The unforgettable Damian Martin

Funnily enough, there was no pain.

As Damian Martin lay prone on the hardwood near centre court clutching his face, the only discomfort he felt was in his throat.

A sharp object was lodged in his pharynx, so he instinctively coughed it out. It was a tooth.

“I was pretty lucky that I didn’t swallow it,” recalls Martin. “I’ve still got all of my teeth!”

Only moments earlier, the inspirational Wildcats skipper had been felled by a brutal elbow to the face by American import, Brian Conklin.

The Wildcats were down, and as the final minute approached in a tense game, Greg Hire and Jesse Wagstaff attempted to trap the Townsville Crocodile power forward outside the 3-point arc.

Martin, hovering in the area, had sensed an opportunity.

Conklin was busy fighting off Hire and Wagstaff as Martin zoomed in from behind for a play at the ball.

“All I remember was thinking, ‘he’s about to turn blindsided here. I might be able to pick it,’ he says. “And he turned blindsided, but he turned with an elbow.”

The impact was sickening, and the end result was gruesome. Conklin’s right elbow smashed into Martin’s face, sending the Wildcats skipper sprawling to the court.

Holding his shattered jaw, Martin lay motionless for a while before he was escorted back to the dressing room.

He can laugh about it now. In fact, he laughed about it in the change room.

Immediately after the game, head coach, Trevor Gleeson, stormed into the room and ordered everyone out, except for the doctor and physio, to allow Martin some refuge and privacy.

As Martin nursed his rearranged face, he could see the humour in the way his jaw looked. So he asked Gleeson to take a photo of him with a fake smile.

“It wasn’t until the pain of the gum and the pain caused from the teeth started to kick in that I thought, I’m in a bit of trouble here,” he remembers.

The medical team quickly popped his discarded teeth into some milk, as you do to save them, and accompanied him to the hospital.

“I don’t know if it’s an old wives’ tale, but we were lucky enough they found some milk in the old Townsville Entertainment Centre,” Martin muses.

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Two things immediately stand out when you hear the man they affectionately call “Damo” recount the incident: his unique combination of cordiality and toughness.

First, to this day Martin insists that the incident was a complete accident -- that there was no intent from Conklin.

“Nor was there malice in it,” he adds. “He was trying to get Greg Hire and Jesse Wagstaff off him.”

“He was the first one to say it was an accident,” says Gleeson. “A lot of people wouldn’t have said that – I certainly didn’t say it. But that’s the kind of sportsman he is, and that’s the kind of person he is.”

The second?

The only regret that Martin has over the incident is how long he stayed down on the court with a broken jaw.

“I wish I’d gotten up off the court quicker,” he says with complete sincerity. “I’m upset with how I handled it.”

The Person

When you speak to people in the know, it quickly becomes apparent that Damian Martin is as unique as they come.

He has the kindest of souls, and a heart-warming personality off the court.

“He’s a bubbly personality,” says Gleeson. “He’s got that infectious smile, he’s always upbeat. He’s great to be around.”

“He is as genuine as they come in terms of a kind nature,” adds teammate, Greg Hire. Martin and Hire share a special bond, with Martin, a qualified marriage celebrant, hosting proceedings at Hire’s wedding.

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“He’s an eternally, genuine human being,” says Hire. “He’s just glowing – he’s radiant. He’s a bundle of joy.”

Which is ironic considering that it was actually Martin’s wife, Brittany, who was pregnant. The couple welcomed their first child, Maggie, over the weekend.

But the words “unassuming” and “genuine” appear to characterise Martin to a tee. He exudes a naivety and purity in his actions. He’s an eternal optimist.

Simple things stand out about Damian Martin. Like how he always – and I mean steadfastly -- wishes me a good week in every text message exchange.

Or how he’ll wake up as a morning grouch, cursing the early morning team weights session. But then a smile will slowly spread across his face once the drive to work takes him past the coast.

It’s the simple pleasures that makes Martin happy.

