Big Dreams Became Reality for Kevin Martin in Sacramento

Once known as “the skinny kid with the funky shot,” Martin emerged into one of the league’s most prolific scorers and has surpassed every expectation, including his own, throughout his ongoing basketball journey.

Behind the closed doors of Sacramento’s practice facility, away from the crowds and out of range of TV cameras, Kevin Martin was putting in his typical night’s work, hoisting shot after shot as the late Pete Carril watched intently. Martin was 21 at the time, a lanky, fresh-faced rookie in the midst of a season he’d finish with only 2.9 points scored in 10.1 minutes per game, mired in a far lesser role on a title-contending Kings team than he’d have as an explosive, 20-plus-point scorer at his later peak.

In the mornings, his first stop was at Raley’s, a grocery store a mile north of ARCO Arena, to grab a box of donuts for the team’s veterans before practice began. On game nights, he predominantly watched from his seat at the end of the bench, learning the ropes first from Doug Christie and Bobby Jackson, then Cuttino Mobley, and later Bonzi Wells.

But it was during those post-practice sessions, day in and day out, and then several more weeks in the offseason under the tutelage of Carril, the storied innovator of the Princeton offense and then-Sacramento assistant coach, that the Zanesville, Ohio native learned his most important lessons and made his biggest strides.

“I wouldn’t have gotten off that bench if it weren’t for the time that [Carril] put in with me after every practice,” Martin said. “I wasn’t playing many minutes, if any minutes, so he just made sure that I stayed mentally involved and worked on my craft after every practice that first year. He also stayed in the summer with me in Sac; him, Elson Turner and Bubba [Burrage]. I definitely owe a lot to him … He definitely helped with [my mechanics] and he made sure I put in a lot of reps.”

Martin’s shooting motion, a herky-jerky flick winding from his right hip, had always been far from textbook perfect, but it proved effective from the start. When he was around nine years old, he was too small to attack the paint against older kids on the playgrounds at Putnam Hill Park, so heaving perimeter jumpers, with as much oomph as he could muster, was his only scoring option.

“I was always the skinniest and shortest kid playing with all of my friends,” Martin said. “With that kind of frame, I was just doing everything just to throw it up to the hoop at that young age. And then throughout high school, that funkiness just stayed there.”

As years passed, Martin stuck with what worked and his coaches stopped trying to fix what wasn’t broken.

He earned Mr. Ohio honors at Zanesville High and averaged over 22 points per game as a freshman at Western Carolina, but it wasn’t until he began working with David Thorpe, Executive Director of The Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Fla., that the largely unknown guard in the Southern Conference emerged into an NBA prospect.

“I was talking to Steve Shurina, who was Kevin’s college coach, in the spring of 2002, and he said, ‘We have a player who’s about 6-foot-7, really shoots it well, but can’t do anything else,’” Thorpe recalled. “As the season went on, teams started realizing all he can do is shoot, they guarded him pretty effectively and he struggled.

“Kevin drove in from Ohio that summer and drove to the gym every day […] Every day, I expected Kevin would never come back because I was so tough on him. We really focused on his handle; that’s all we did. I didn’t want to mess with his shot [because] he shot it well as a freshman.”

Despite torching Coastal Carolina for 46 points on opening night of his sophomore campaign and developing a well-rounded inside-outside game, the No. 10 scorer in the country was still flying miles under the NBA radar.

The following summer, Thorpe pushed Martin further out of his comfort zone by pitting him against physical big men, including Udonis Haslem and Josh Powell, in scrimmages, and the guard rose to the challenge.

“I told Kevin, ‘You’re going to lead the country in scoring and you’re going to be a first-round pick,’” Thorpe said. “Of course, it seems crazy in retrospect. No one heard of Kevin Martin.”

Most, including Jason Levien, Martin’s future agent and NBA executive, weren’t convinced, but scouts began taking notice once the Catamounts guard dropped 44 points vs. Georgia and then 33, including a game-winning three in overtime, at Arkansas. Martin, once panned as “the skinny kid with the funky shot,” finished his junior year as the second-leading scorer in the nation with 24.9 points per game and worked out for 14 NBA teams leading up to the Draft.

In his first audition with the Kings, Martin scored on 14 of 15 possessions in a one-on-one bout against one of the top defenders in his class, and when he was invited for a second go-around, he went toe-to-toe with Beno Udrih, already an established pro overseas. Once Sacramento selected him with the 26th pick, he seemed poised to become the natural successor to the then-34-year-old Christie.

