Last night was a memorable one for Kenyon Martin. He returned to the University of Cincinnati, the school he helped put on the map in the world of modern college basketball to accept his induction into the school’s Hall of Fame. Despite having his name etched in the Bearcats basketball record books, the road that brought him to the podium last night to accept that honor was a tumultuous one.
Before his senior season at UC began, Martin was believed to be one of the best returning players in Conference-USA. It turns out he would surpass those expectations, becoming one of the best players in college basketball. He was the catalyst of a Cincinnati team that went undefeated in conference play during that 1999-2000 season, losing only to Xavier and Temple in the regular season. Martin paced the ‘Cats with 18.9 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks per game. He would take over at times, imposing his force on poor, feeble opponents at will.
Just ask DePaul:
But then tragedy struck two games later against St. Louis in Cincinnati’s first game of the Conference-USA tournament. Just a few minutes in, Martin was in the middle of setting a screen, took an odd step, twisted his leg awkwardly, and crashed to the ground. He completely shredded the bones and ligaments in his leg, bringing his career at Cincinnati to a screeching halt.
Martin’s importance to the Bearcats was no more evident than when he was lost. Shellshocked by the gruesome loss of their senior leader, UC wound up losing to the Billikens 68-58. It was just their third loss of the season. A week and a half later, still without Martin in the NCAA Tournament, Cincinnati fell to Tulsa in the second round. A promising season with a national title very much a possibility ended with a thud.
And so too ended the era of Kenyon Martin at Cincinnati. Despite the injury, he was named the Player of the Year and was selected first overall in the NBA Draft by the New Jersey Nets. Back in Clifton, UC retired his #4 jersey just a month after the Bearcats’ final game and hung it up in Fifth Third Arena. It was a well deserved honor for Martin.
After a few years in the NBA, Martin established himself as one of the most dependable post players in the pros. But back in Cincinnati his former coach Bob Huggins was under fire from his own school. A DUI magnet and infamous for letting his players get away with just about anything, Huggins had attracted a slew of negative publicity on the University of Cincinnati. Then president Nancy Zimpher gave the Bearcats head coach an ultimatum; resign or be fired. Huggins took option one.
The move was met with uproar from loyal UC fans all over the nation, including Kenyon Martin. He boisterously called for UC to remove the trophies he won from the school and have his retired jersey taken down from Fifth Third Arena. Somewhat understandably he wanted nothing to do with a program that fired a coach, a man, he learned so much from. Huggins was a father figure to Martin, like he was the rest of his players, and the former Bearcat felt like UC was ripping something away from the coach that was rightfully his, the team.
For years that animosity burned inside Martin but as time passed it slowly began to fade. Then, last night, it seemed that antipathy had faded all together when he was officially inducted into UC’s Hall of Fame. It was a closed event and the only bit of pictures we could get were a spattering of tweets from those within the university but each and every one showing Kenyon back on campus got to me a little bit. This one in particular of him and his former coach Bob Huggins (who really feels like our coach, too) I want to save forever.
In many ways he did more for the University of Cincinnati and Bearcats basketball than they did for him, although clearly the admiration for the man has been there for years.
I think the fact that these influential men from the past, Bob Huggins and Kenyon Martin, could congregate together on UC’s campus once again means that Bearcats basketball can finally move forward into the future. The respect for Mick Cronin is at an all-time high but it means a lot to those who clung to the past to see Huggins and Martin put it behind them and support the program.
Maybe when Kenyon retires we’ll see him sitting next to Oscar Robertson for UC home games. Or maybe Mick Cronin will bring him back as a coach. Lord knows he could bring a wealth of knowledge to the post position for the Bearcats. Either way, I think we’ll be seeing more of Kenyon Martin around the Cincinnati basketball program and that’s always a good thing.