But on the court? Oh boy, he’s an absolute pitbull.

“He’s the most loveable person,” says long-time mentor, Rob Beveridge.

‘Bevo’ is a father-figure of sorts to Damo, having coached him since he was 16 years old.

“People hate playing against Damo because of his defense, but there’s probably not one person in the league that would have any animosity against him,” he asserts. “He’s probably the most favourite player in the league.”

“He plays hard, he’s a fair man,” says Gleeson. “He steps across the line, he gives it his best. When the game’s over he is the first one to shake a hand.”

Even teammates aren’t spared from his legendary competitiveness.

Spare a thought for Jarrod Kenny - the man with Damian Martin matched up on him at every practice. #prayforkenny

— Perth Wildcats (@PerthWildcats) September 12, 2016

Greg Hire recounts how Martin will issue shooting challenges in practice, and that he refuses to let the game finish until he’s won at least one round.

Innocent games inevitably turn into competitive challenges with raised stakes. One of Martin’s favourite wagers is for the loser to feed the victor.

“He’s definitely got that white line fever that translates onto the basketball court,” says Hire.

In a recent Wildcats scrimmage, a development player scored a basket over Damian Martin. That only fuelled his competitive desire.

“It wasn’t even his rotation – Damo had no way of being able to change the outcome of the shot,” recalls Hire.

Despite being told to take it easy after returning from the gruelling Olympic campaign, he was not going to allow another basket to be scored on him.

“But he just had that personal pride,” says Hire. “The next possession, he just literally played on this young kid for about 20 seconds, his trademark defense.”

So much for taking it easy.

So how does a hard-as-nails player on the court become such a gentle soul off of it? How does Martin manage to tow the line between on-court psychopath and gentle soul off it?

“I love the game and I love winning, so I think I’ve got to play a certain way if I’m able to contribute to the team,” says Martin. “That does make me look like I’m angry out there at times.

“Once I’m off the court, even though it’s hard for me to get over a loss -- and it’s something I’m trying to work on -- I also do know that it still is a game. And as much as I enjoy winning, the low of losing is more extreme than the high of winning. I’m able to put it aside and realise that I play I sport that I love for a living so I can’t get too down on just about anything else.”

It helps that Damian Martin is the most hopelessly forgetful person that you could possibly meet.

Damo is someone who loses things – constantly. Like, always.

There was the time he raced Rob Beveridge and Greg Hire to the coffee shop after training. The last one to arrive had to shout.

“I’m sitting in the car and I looked over and thought, ‘that’s Damo’ about 50 metres away like he’s looking everywhere,” recounts Beveridge. “What happened was he lost his car keys… in the car that he drove.”

Then there was the time he settled for $70 wedding bands over splurging for Brittany and himself, succumbing to the inevitability of him losing his ring one day.

“He has to get Britt most of the time to bring his shoes, or his shorts, or his mouthguard,” says Gleeson. “God help us when he has a kid – we’ll be double checking that there’s no baby left in the car!”

When we chat over the phone, he’s just returned from Olympic duty and explains that members of the team were given new Olympic edition Samsung phones as souvenirs.

Martin, at his very first ever Olympics, cherished the memories and took all these amazing photos with his fellow Boomers on the Samsung device. He wanted to be able to share it with his future child, family and friends.

“And I lost it on my last night!” he says ruefully. “Someone in Rio is a proud owner of an Olympic edition Samsung full of photos of myself and the Boomers players.”

Greg Hire likes to recall one particular incident of Martin's forgetfulness.

Martin and his wife had planned an offseason trip to Bali on a 5-star resort. The couple had invited everyone that they could think of, but most importantly, they had organised it for the entire family. It would be the first time that the whole family had been together in a while.

“Being Damian Martin, he rocks up to the airport and his passport is water damaged, through the whole thing!’ says Hire. “I’m not sure how it got water damaged. You couldn’t even recognise who it was—it was that bad.”

