Thursday, March 10, 2011

Nice ending to Martin-Stony Brook saga

Neither had a perfect past and neither had the future figured out when Chris Martin and Stony Brook's basketball team chose each other five years ago.
Martin was a nice player from a strong high school tradition at Christ the King in Queens, but he was only 6-1 and without the grades to play in the NCAA. Stony Brook still was a nascent Division I operation, just off its fifth consecutive losing season with a 4-24 record under first-year coach Steve Pikiell.
"I had two options," Martin said. "Stony Brook and Manhattan. But I just felt coach Pikiell needed me to help this program."
Pikiell, for his part, "liked the fact that he liked us. Not a lot of people were believing in our program and where we could go with this thing. He was taking a chance on us and we were taking a chance on him. But I have a saying: Success is built on taking chances."
Jumping ahead to the final chapter -- wherein Martin, already with an undergraduate degree and taking graduate courses, and Stony Brook will play at Boston University Saturday, trying to earn a first appearance in the NCAA Tournament -- would leave out a lot of drama in the intervening years. It would make everything sound so easy.
"Coach gave me a shot," Martin said, "told me I was going to come here and have a chance to go to the tournament. And here we are."
Along the way, Martin had to put in a year of prep school, at Maine Central Institute, to become academically eligible. He had to endure the death of his father, to cancer, during his sophomore year. He had to bounce back from surgery to repair cartilage in his knee -- an injury, he thought at the time, that would end his college career three months early.
The disappointment of having last year's breakthrough 22-win season end in the America East semifinals, followed by this sometimes rocky 15-16 season, was one thing. Life without basketball was something else.
"I've been thinking about that since I got hurt, since I went down," Martin said. "What am I going to do without basketball?"
He began taking graduate courses in coaching. And, after missing 13 games, he returned just in time for both the team and himself to hit their stride.
In the regular-season finale, Martin, the team's only senior, played 23 minutes -- his most since Dec. 11 -- had six assists and made it clear to teammates that he did not wish to experience another early exit from the conference tournament.
In upsets of Albany and Vermont, he was indispensable, scoring 18 and 14 points and serving as the guiding light to the conference final. "He gets to the rim," Pikiell said. "He's fearless. He's our best foul shooter. He's very athletic, dunks with ease. He's strong and he's in the right place. He gets rebounds. Not having him [for 13 games] affected our whole season.
"But, you know, life is a lot like a basketball game. Chris has had a lot thrown at him and has survived it all."