Oscar Robertson never won five. Neither did Robert Parrish, Shaquille O’Neal, Paul Silas, James Worthy or Kevin McHale. Heck, Wilt won only two and Larry Bird only has three. What am I talking about? Rings, NBA championship rings. This guy has won five rings, just like Magic, Kobe and Tim Duncan, and I bet you’ve never even heard of him.
This guy was as quick as a cat, a bulldog, country tough, a bundle of energy, and a tremendous competitor. He owned a great personality, was one of the first athletes to wear contact lenses, and could sell a blind man a newspaper. This fellow played like he had a one-year contract and in fact he did. He was a catch-and-shoot guy when flying one-handed push shots dominated the league. One sports writer wrote, “He’s the Eddie Stanky of basketball. He’s too small to play, he can’t shoot, he’s not a fast runner and he doesn’t do tricks with the ball; yet he’s one of the greatest clutch players and defensive stars the game has ever seen.” Slater Martin could play the stars of the game to a standstill. A defensive wizard, he wasn’t considered a great scorer, yet he ranked 11th in post-season scoring and finished on the top 25 All-Time scoring list, when he retired. One of the last of the truly great little men, Martin once slugged it out with 7-foot Wally Dukes of the Detroit Pistons. It took several players to separate them. Slater Martin was a modern day “David” who spent eleven years in professional basketball cutting down Goliath.
Slater Nelson “Dugie” Martin Jr. was born on October 22, 1925, in Elmina, Texas. Don’t bother to look it up, it isn’t there anymore. You see, Slater’s father operated a railroad station and general store in Elmina, until the entire family decided to pack up and move 70 miles to Houston. Dugie was two years old at the time. When the Martin family left, the town ceased to exist. Folks called him Dugie, a nickname his grandfather had given him, after Dugan’s Tavern, a bar featured in the “Mutt and Jeff” comic strip.
Martin attended Jefferson Davis High School in Houston, Texas, and starred for the baseball, football, and of course basketball teams. He also enjoyed slipping on a pair of boxing gloves on occasion. At 5’ 7” tall and weighing about 130 pounds, Slater ate, drank, slept, dreamed and lived basketball. He would play a big part during his junior and senior years (1942-1943) in helping Jefferson Davis High School win consecutive Texas State Championships in basketball. Martin’s size made him difficult to recruit. The story goes that Slater hitchhiked to Austin for a tryout at the University of Texas and made the team. Longhorn Head Coach H. C. Gilstrap was impressed with Martin’s desire and determination. Slater enrolled at Texas in the fall of 1943 and played in several varsity games as a freshman. In 1944, Martin’s college career was interrupted by World War II. Slater joined the Navy and grew to 5’ 10” tall while he was away. He returned to school in 1946 and helped the Longhorns, now coached by Jack Gray, to reach the 1947 NCAA Final Four. In a tournament that included eight teams, the “Mighty Mice” of Texas would beat Wyoming before losing to Oklahoma by one point, 55-54. This placed them in the consultation game where they beat City College of New York (CCNY) 54-50, to claim third place. Holy Cross, with a freshman guard by the name of Bob Cousy, would beat Oklahoma for the title. Slater would remember watching Cousy play. These two would make some history together. On February 26, 1949, Slater Martin scored 49 points in an 81-60 victory over Texas Christian University (TCU) and set the Southwest Conference single-game scoring record that stood for years. He was also selected an All-American that year, while finishing his career with 1,140 points, to become the highest scorer in Texas team history at that time.
Only three Texas Longhorn players have had their numbers retired: Slater Martin #15, T.J. Ford #11, and Kevin Durant #35. Of these three, only Slater is apart of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He was inducted on May 3, 1982.
“I saw Slater sit on a basketball during a game for ten minutes,” said my pal, Dotson Lewis. “Texas was playing the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, and the Razorbacks loved to run-and-gun under Head Coach Eugene Lambert.” This game was played in the early forties during the days of no shot clock, no five-second call, and when goal tending was allowed. “Arkansas had a big kid in the middle named George Kok who was 6’10” tall, so Texas slowed the game down by stalling the ball,” continued Dotson. “Slater brought the ball over the center court line uncontested, and then sat down on top of it like he was sitting on a pumpkin. It was the darnedest thing I’ve ever seen. No one from Arkansas came out to confront him. I think the final score ended up in Texas’ favor,” exclaimed Dotson. Dotson Lewis became a Hall-of-Fame Supervisor of Officials and officiated college football, basketball, baseball and volleyball in many conferences.