There was no way that they were going to let anyone on an international flight without proper identification. That didn't stop Damian Martin from spending the next four hours pleading with officials, trying to find a way to make it work. No dice.

“So he sends his pregnant wife over to Bali without him,” says Hire. “Damo being Damo, he makes the best of things. He ends up coming to the races with myself and a few of the boys. He enjoys himself immensely, whilst his parents arrive in Bali and were stuck in the airport for 4 hours.”

How does he even remember how to run the offense when he’s on the court?

“I remember the important things,” he says.

It’s also why he never lost the engagement ring before he proposed to Brittany. And he proudly states that he still has his $70 wedding band tucked safely on his finger.

“When other people are involved, that I will let people down with, I take it a little more seriously,” he says.

Gloucester and League

That trait of mateship and not letting anyone down was cultivated in the sleepy country town of Gloucester, north of Newcastle.

It was there where Martin grew up on sports. He played everything; from basketball to cricket. But growing up in the Hunter, it was only natural that rugby league held a special place in his heart.

Martin loved the physicality of the game. Most of all, he loved the camaraderie and mateship that the game naturally engendered. He loved defense.

“I was put in the position to be a little bit of a playmaker, but my best mate was a better player than I was, so a lot of the ball went through him," he says. "It was more so at the other end that I so enjoyed getting in there and tackling as much as I could and not want to let my teammates down by getting beaten.”

That even applied to his own brothers. His younger brother, who was six years old at the time, played in the same age group as him. One day, he broke away for what would have seemed an easy try, only for the older Martin to run him down for a chase-down tackle.

Still, his heroes included Steve Waugh and Michael Bevan. But he absolutely revered Shane Heal and especially Charles Barkley. In primary school, he even formed a Barkley fan club.

“I was a little bit of the ringleader, so I made all of my friends address me as Chuck,” he says.

He wouldn't answer to any other name. Years later, he found love letters from school that addressed him as ‘Chuck’.

But any junior basketball aspirations would have to take a backseat. Martin was content to stick with league.

Like most in the community, Martin’s parents worked to support their children. His mother had her hands full taking care of Martin, and his four siblings -- three brothers and a sister.

“As a kid, you don’t realise how selfish you are. How much your parents do for you, and all the sacrifices they make,” says Martin.

His dad, Ray, would start work every day at 6.30am and clock off at 5.30pm. Twice a week, he would come home, pick up Martin, and make the 1.5 hour commute each way to Newcastle, so that Martin could train with the basketball squad. After training, Ray would drive home while a young Damian Martin slept in the backseat.

“At night, we’d be getting home at 10.30-11pm and then he’d work again in the morning,” he recalls. “I was the one in the backseat sleeping and yet still being the one that complained. After all these years, it’s amazing to see how much I owe my parents.”

Ironically, it was Martin who grew tired of the commute. He just couldn’t stand the travel anymore and was keen to stick with league which was locally-based.

It was then that a young coach from the NSW Institute of Sport (NSWIS) named Rob Beveridge called Ray.

Rob ‘Bevo’ Beveridge had been monitoring Martin’s development for some time. This kid was talented, and he saw something special. But he needed to act fast. He knew Martin was a talented league player with professional prospects with the Newcastle Knights. He was on the verge of committing to the game.

He called Ray and asked for a meeting.

And so it was that Bevo, Ray and Damian Martin met at a McDonalds in Raymond Terrace, on the outskirts of Newcastle.

The Martins had no idea who Bevo was, but the young coach sold the idea of what Damian Martin could become if he stuck with basketball.

Beveridge promised that he would do all he could to provide Martin with a scholarship to NSWIS. He sold Martin on basketball as a viable professional career.

“He was a country kid from a small town of Gloucester and down at Gloucester we convinced him that, ‘nah, you should stick with basketball,’” says Beveridge.

More important than any sales job, Beveridge believed in the young star.

Martin told him that ever since watching the ’92 Barcelona Games on television with his brothers, he had dreamt of becoming an Olympian. It was his ultimate goal.

