Under the name of Fernando Martin, there are not many numbers in the NBA data storage. He played 24 games with the Portland jersey for a total 146 minutes and had 22 points and 28 rebounds. Looking only at those 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.
Martin, who was born March 25, 1962, in Madrid and died December 3, 1989, was just the second European player in the NBA. Nowadays, only the veteran connoisseurs of European basketball and the NBA know that the honor of being the first belongs to Georgi Glouchkov of Bulgaria. In the summer of 1985, Glouchkov signed a guaranteed contract with the Phoenix Suns for two years, thus making the history books.
Fernando Martin was the next one but had double 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, Alexander Volkov, Sarunas Marciulionis and 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 in 1979
I remember the name of Fernando Martin well because I heard it for the first time at the U16 European Championship 1979, which took place in Damascus, Syria! The Middle East was then part of FIBA Europe. Luka Stancic, the Yugoslav head coach, led his team to victory in the final against Italy by the score of 103-100. However, Stancic 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 U18 European Championship in Celje, 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. He would put up 30 points against Bulgaria in the game for the bronze medal that Spain lost 96-90. 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 his height. 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 surrendered and never acknowledged a loss before the final buzzer.
Born and raised in Madrid, Martin 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 sport. 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 2 points with the red jersey that he would wear a total of 86 times. After playing in the World Cup 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 EuroBasket 1983 in France. 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 effort, fighting with much bigger men than him. He was a coach and a fan favorite. He was an example and a leader on the court. In the 1985 EuroBasket in Germany, Martin also had good numbers (16.6) as he did in the 1986 World Cup in Spain (15.3).
With Drazen, against Drazen
During his first stint with Real Madrid, Fernando Martin won four Spanish League titles, two Spanish King’s Cups and one Saporta Cup. The latter came in 1984 in Ostend, Belgium against Dino Meneghin’s Simac Milano by the score of 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 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 102-89 and in Zagreb they lost 94-93 (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 89-82 with 11 points from Martin.
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 the quarterfinals, it defeated Huesca easily 88-64 with Martin’s 17 points. In the semis, against Joventut, Real Madrid won by 26 points, 90-74, as Martin scored 11. In the title game, the victim was FC Barcelona by the score of 85-81. Martin scored another 11 points and Petrovic led the way with 27.
The highlight of that year was a win in the Saporta 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 that Madrid won 117-113, with overtime included after the fourth quarter ended 102-102. 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). 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 in the middle of the afternoon and he died in the accident. Martin was only 27 years old 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, Jan Martin played for a few years in Estudiantes, Real Madrid and Fuenlabrada. Jan, the son of Fernando and Petra Sonneborn, an Israeli model, also played in several clubs in his mother’s country.
So, the Martin saga lives on – if not on the courts, then surely in the memories of all of us who were lucky enough to enjoy the game of Fernando Martin.