Martin joined the Minneapolis Lakers in 1949. He was married and had a family. “Although the pay was horrific,” said Slater, “I wanted to play basketball for a living.” After the Lakers paid George Miken, Vern Mikkelson and Jim Pollard, there was little money left over for Martin and the others. Martin held out for more money at contract time for four of the seven years with the Lakers. Martin and the Lakers won four NBA Championships in his first five years with the Lakers. Martin scored 32 points against the Knicks in 1952, to clench the NBA Championship for the Lakers. Eventually, the Lakers decided to trade Slater Martin. The Hawks inquired about him but the Lakers did not want to trade him to St. Louis because both teams were in the same conference. So, in 1956, Martin was traded to the New York Knicks for center, Wally Dukes. New York then traded him in December to St. Louis, for Willie Naulls. Hawks’ owner, Ben Kerner exclaimed, “Martin saved my franchise. I’d have gone broke without him.” Slater Martin’s financial troubles were over. “Martin gave us great leadership,” said Bob Petit. “He was the glue who held us together.” Before the 1956-57 seasons, the St. Louis Hawks lost their head coach, “Red” Holzman. So, Kerner made Martin the coach of the Hawks, but Slater really disliked the job. Martin appointed his roommate and teammate, Alex Hannun, to succeed him, and then resigned after eight games as coach.
“Buddy” Blattner was the St. Louis Hawks’ radio announcer and roomed with Slater on the road. “One year, the team got to Boston at three o’clock in the morning, and I fell asleep almost immediately,” said Blattner. “I woke up three hours later and saw Martin pacing the floor. I asked him what was wrong.” Slater responded, “Nothing, I’m just thinking about Cousy.” “At six o’clock in the morning?” exclaimed Blattner. “I’m always thinking about Cousy,” said Martin. Slater was the only guard in the league who could check Bob Cousy at the door. In the 1957 NBA Championship game, Martin held Bob Cousy to two baskets out of 20 shots and outscored Cousy 23 to 12, but the Hawks lost in double overtime to the Celtics. “He never left you alone,” said Cousy. “I don’t know where he gets all the energy.” In 1958, Slater Martin, with Bob Pettit and Cliff Hagan, led the St. Louis Hawks to their one and only NBA title. It took six games to bring down the mighty Boston Celtics. While with the Hawks, Martin and Cousy would meet on the floor of battle a total of three times, in the NBA finals. Slater Martin once shut out Bob Davies of the Rochester Royals; it was the first time in 16 years that Davies didn’t score. Martin retired in 1960 from injuries. He was 34 years old. In 1962, Slater Martin was elected to the Texas Longhorn Hall of Honor. He was also inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, in 1964.
In 1966, Martin was hired as the general manager and head coach for the Houston Mavericks of the American Basketball Association (ABA). On February 2, 1967, the Mavericks became one of the ABA charter members. They played their home games at Sam Houston Coliseum. Martin tried his best to draft Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney, but both opted instead for the NBA. In 1968, Martin coached the Mavericks to the ABA playoffs against the Dallas Chaparrals. Houston was defeated three games to none. With attendance dwindling, the Mavericks were purchased by James Gardner and the team was moved to North Carolina. There they became the Carolina Cougars from 1969-1974. It was in North Carolina that my dad took my brother and me to see our first professional basketball games. The Cougars drafted local stars like Doug Moe, Bob Verga, Larry Miller, and Ed Manning (the father of Danny Manning). We got to see, firsthand, stars like Julius Erving (Dr. J), George Gervin, Charlie Scott, and Moses Malone. By 1975, the Cougars had moved again and became the Spirits of St. Louis. After several more moves, this original franchise is now known as the Utah Jazz.
Slater Martin had been chastised all his life for being short; too short to play basketball. Some teammates joked, “Give him an inch and he would be 5’ 11”. There have been very few players who stood less than six feet tall that were good enough to play with the big guys. Martin was one of the best of the little big men.
Slater Martin died suddenly on Thursday, October 18, 2012, while living in a skilled care nursing home in Houston, Texas. He was 86 years old and survived by his sons, Slater Jr. and Jim. Wearing the #22, Martin had become a five-time NBA Champion (1950, 1952-1954, 1958), a seven-time All-Star (1953-1959), and was selected to five All-NBA Second Teams (1955-1959). Martin collected 7,337 points, 2,302 rebounds, and dished out 3,160 assists, during his NBA career. Slater Martin averaged 9.8 points per game and 4.2 assists per game, in 745 regular-season games played. He averaged 10.0 points and 3.2 assists per game, in 92 post-season games. The season after Slater Martin retired, the Minneapolis Lakers moved to Los Angeles, where they reside today. In April 2002, the Los Angeles Lakers honored Martin and other surviving members from the Minneapolis years, in a celebration at the Staples Center.
John Ruskin once said, “Dream lofty dreams, and as you dream, so shall you become. Your vision is the promise of what you shall at last unveil.” The giants of the game had nothing on the little big man, Slater Martin.
Andy Purvis is a local author. His books "In the Company of Greatness","Remembered Greatness" and “Greatness Continued” are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc. They are also available in e-reader format. Contact him at www.purvisbooks.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org.