Beveridge promised him that very day, “Hey, you can be an Olympian. You really are special.”

“He looked me in the eye and said he truly believed I could,” says Martin.

The Martins left that meeting buzzing with excitement.

“The talk that Bevo and I had with my father certainly left dad and I with big eyes and started dreaming about 5-10 years down the track,” recalls Martin.

“The whole car ride home, here I am finishing my cheeseburger meal, and dad and I were talking about what just might be.”

Martin and Beveridge have had a special relationship since. Beveridge gave Martin his first professional gig at the West Sydney Razorbacks. They teamed up again later with the Perth Wildcats to win an NBL championship.

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The Promise

Hours after Damian Martin took to the floor against Team USA in their pool game at the Rio Games, I sent him a message depicting his edited Wikipedia page.

He lets out a hearty laugh.

“I do remember that!”

Martin had famously (at least in the eyes of Australian basketball supporters) swiped the ball from NBA superstar, Kevin Durant, to trigger a fast break for the Boomers.

The steal momentarily became a career milestone on the Wikipedia page of the five-time NBL Defensive Player of the Year and three-time league champion, firmly tongue-in-cheek of course.

“But it all just happened so quickly,” says Martin. “I think in his mind he’s like, ‘I’m 6’10” with a seven foot-plus wingspan. I’m just going to shoot over this shrimp.’ I was lucky enough that he put the ball in my grasp and I was able to knock it out.”

The moment served one other purpose. It showed that Martin had finally made it. He was an Olympian.

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In his eyes, it almost didn’t happen.

He had experienced the pain before, having been amongst the final cuts from the London 2012 squad.

With final squad selections, the Boomers’ coaches designate 10 minute timeslots for each player to let them know of their fate. Two years ago, the first 5 timeslots had turned out to be the cuts from the World Cup squad for Spain.

Martin was given his scheduled time for the following day.

“I was like, ‘oh no, I’m in the first 4 or 5. I’m going to get cut.’ I barely slept the night before,” he recalls.

The following day, Martin paced up and down the hallway outside the coaches’ room. He was a nervous wreck.

Finally, the door opened at 2.20pm and assistant coach, Luc Longley walked out to invite Martin in -- only Longley refused to make eye contact with Martin.

“I’ve known Longley quite a while now and as soon as he avoided eye contact I thought, ‘oh no, it’s happening. This is horrible,’” he says.

It was a similar theme when he walked in to meet the rest of the selection panel. Not one of them wanted to look at him. It turns out, it was all just a prank. Martin was in.

“After having me believe that I wasn’t selected, finally Andrej looked me in the eye with a grin across his face and said, ‘I’m taking you to Rio,’” says Martin with joy.

He immediately headed downstairs to call his wife with the news. Brittany was at her sister’s wedding at the time and burst out in tears. It was the same when he called mum and dad -- all those memories of parental sacrifice came flooding back. The joy that Martin shared with his parents was even purer than when he was originally told of the news by the coaches.

Martin hadn't forgotten the promise that Rob Beveridge had made all those years ago either.

"He rang me that night and there were tears," recounts Beveridge. "He was so elated. He was [saying], ‘hey, I wouldn’t be here without you. You’ve been a part of the journey.’ That was special.”

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Behind Martin's infectious smile is a steely resolve.

Four years earlier, he had faced what he thought was his most painful experience.

“Getting cut from London was the hardest thing that I had to go through. It really knocked my confidence about and knocked my passion for the game around,” he admits.

“I’d set myself that goal for so long – for as long as I can remember I’d wanted to be an Olympian. To come so close only to be one of the last ones cut… I was devastated.”

It was the offseason and Martin had months to mope over it.

The disappointment spread into his personal life and he had allowed it to affect who he was as a person. He realised that he needed to gain perspective in order to become a better person.

Two years later, whilst driving along Riverside Drive in Perth, he received a phone call from his dad. He received the devastating news that Raymond Martin had prostate cancer.