But when Martin was uncharacteristically misfiring early in his first season, connecting on only 38.5 percent from the field and missing 20 of his 25 three-point tries, Carril identified the flaw in that unorthodox shooting form. Martin's arm swung across his face on the release, shielding his field of vision, so the longtime coach instructed him to move the ball slightly to his right when he squared his body to shoot.

Later that summer, Sacramento’s No. 23 continued to build on Carril’s tweaks with Thorpe, incorporating more shot fakes and jab steps to his advantage, working on finishing with his left hand and emphasizing conditioning by simulating game speeds during workouts.

“Because it was a slower release, it gave more time for defenders to close out on him,” Thorpe said. “But Kevin, to this day, may be the quickest 6-foot-7 guy I’ve ever seen, so he put [defenders] in jeopardy all the time. When they would bite on his shot fakes, he’d blow by them.”

With Mobley departing in free agency and Wells in and out of the lineup next season, Martin, armed with renewed confidence and a bevy of offensive moves, more than doubled his scoring output (10.8 points per game) with the fourth-highest true-shooting percentage (60.4) in the league.

Agile and sharp in his instincts, he became one of the best at moving without the ball, a main component of head coach Rick Adelman’s offense. Martin studied how Peja Stojakovic and Reggie Miller curled off screens for catch-and-shoot threes, and the way Richard Hamilton changed directions and operated in the mid-range. He recognized which angles would help him get to the rim and which allowed him to get his shot up quicker from long distance.

The arrival of Ron Artest midseason helped Martin, a candidate for the NBA’s Most Improved Player, take his game to another level. In Martin, Artest saw similarities to Miller, his former teammate with the Pacers, and emboldened the young guard to take the reins offensively.

That attack-first mindset was put to the test in Sacramento’s first-round playoff series against the defending-champion Spurs. In the dwindling seconds of Game 3, with the Kings trailing by a point, the second-year guard caught a pass from Bibby on a fastbreak, and lofted a twisting, off-balance lay-up that sailed over Tim Duncan’s outstretched arm, bounced three times on the rim and dropped through the net as the horn sounded.

Although they’d practiced the two-on-one drill regularly, Martin wasn’t expecting Bibby to pass the ball with the game on the line, he says, and what made his game-winner even more remarkable is that, with a generational defender impeding his path, he couldn’t see the basket.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever admitted this, but I think I actually might’ve just closed my eyes and thrown the ball up,” he said with a chuckle. “I knew where the backboard was, but when I saw Tim’s long arms come across mine, I think I just threw it up. I will admit it was more luck than skill, but it was a moment that elevated my name a little bit. It was one of those surreal moments that I think I didn’t really understand the magnitude of … It never gets old seeing coach Adelman have the reaction he did, because he doesn’t have reactions like that, and how crazy ARCO went.”

It wouldn't be the last time that Martin, a shooting guard who could score at will and carry his team when the ball was in his hands, would be the hero in a purple-and-black uniform. In early November the following season, he splashed the go-ahead bucket, an 18-footer from the right baseline, in the final seconds to push the Kings past the Bulls in Chicago.

He scored his team’s final five points in Seattle in March 2008, including a leaning, 20-foot jumper from the right corner, with two Sonics defenders draped all over him, that swished at the final buzzer.

Although his career night came in an overtime loss to the Warriors on April 1, 2009, Martin scored 50 points, becoming the first Kings player to do so since Webber in 2001, on 11-of-22 from the field, 5-of-11 from behind the three-point arc and a staggering 23-of-26 from the foul line.

By then, Martin was annually perched among the league-leaders in both scoring and foul-drawing, averaging just shy of 25 points per game in his fourth season and earning nightly double-digit trips to the charity stripe. In both 2007-08 and 2008-09, he attempted at least nine free throws per outing and shot over 40 percent from three on the season, a then-unprecedented mark that has since been matched by only Kevin Durant.

After Adelman, Carril and Turner laid the groundwork for Martin’s uber-efficient scoring, Eric Musselman, Sacramento’s head coach during the 2006-07 campaign, encouraged Martin to study tape of a superstar whose game prioritized slashing to the rim, juking defenders and cashing in free throws.

“Eric Mussleman, he actually made me watch a lot of [Dwyane] Wade going into my third year,” Martin said. “Once he was the coach, he put the ball in my hands and I did watch a lot of D-Wade at that time; just how he drew contact, got people in the air and the angles that he used getting to the basket.”

Martin became so adept at drawing referees’ whistles, that he scored 20 points with only a single made field goal and 17 free throws on March 17, 2007, a feat that has only been accomplished by Hall-of-Famer Tiny Archibald throughout NBA history.

