I wasn’t sure how to start writing this. That’s not some trick to cover up for writer’s block and keep you on this page, it’s just difficult to write about Martell Webster without writing about myself — and I don’t like writing about myself. You’re reading this for some reason connected to Martell, not me.
I know this, so bear with me.
The first time I saw Webster play, I was a seventeen-year old trying to make up for a three-year layoff on the AAU circuit in Oregon. I played in a number of tournaments throughout middle school, but once I began playing at a smaller private high school I fell off the map. It was only until a few years later when I hooked back up with an old coach that I was able to play my way into a couple opportunities that I had no idea what to do with. I managed to get on court with the Kevin Love’s and the Kyle Singler’s of Portland a couple times, but I didn’t belong there, physically or mentally. So I fell in with second and third tier talent and began traveling.
The concept of AAU was too foreign at the time. I didn’t like to shoot very much or draw attention to myself. I liked to rebound. I liked to play defense. I liked to block shots. I apparently liked to pick up a ton of fouls. And I liked to win. But AAU seemed to be only about those things when they serve your better interests. If someone important is watching, show them how you can D up. If you can hit the game winner, hit it. It was always about helping yourself, and I didn’t know how to do that.
Martell Webster knew how to.
Our team was playing in a tournament at a school south of Seattle. I was a wreck mentally because I wasn’t playing well, didn’t have anyone to talk to who would listen and didn’t know how to help myself — compounded by the fact that I was a quarter late for a game having misjudged I-5 traffic headed up there. The only reason I didn’t get the boot to the doghouse was because I was already there. I sat embarrassed on the bench for an entire game and, as kids at that age tend to be, was angry at most everyone but myself. But I still heard the whispers that our next opponent had one of the top players in the country.
I don’t remember much about that afternoon — in part because it’s not a great memory — and I certainly don’t know the name of Webster’s team or the final score of that game. I’ve even doubted over the years just how much time I spent on the court with him. It’s not something I’ve cared to do extensive research on. All I know is that in my memory, however muddied it may be, Webster dropped 40 and every moment that I wasn’t intimidated I was impressed. This guy could shoot, he could dunk, he could run, he could do everything he wanted to do — and he did it. He twisted the AAU so that it served him.
Of course, this happens fairly often on the summer circuit — playing against the guys I felt had even less business being on the court with these players than I did. Guys who should be in college already. But something about Webster, perhaps the proximity to which that game was to home, perhaps because on that day in particular, he was the complete opposite of me, because when the Blazers passed on Chris Paul to trade down and take Webster, I wasn’t irked one bit. I had just graduated High School, and I had always been sold on Martell. He was my guy, and in some ways the guy I would attempt to live vicariously through for a season, before I ever bothered to look up the formula behind a PER.
That’s what made it so difficult to see Webster fail. To see that shot I remembered to be so perfect bounce every which way off the rim, and then to see Webster’s confidence drop after every miss, as he hid more and more in the corner, waiting for passes he probably didn’t always want.
Maybe that’s why I connected with him. The player who was once so perfect was flawed, and yet he was humble and well spoken enough to admit those failings in interviews. On my own, inferior level, I understood what it was like to hide from the ball when playing with the big boys and how harmful it could be when sent to the bench after a youth of 35-minute, long-leash games.
Maybe that’s why one of the few times I can remember crying at a sporting event was watching Webster score 24 points against the Utah Jazz in 2008. And why a couple tears were also shed when, after an offseason of so much promise and a preseason slate full of confidence, he broke his foot. And why the success he had in 2009-10 always felt hollow, because his talent was merely treading water.
Sure, injuries aside, I blame him, just as I blame myself for wasting opportunities in high school. He was wired in a certain honest, self-aware way that might have hindered him, but Martell always could have done it. He could made good on his draft status, whether or not it was a reach. He could have overcame his mental blocks and become a good ballhandler, become a better playmaker or, later, become a dependable bench player. But as hard as he always seemed to be trying, he never made the transformation.
And that’s where we separate. When you’re young and just out of college, even in a depressed economy, opportunity awaits. When you’re a 23-year old No. 6 pick four years out of your rookie season, doors are already shutting. I was able to shake some bad mental habits, but I was encouraged from every angle and had mostly my mind to battle. Webster had to fight himself and change his physical habits. Just when he appeared to be on the brink of change, his body failed. I wasn’t worried in the Fall of 2008 if Webster would ever be the same. I was worried he would be.
Not that he hasn’t matured. At 23, he’s a better role model than many 10-year veterans of the league. He just might be, as a player, what he is. Someone whose shot was never as perfect as my memories made it out to be. Someone who erases the rules and regulations of press row and the media — quietly, of course — when he puts a three in the air.
He probably doesn’t need me to wish him well, to hope that moving on from the Portland Trail Blazers is for the best, but I needed Martell, from the Webster of my possibly half-fictitious memories to the Webster dribbling off his foot and hiding in the weakside corner, to be who I am. But the point here isn’t to make him out to be my, or this blog’s, inspiration. The point of all this is to say that, even though I can see him any time I want on League Pass, I will miss Martell.