Rocky Mountain News

HomeDenver Nuggets

Nuggets' Martin rebounding nicely after injuries

Published December 14, 2008 at midnight

It's no stretch to say that Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin is a changed man on the basketball court after enduring microfracture surgery on each of his knees.

Photo by Matt McClain

It's no stretch to say that Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin is a changed man on the basketball court after enduring microfracture surgery on each of his knees.

The blade of a surgeon’s scalpel hardly conjures up positive thoughts.

Muscles flexed and head tilted back, Kenyon Martin lets out a primal scream that blends in with the roar of the Pepsi Center crowd.

It is the quintessential K-Mart image. Raw, uninhibited and uncensored.

It is the public persona of a man who has made a living as a take-no- prisoners baller who fears no one and would rather swallow a box of toothpicks than succumb quietly to defeat.

Yes, between the lines, there is K-Mart. In reality, it simply is an alter ego.

"K-Mart is on the court. Kenyon is off the court," Nuggets teammate Carmelo Anthony said.

"Kenyon is the good friend, an approachable guy, a guy that likes to have fun and laugh and joke around, cares about his teammates. K-Mart is just the tough-(a--) on the court."

For the past four-plus seasons, Nuggets players, fans and coaches have seen both sides of the Kenyon coin.

They have seen flashes of the former All-Star who helped carry the New Jersey Nets to back-to- back NBA Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003.

They have seen a wounded and frustrated warrior lash out at his head coach and teammates when a knee injury reduced his effectiveness during the playoffs.

This season, they are seeing yet another version of Martin. Happy, healthy and productive, K-Mart 4.0 is more user-friendly and void of viruses and system failures that plagued his first four-plus years in Denver.

Swallowing his pride

As Martin approached his ninth NBA season, he felt the need for some self-reflection.

In the four years since Martin signed a seven-year, $92.5 million contract, the Nuggets have won three of 19 playoff games. He was better known for two major knee operations and a halftime tirade that got him suspended from the postseason in 2006.

At the first team meeting of training camp, Martin stood in front of his coaches and teammates and promised to be a better leader, in the locker room and on the court. He admitted to being part of the problem and vowed to shed the cloak of negativity that he had been wearing for so long.

"Kenyon's been one of the keys to the attitude change that we've brought," coach George Karl said. "That (first meeting) was a hell of a way to start the season for a coach."

Asked about the training camp proclamation, Martin shrugs it off as simply the right thing to do and attributes much of the attitude adjustment to being pain-free for the first time since 2004.

"I ain't going to blame everything on just being injured, but I think that had a lot to do with the way I was around here - just me not being happy . . . just being negative," he said.

"People were scared to come up to me and approach me, to say something and not know the response they were going to get. For them to feel that way, it kind of opened my eyes to certain things. I still have my strong personality, but not just always being mean and negative."

Painful decline

The blade of a surgeon's scalpel hardly conjures up positive thoughts.

When Martin hears the word "microfracture," it goes beyond cognitive images. Each syllable hits him with the force of a kidney punch.

"It makes my stomach cringe," he said.

After a painful first season in Denver, Martin had microfracture surgery on his left knee in May 2005. The recovery process was ragged, limiting him to 56 games the subsequent season and leaving him frustrated and irritable.

His mother, Lydia Moore, moved to Denver to be with her son in the wake of the operation. His sister, Tamara Martin-Harris, printed inspirational phrases off the computer and hung them on her brother's bedroom walls.

"When you feel sad, smile, because it frustrates the devil," one sign read.

Easier said than done. Try smiling when you're unable to walk up and down the steps of your house, sit comfortably in your car and chase your children around the yard.

"He would snap at anybody, because it's frustrating," Moore said. "When you're used to being 100 percent and you're used to doing your all and you can only do 45 percent or 60 percent, you can't be happy."

The frustration came to a head during the 2006 playoffs. Unhappy with his playing time, Martin blew up at his coaches and teammates during halftime of Denver's Game 2 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers and was subsequently suspended for the final three games of the series.

Six months later, Martin was back on the operating table in Vail. He needed microfracture surgery again - this time on his right knee.

It was almost a cruel joke for someone who overcame a stuttering problem in his youth and broke his leg in his final college game at the University of Cincinnati.

"My sister's always saying everything happens for a reason. At times, you catch yourself questioning it, but you can't control it," Martin said. "All you can do is make yourself a better person from it."

Bred to be tough

Martin's ability to overcome adversity stems from his upbringing in the Oak Cliff area of south Dallas, which was rife with drugs, poverty and crime.