After five-plus seasons with the Kings, Martin recognized the franchise was moving in a different direction, as he and the ball-dominant Tyreke Evans were an incongruous fit in the backcourt. Reunited with Adelman in Houston midway through the 2009-10 season, Martin did what he was best known for when he was on the court for Rockets: put the ball in the hoop with high efficiency.

In his first game in Sacramento as a visitor, Martin, overcome with emotion, put on a vintage performance: 39 points on 11-of-20 from the field and 16-of-16 at the foul line. That scoring outburst, Martin says, was partially fueled by anger from an unexpected, unflattering headline in local papers.

Shortly before he was traded, Martin’s 5,000-square-foot estate in Rockland, Calif. diminished in value due to the 2008 housing-market crash, and within seven months, he lost the property to foreclosure. Although no media reports leaked at the time, on the morning of his return to Northern California, the story became front-page news.

“I was pissed, and I took it out [on the Kings] that night,” Martin said. “I was playing like I was 21 years old, dunking and everything.”

He didn’t know it at the time, but the disappointing experience in the housing sector would turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Martin soon developed a passion for real estate, and once he retired from basketball after 12 seasons, at age 32, he became active in buying and selling properties across the Florida coast.

“I started off in Florida with a $275,000 house and then it just escalated up into where I am today,” said Martin, who estimates he’s invested and developed over $100 million in projects to date. “It’s just about evolving, just like basketball; three points to, I think my career high per year was 24.9 a game. Real estate, I started with an embarrassing foreclosure, and now I’m about to do a $7 million residential project. [...] How I approached the basketball game, I’m translating that into the real estate game.”

Despite leaving basketball behind at a young age, Martin, now 39, has no regrets about his decision to walk away from the sport. One of the league’s most productive scorers for over a decade, he quietly finished his career as a reserve on the Spurs, the same franchise he once stunned with his incredible game-winner, watching a star-studded team from the bench as his career came full circle.

“My wife, she got pregnant in November of my last year,” he said. “I knew our journey to have a kid, so I knew that was going to be my last year. […] I never wanted to be a parent who was on the road for 220 days out of the year. That was just never a vision for me.

In a full-page retirement announcement in his hometown newspaper, he thanked his family and childhood friends for their support, reminisced on his fondest moments, and made a $100,000 donation from the Kevin Martin Youth Foundation to “enhance the talents of our young children, on and off the sporting field.”

Through the nonprofit organization that bears his name, Martin has provided a positive impact on children’s lives, promoted family unity and encouraged academic achievement. At his annual summer camp, which he ran from 2009 through 2021, the NBA veteran imparted some of the lessons he learned from players who showed him the ropes early in his Kings career to a new generation.

“I always tell people, it’s never about making baskets; it’s always about the journey,” Martin said. “It's never about being on top by yourself without having people up there with you. [It’s about] you doing something bigger than yourselves once you get on top of that mountain.”’

Martin’s business ambitions and competitive fire most recently took him overseas. In 2019, he and Levien headed a group that purchased a majority ownership stake of the Brisbane Bullets, a professional team in the National Basketball League in Australia. Coaching never suited his personality, Martin says, but co-owning a team has kept him connected to the game.

“The opportunity came, and I just said, ‘Heck with it, let’s see where it takes us,’” Martin said. “I’ve learned that ownership is actually a lot different than being a player. You have to wear two different hats. As much as you want the best talent on the court, you also have investors you have to check in to. When people say [basketball is] a business, it’s definitely a business.”

Through basketball, Martin, who’s also served as an international ambassador for the NBA, has traveled to countries he never thought he’d go to, learned from some of the best at the craft and exceeded what he imagined was possible. He’s found success in every city he’s called home, but he reserves a special place in his heart for Sacramento, where his former Kings coaches, teammates and fans made the first stop in his professional journey his most meaningful.

“Outside of being in Zanesville, Ohio, I’ve never been to a place [where I] felt so loved and so appreciated, especially in the game of basketball,” Martin said. “So I think for me, that was just a special place that will always hold special moments and [I have] a lot of love for everybody who was a part of my journey. At the end of the day, I’m just a small kid from a town of 20,000 people who never thought that I would even dream of 17,000 fans cheering for me, embracing me and showing me how to go from being just a kid to a man. [There’s an] appreciation that I’ll always have for them and the players who I played with.”

SACRAMENTO, CA - NOVEMBER 4: Kevin Martin #23 of the Sacramento Kings gets ready to take on the Atlanta Hawks on November 4, 2009 at ARCO Arena in Sacramento, California.