February 1, 2012

By Paul Corliss

There’s more to life than basketball, just ask LaRue Martin. Today, as a community services manager for UPS, the 6-foot-11 Martin casts a long, successful shadow over corporate America … just as he once did on the basketball court. But the journey from hardwood glory to business success was a long one for the Chicago native.

At 61-years old today, Martin is an accomplished and proud man. Rightfully so – this is a man who worked himself up from driving a UPS truck into a management position in which 18 people report to him. It’s Martin’s responsibility to make sure political leaders in his Illinois district understand what issues are important to UPS from a corporate standpoint. It’s his goal to make sure 11,000 UPS employees in the Illinois district put in three hours of community service each year.

“My career in business is all about relationship-building,” Martin said when asked about his business success. “In order to get ahead you have to have very good relationship skills.”

Martin got ahead on the basketball court with a different set of skills. Long and lanky at a young age, Martin had size, scoring prowess, rebounding ability and a work ethic to boot. He was a two-time All-American at Loyola University in Chicago, where he scored 1,222 career points and remains the school’s all-time leading rebounder with 1,072. But when the Portland Trailblazers made Martin the No. 1 overall pick in the 1972 draft, Martin’s basketball career took a wrong turn.

Despite Portland making him the NBA’s top pick, Martin only averaged 14 minutes per game in his four year career. With limited playing time came limited production, and in 1976 – at just 26-years old – Martin found himself out of the game he grew up on.

“Grade school, high school, college … they were all beautiful to me (from a basketball standpoint),” Martin said. “But pro sports left a bitter taste in my mouth. Pro sports can be good, but it can also destroy you.”

As the media deemed him a failure for not living up to expectations that come with being a top draft pick, Martin lost his confidence and withdrew from the game. The experience was so harrowing that Martin simply erased basketball from his life.

“I had horse-blinders on,” Martin said. “I blocked out basketball. I wouldn’t even go to a game.”

Away from basketball, Martin went through a rough personal patch. Eventually, he refocused himself and chose to focus on life. As a youngster at De La Salle high school in Chicago, Martin washed dishes in the cafeteria to help pay his tuition. Working hard had never been an issue, so he put that work ethic to use.

Martin returned to Loyola to finish his degree in sociology. From there, he began to find himself professionally and – attracted to the company for its philosophy of promoting from within – went to work for UPS. The rest is history and today Martin is a real American success story with a wife and two grown children.

“I took a negative, turned it around and made it a positive,” Martin said. “Hopefully my path can set an example from some youngsters. You get your education, you get your degree and you move on.”

But Martin’s story really came full circle when sportscaster Bryant Gumbel approached him for a feature about his life for Real Sports on HBO. Martin, who continually refused interviews about his basketball career and life over the years, cringed whenever he heard the term “bust” associated with his name. But at this point in his life, successful in business and at peace with the past, Martin decided to talk and to let basketball back into his life.

The piece on Real Sports proved cleansing and showed how Martin exorcised the basketball demons of his past. Slowly, over time, old friends from the game had drawn Martin back in and in 2011 he joined the NBRPA’s Board of Directors. Today, serving the NBRPA with fellow basketball alums gives Martin the sense of team he once enjoyed on the court.

“There’s a real camaraderie, I really enjoy being on the board,” Martin said. “We had a bond when we played and to go back and see the guys … you don’t know how that makes me feel. Serving on the NBRPA board is an honor. These guys never turned their back on me.”

And Martin, once defined by basketball, never turned his back on the game of life. Because of that, he is a true winner.