Under the name of Fernando Martin, who was born March 25, 1962 in Madrid and died December 3, 1989, there are not many numbers in the NBA data storage: 24 games with the Portland jersey for a total 146 minutes, 22 points and 28 rebounds. Taking a look only at the numbers it’s difficult to call the man behind them a “pioneer in the NBA”, but the case of Fernando Martin is justified when we look at the year we are talking about: the 1986-87 season.
He was only the second European player in the NBA, behind a Bulgarian player. Nowadays, only the veteran connoisseurs of European basketball and the NBA know that the honor of being the first belongs to Georgi Gluchkov, whose name, by the way, can be found spelled in many different ways. In the summer of 1985, he signed a guaranteed contract with the Phoenix Suns for two years, thus making the history books.
Fernando Martin was the next one, but had doubly bad luck. First, a constant flurry of injuries prevented him from playing at his best and, second, he suffered from a total lack of trust for European players on the part of his coaches. That is something that many others like Vlade Divac, Aleksandar Volkov, Sarunas Marciulionis or Drazen Petrovic suffered later, too, even though they got more opportunities to show their skills.
The signing of Martin by Portland changed the way the NBA was treated in Spain. Until then, newspapers published very little content about the league, television didn’t even air games and the best known NBA players were nobodies in Spain. With Fernando Martin, everything changed.
A star in Damascus, 1979
I remember the name of Fernando Martin well because I heard it for the first time at the cadet European championships, which took place in Damascus, Syria! The Near East was, then, part of FIBA Europe. Luka Stancic, the Yugoslav head coach, led his team to victory in the final against Italy by 103-100. However, he talked to me about “some Fernando Martin”, the big man of the Spanish team which, coached by Aito Garcia Reneses, won the bronze medal. In the first game, which Yugoslavia won by only one point, 89-88, Martin scored 23 points and overwhelmed all the big men of the Yugoslav team. With a total 123 points (17.6 average) Martin was the best Spanish scorer and one of the outstanding players in the tourney that gave European basketball other greats such as Antonello Riva (Italy), Valeri Tikhonenko (USSR), Uwe Blab (Germany), Zoran Cutura (Yugoslavia) and Andres Jimenez (Spain).
One year later, at the European championships in Celje (today’s Slovenia), I could see the enormous potential of Martin with my own eyes. In the first game against Israel he scored 37 points, against Belgium 18, against France 11, against Czechoslovakia 34, against Bulgaria 25, against the USSR 33 and then, again 30 points against Bulgaria in the game for the bronze medal that Spain lost by 90-96. He was a dominant center despite being just 2.05 meters tall. His broad shoulders, long hands and rebounding abilities made him play bigger than he actually was. His physical power went hand in hand with good technique, a solid mid-range shot and, most of all, his winning character. He was a natural-born fighter, a man who never surrenedered and never acknowledged a loss before the final buzzer.
Born and raised in Madrid, he started playing in the Estudiantes basketball school, which has produced so many other great players. He was one of those kids with a talent for just about any sports. He excelled at handball, table tennis and swimming. In 1980, he made his debut on the Estudiantes first team and starting in 1981 he was a staple in the starting five. It was clear that Spanish basketball had its new jewel. Many clubs put their eyes on him. It is normally said that he had a pre-agreement with Joventut Badalona, but an offer from Real Madrid together with the fact that he would be able to stay in Madrid made him sign for the Whites in the end.
He made his debut with the Spanish national men’s team, coached by Antonio Diaz Miguel, on May 13, 1981 in Bordeaux against France and scored his first two points with the red jersey that he would wear a total 86 times. After playing in the World Championship of 1982 in Colombia (13.1 points per game), Martin was also a very important man in the Spain team that won the silver medal at the France EuroBasket of 1983. I saw him live there once again, as I did at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, where Spain won the silver again and where Martin averaged 16.6 points. That summer, in the qualifying tournament for the Olympics, played in France, Martin led his team with 23.6 points. As always, he played each and every game with maximum tension, fighting with much bigger men than him. He was a coach and fan favorite. He was an example and leader on the court. In the 1985 EuroBasket in Germany, he also had good numbers (16.6) as he did in the 1986 Worlds in Spain (15.3).
With Drazen, against Drazen
While during his first stint with Real Madrid, Fernando Martin won four Spanish League, two Spanish King’s Cup and one Cup Champions Cup titles. The latter came in 1984 in Oostende, Belgium against Dino Meneghin’s Simac Milano by 82-81, with Martin posting 12 points and 10 rebounds. On April 3, 1985, he played his only Euroleague final against Cibona Zagreb, but Madrid lost 87-78. Drazen Petrovic was the executor in that game with 36 points, while Martin had 14.
After a year in Portland, Martin went back to his Real Madrid in 1987 and in the Korac Cup final, a two-game series, Real Madrid got some revenge against Cibona. In Madrid, the Whites won by 102-89 and in Zagreb they lost by 93-94 (47 points by Petrovic), but Martin did not play the games due to a serious injury that had him away from the courts for a long time. One of the few games he played that year was in Belgrade, against Crvena Zvezda, in February of 1988. Madrid won 82-89 with his 11 points.
In the summer of 1988, Real Madrid signed Drazen Petrovic and the old rivals became teammates. In November of that year, Real Madrid won the Spanish King’s Cup in La Coruña. In the quarterfinals, it defeated Magia Huesca easily by 88-64 with Martin’s 17 points. In semis, again Joventut, Real Madrid won again by 26 points, 90-74, as Martin scored 11. In the title game, the victim was FC Barcelona by 85-81. Martin scored another 11 and Petrovic led the way with 27.
The crown of that year was a win in the Cup Champions Cup final against Snaidero Caserta in Athens on March 14, 1989. It was the same stage on which Martin lost the European crown to Petrovic in 1985. It was an unforgettable game, 117-113, with overtime included (102-102, 60-55). In an offensive festival, Petrovic shined with 62 points (8 of 16 threes, in 45 minutes) while on the other side, Oscar Schmidt had 44 points in 44 minutes (6 of 11 threes). In fact, I talked about this game in my March 12, 2012 entry on this very website. Nobody could imagine that was the last trophy Fernando Martin would lift.
On December 3, 1989 Fernando Martin left his house to drive to a home game against CAI Zaragoza. A game which, by the way, he was not going to play in due to some back problems he had been dealing with for some time. On the M30 highway that circles Madrid, he lost control of his Lancia at about 15:00 and he died in the accident. He was only 27 and still had a long career ahead of him. The game was suspended and his funeral drew the presence of many big names in Spanish sports, including his on-court rivals like Epi and Audie Norris. Real Madrid retired his jersey number 10 and in 2007 he was inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame.
The Martin name was present for a few more years in Spanish basketball through Antonio, Fernando’s little brother, who followed his footsteps in Estudiantes, Real Madrid and the Spanish national team. Also, for a few years in Estudaintes, Real Madrid and Fuenlabrada a player by the name of Jan Martin took his first steps on the court. Jan is the only son of the relationship between Fernando and Petra Sonneborn, an Israeli model. Currently, Jan is playing in his mother’s native country with Maccabi Ashdod.
The Martin saga goes on. If not on the courts, surely in the memories of all of us who were lucky enough to enjoy the game of Fernando Martin.