"You had to grow up being tough," Tamara Martin said. "If you didn't, you would be picked on all the time."

Moore was a single mother who held several jobs - security guard, assembly line worker and customer service rep, among others - to support her son and daughter.

Young Kenyon was a natural and gifted athlete who played baseball, football and basketball at the recreation center near his family's apartment complex, which he and Tamara refer to as "The Red Tops."

As is the case for many at-risk children, sports provided an alternative to joining gangs or selling drugs. After football practice, Martin would play basketball in his padded pants until his mom called the rec center and asked the employees to send her son home.

"Me staying at the gym, I think, kept me out of trouble," he said. "A lot of my friends growing up, we did the same things but they ventured out. As soon as they left the gym, they went around the corner."

Fear was a motivating factor as well. Fear of going to a juvenile detention center, or worse - facing punishment from his mom.

"It was tough times, trust me," Martin said. "It wasn't always easy. There was rough patches, going without for numerous years. Love, man. Love goes a lot further than money any day."

To this day, Moore said the little things helped keep Kenyon on the right path.

She would sit with her daughter and son Saturday mornings and watch cartoons. Every Father's Day, the three of them took a small charcoal grill to the park and cooked hot dogs to celebrate her dual role as a single parent.

"There's a closeness that you have to give your children," Moore said. "You have to bond with them, not just instruct them. You have to bond with them, do something silly with them."

Giving back

The bond between mother and son grows stronger each day. Lydia, who has lived with Kenyon for the past three years, often leaves notes around the house when she senses he needs a mental boost. She attends every home game and often cooks meals for him to take to teammates on the charter plane.

"My mom loves the game of basketball," Martin said. "She loves my teammates just as much as I do."

As a tribute to his mother, Martin recently established the Kenyon Martin Foundation to provide assistance and guidance for teen parents and single parents, with the primary focuses in Cincinnati, Denver and Dallas.

"I know firsthand about the topics my foundation is going to cover," Martin said at the foundation's launch party last week. "This is something I wanted to do from the bottom of my heart."

The foundation was consistent with Martin's other charitable contributions. He actively is involved with the American Institute for Stuttering and is an ambassador for the March of Dimes' efforts to increase awareness and prevention of premature births. All three of Martin's children were preemies.

"If he's not able to relate to it, see it, touch, he's not going to do it," said Brad Morris, one of Martin's longtime personal managers. "He doesn't want to write a check just to write a check."

Martin's numerous tattoos and tough-guy exterior tend to overshadow his philanthropic efforts. Charity work doesn't quite make the same splash as suspensions and technical fouls.

Not that Martin cares one way or another. He stopped trying to please people long ago.

"Misunderstood? I don't worry about that, because people see the basketball part of me," he said. "They don't know who I am at home. They don't know the person I am with my kids, the person I am with my mom, my sister, my niece, my nephew. They know of me, so whether it's misunderstood, I don't get caught up in that."

Long road back

Regardless of what anyone thinks of Martin - K-Mart or Kenyon - even his toughest critics have to acknowledge his determination.

Many pro athletes - former Broncos running back Terrell Davis and former NBA All-Star Penny Hardaway are among them - have failed to return to form after one microfracture surgery.

Martin is making an impact for the Nuggets after two microfracture operations in a span of 18 months.

"I think Kenyon's on a mission to be the first to ever do it," Karl said. "I think you've got to put more than one season or two months together, but I think we're all optimistic that this is the guy who could lead us into a very favorable place."

Expanding the mind

On the court, Martin is focused on helping the Nuggets solve their first-round playoff demons.

Off the court, some might be surprised to learn he has an ever-growing thirst for knowledge.

Approaching his 31st birthday on Dec. 30, his channel-surfing adventures land on the Discovery Channel, National Geographic and History as often as HBO and ESPN.

"I've grown a lot, man," Martin said. "I'm paying attention to politics and the economy and different things like that that I never did before. I wasn't the most studious person growing up. School wasn't my thing."

Martin was among the final generation of first-round draft picks to stay in school four years, but he left college without a diploma. He recently decided to complete his course work as early as next summer.

"I never promised my mom I would do it, because I didn't want to lie to her," Martin said. "Just doing it for me. Maybe when I'm done playing, I might need it. You never know. Just a few credits to knock out."

Martin was a criminal justice major, but he is leaning toward psychology as his degree of choice. He might not have to look too far for a case study.

Kenyon vs. K-Mart could supply plenty of research material.

Back to Top

Search »