper as there is in the league, he gets across the lane in an
eye blink to offer weakside help, meets opponents in midair,
bumps cutters in the paint and blocks shots with so much force
that one expects the ball to deflate and sputter to the floor
like a balloon that's just been untied.

He also has a knack for making crunch-time plays. (His mom calls
him Captain Crunch.) He blocked a last-second shot by Tracy
McGrady to save a game two weeks ago, and only a few days before
that, against the Lakers, Martin raced the length of the court,
took a running leap and got a hand on a potential last-minute
game-tying three by Derek Fisher. Afterward Fisher sat at his
locker and shook his head in disbelief. "Never saw him, not even
out of the corner of my eye," he said. "I thought I was all by
myself." Scott calls Martin his defensive "ace in the hole," and
New Jersey center Todd MacCulloch goes so far as to say, "I'd
have no problem putting him on Shaq; he's strong and aggressive
enough." Asked whether he agrees with the latter appraisal,
Martin nods. "I'll guard Shaq. I don't care, I'll guard anybody--I
could half-front him." Then, sensing the bulletin-board potential
of such a statement, he quickly adds, "I'm not saying I'll shut
him down, but I'll try."

It is this same competitive fire--I don't care, I'll guard
anybody--that has gotten Martin into trouble. Watch the tapes, and
you'll see that three of his flagrant fouls (against Shareef
Abdur-Rahim of the Hawks, Jim Jackson of the Heat and Jerome
Williams of the Raptors) were questionable calls that could have
drawn only technicals. But the other three (a clothesline on Karl
Malone in December, a wild blow to the head of McGrady in January
and a Ronnie Lott-hit on Bulls rookie Eddy Curry in March) were
undeniably egregious.

With each blow the scrutiny intensified. KENYON'S OUT OF
CONTROL, blared the New York Post. ASSAULT AND BATTERY, declared
the Memphis Commercial Appeal. ESPN isolated two cameras on
Martin for a March game against Philadelphia, hoping to catch a
flurry of nunchaku elbows. (No luck.) Reporters asked the Nets'
brass whether Martin needed anger-management classes, and David
Stern even weighed in, saying, "I think he is basically a good
kid...but he's going to have to change or he is not going to be
playing on a regular basis in the NBA."

People around the league tend to back Martin. "He's not dirty,
just a guy who loves to win," says Timberwolves coach Flip
Saunders, who coached Martin at the Goodwill Games last summer.
Says Sixers coach Larry Brown, "I don't think he's trying to hurt
anybody. I saw him before a game and said, 'Just play, don't
change.'" Others think he may go too far at times--"He's a
competitor; he just takes it overboard," says the Knicks' Allan
Houston--but no one thinks Martin acted maliciously. "He's
aggressive; that's who he is," says Knicks coach Don Chaney. "A
guy like that, you can't tame him."

So what triggered the flagrant fouls? Martin thinks for a second,
then speaks softly. "I just got caught up in the moment a couple
of times." Caught up? "Yeah, after you do it, you wonder why. The
Chicago game, that was stupid. And the Karl Malone incident, I
got caught up, and Tracy, I got caught up."

But why? One can play amateur psychologist and posit that
Martin's actions are the product of his having been teased
unmercifully as a child in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of South
Dallas, namely because he was quiet and a stutterer and
light-skinned (hence the tattoo on his chest, BAD ASS YELLOW
BOY). His older sister, Tamara Ridley, would come to his rescue,
chasing away his tormentors, but Martin admits that since
childhood he has, to a certain extent, been telling the world,
Take that! "I raised him to believe in himself," says Moore, "and
he does."

Or maybe--and this seems the most likely explanation--Martin is
simply an energetic young player learning how to control his
emotions. After all, in an era of what Ridley calls "paycheck
players," is it so bad that the 24-year-old Martin actually cares
about winning and takes pride in his defense? No matter what the
motivation, one thing is certain: Kenyon's every elbow will be
watched from now on. Though he doesn't think he can tone down his
act--"I caught myself doing it in a couple of games, and I had,
like, six points both times"--Martin has tried to make

Watch him now. See how he plays defense with his hands balled up
into fists--the better not to get called for a foul. See how when
he blocks a shot, his classic spike is now abbreviated, more a
Braves fan's tomahawk chop than a full arc. See how his eyes
bulge and his mouth opens in disbelief when he's called for a
cheap foul, as happened in a game against the Lakers two weeks
ago, and then watch him quickly stuff his jersey in his mouth.
"I'm realizing that the refs can determine how many minutes I
play," Martin says, "or if I play at all."

Team Kenyon nods approvingly at this change in attitude. "It just
took him a little longer than we expected, and a lot longer than
the league expected, before he really understood what was going
on," says Scott. Moore likens it to growing pains. "Newborns have
to learn to walk, and that's what Kenyon's doing," she says.
"He's not a bad guy. It's just part of maturing."

Not that anybody wants him to lose his intensity. The same way
you can't tell Chris Rock to "lighten it up a bit" or AC/DC to
"go acoustic," you can't expect a ho-hum Martin to be effective.
Raptors forward Antonio Davis might sum it up best. "You want to
tell Kenyon to control his play because you need him," he says.
"But on the other hand you want to applaud him for being
aggressive. If a guard is coming in, sees him and says, 'There's
Kenyon, I'd better pull up and shoot,' well, that's great defense
as far as I'm concerned."


COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MANNY MILLAN What gives? Martin may dunk with ferocity, but he doesn't understand why he is sometimes perceived as being a thug on the court.


COLOR PHOTO: NATHANIEL S. BUTLER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES Feeling it Martin's bruising defense and fierce passion have earned the approval of teammates like star point guard Jason Kidd.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: BILL KOSTROUN/AP (2) [See caption above]


IITWO COLOR PHOTOS: MANNY MILLAN (2) Kmart special Hard fouls like this one on Austin Croshere in the Nets' Game 2 victory have earned Martin extra scrutiny from Mark Wunderlich and other referees.COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II

"Kenyon has to be physical and play with emotion" says Scott. "If
you take that away from him, he's just a normal player."