“I know a lot of people have loved ones die and it breaks your heart, but then when it’s someone so close such as your father, who you admire, that point in time was the worst specific moment of my life,” says Martin.

Ray Martin is a fighter though – something he passed down to his children. Damian Martin remembers the difficulty of the first 12 months, and how his father seemed to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. But he fought on, and now two years later, and after successful surgery, he’s overcome it.

The journey they went through not only showcased the famous Martin family resolve, it also allowed Damian Martin to grow as a person.

“Things are all good now, but that’s when you realise I’m lucky enough to play sport for a living. How dare I had gotten so down on myself for not making a team?” says Martin.

Nowadays, he still gets down after losing games but he understands that’s just it – it’s a game.

Finding the real Damian Martin

Away from the pressures of the court, he can immerse himself into the simple pleasures of life. Nothing makes him happier than going home to Gloucester. When he’s back at his parent’s place, he can just relax and pretend that he’s 8 years old again.

“I get off the Pacific Highway, and turn left onto Bucketts Way, and I’m headed home to Gloucester, it’s just that ultimate feeling of complete relief and comfort,” says Martin with a tinge of serenity.

It’s home, and Damian Martin has never forgotten that, despite his bad memory.

“Taking my wife, and my soon-to-be child, I can’t wait when I get to take them both back to Gloucester,” he says. “Just take them through the picturesque mountains, the rivers, things I didn’t appreciate growing up, but now I love and I miss.”

For now, Perth is his home away from home.

Long gone are the days when Martin would pretend to fit in with his adopted city. In his first ever radio interview, he lied that he was a major Fremantle Dockers supporter and that his favourite player was Matthew Sandilands. He had mistakenly mixed up the names of Dockers greats, Matthew Pavlich and Aaron Sandilands.

Fast-forward to today, and Martin is now a household name in a city that boasts an NBL franchise that is the envy of the league. He’s the unforgettable man who plays unforgettable defense.

He’s the best defensive player of his generation who actually hates practising defense.

“It’s not like I like going out there training and just practise defensive slides,” he says. “I couldn’t think of anything worse.”

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Instead, he honed his competitiveness, and instincts not to let anyone down, through an entirely different sport in rugby league.

“When it comes to basketball, it means the world to me to win and help my teammates and people that support us,” he says.

“Defense is one of those things that’s easy to do but easier not to do. A lot of it is the mental side of it: if I drop my arms for one possession then I’ve let my teammates down. If I haven’t boxed out then I’ve let them down.

“I was determined never to give my teammates a reason to be upset with me. I just ended up finding a niche on the defensive end that I thoroughly embraced.”

Ten years into his professional career, he’s still not letting his teammates down.

Now a revered leader, Martin credits Trevor Gleeson for developing that side of his game – to use his fearlessness and sense of mateship to inspire his teammates. They've teamed up at Perth for two NBL championships. He’s also thankful for Marty Clarke developing him in his formative years at the Australian Institute of Sport.

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“His personality transcends,” says Gleeson. “He inspires with his actions. Some leaders rant and rave and say: do this, do that. Damo’s the exact opposite. He inspires his teammates with his performance and how he plays the game.”

“As captain, I just try to get to know the strengths of my teammates and how I can bring that out,” Martin tells me.

And that’s Damo Martin for you – it’s always about how he won’t let others down.

He may forget things, but he never forgets the important things.

So I ask him if he’ll ever forget achieving his lifelong dream to be an Olympian, and that steal on Kevin Durant.

(By the way, Damo completely forgot to get back to me on this one until just before the story was filed away!)

“Never,” he says. “I’ve been dreaming of being one [Olympian] since ’92 and making the team will always be my greatest sporting achievement, and one I’m so grateful to have.”

As for the steal on KD?

“As the years go on, the steal will either get embellished when spoken about, or forgotten… with my memory, it’ll more likely be the latter!”

So, yes. Damo only remembers the important things.

He may be one of the most forgetful people that you will ever meet, but Damian Martin has a truly unforgettable story.