The Lowdown: Slater Martin

Years Active: 1950 – 1960
Regular Season Stats: 745 games, 35.9 mpg
9.8 ppg, 4.2 apg, 3.4 rpg, 36.4% FG, 76.2% FT
Postseason Stats: 92 games, 39.4 mpg
10.0 ppg, 3.8 apg, 3.4 rpg, 35.1% FG, 71.5% FT
Accolades: 5x All-NBA 2nd Team (1955-59), 7x All-Star (1953-59), 5x NBA Champion (1950, 1952-54, 1958)

Slater Martin

“He was small in stature [5’10”], but he was one tough hombre.”

- Via Slater Martin – Hall-of-Famer, Texas star and Davis grad – dies at 86

Sadly, Slater Martin passed away tonight. I was hoping at some point to write about his career and I’m a bit disappointed his passing served as the catalyst for this look back. Truthfully Martin deserves to be remembered by any basketball fan at any given moment for he was one of the premier play makers of the 1950s. However, he’s one of the least known Hall of Famers and 5x NBA champions you’ll ever come across. So, in his death, I suppose it’s time to rectify that.

Born on Galveston Island, Martin would grow up in Houston and learn how to shoot basketball thanks to a makeshift wooden backboard his grandfather made for him. His grandfather also bequeathed him the nickname “Dugie”.  While at Jefferson Davis High School in Houston, Martin secured two state championships before moving on to the University of Texas. His tenure as a Longhorn began in 1943 but wouldn’t end until 1949 thanks to military service in the Pacific during World War II and a brief stint playing amateur basketball. Returning to UT after these interruptions, Martin led the Longhorns to the NCAA semi-finals in 1947. This would be the program’s greatest advance into the tournament until 2003.

Headed North

Intrigued by his NCAA play, the Minneapolis Lakers drafted the Texan in 1949 along with Bob Harrison and Vern Mikkelsen. This proved to be ridiculous injection of talent for a team that had already won two pro basketball titles in the previous two seasons. Harrison would be a fine backcourt mate of Martin’s, while Mikkelsen was a big forward who’d wind up in the Hall of Fame. Initially, though, Martin’s place was uncertain as he sought a more stable job with Phillips, the petroleum company. After Minneapolis offered over $3,000 a year, however, Martin went to Minnesota.

Life was a bit different up north for Dugie:

I’d been there about ten days, and I woke up and there’s snow about knee-high,” he recalled. “I went out to my car, and it had frozen. My radiator busted and the battery had blown up. My car was a mess. I think the repairs cost me about thirty-five dollars, which was about all the money I had. The first thing I bought was a big overcoat with a collar that came up over the top of you head.”

Martin’s task with the Lakers was fairly simple, but different from his Texas days. No longer would he be expected to score big (like the occasion where he netted 49 against Texas Christian University). John Kundla, Lakers coach, let Martin know that the pace, the style, the team, would be dictated by big George Mikan first and Jim Pollard second. However, Slater would feed them the ball on offense and saddle up on defense to stymie Bob Cousy, Bob Davies and other flashy guards.

Averaging a scant 4 points during the regular season, Martin would turn up big for the 1st of many times during the playoffs. The Lakers juggernaut matched up with the marvelous Nationals of Syracuse. In Game 3, Mikan and Mikkelsen handled the scoring while Dugie harassed the Nats’ backcourt:

Martin didn’t score a single point, but he turned in a magnificent guarding job on Al Cervi, holding the Nationals’ player-coach scoreless from the floor

The Lakers ultimately dispatched Syracuse in 6 games behind a ridiculous 40 points from Mikan in the deciding game. Stumbling the next year (1951), Minneapolis quickly regained form and won three more titles from 1952 to 1954. By this 6th title in 7 years, Martin’s primary objective was still to feed and defend, but his own offense had allowed to grow as he reached 10 ppg. Then in the 1955 and 1956 seasons he enjoyed banner years, statistically (13.5 points, 6 assists and 4 rebounds a game), exemplified by this dynamite scoring display:

Time and again this season the Celtics have gone over 100 points only to drop the decision. There was last night, for example, when they lost to the Minneapolis Lakers, 129-118, in overtime at Hibbing, Minn.

The Lakers’ score, with Slater Martin setting a personal record of 35 points, was a new high for Minneapolis. And the combined score of 247 points fell only a point short of the league mark set by Syracuse and Anderson in 1949 after five overtimes.

But the good times were nearly at end in Minneapolis. These seemingly golden years for Martin came via George Mikan’s retirement following that title in 1954.  Martin, Mikkelsen, Pollard and Clyde Lovellette soldiered on valiantly with a Western Division Finals appearance in that first post-Mikan season, but would be thwarted by St. Louis in the semi-finals the following year. And that after “enjoying” the 1st sub-.500 regular season in franchise history.

In a time-honored tradition, this team of former champs began to dissolve. Pollard retired. Lovellette was traded to Cincinnati. Mikkelsen hung around to the bitter end. Martin, the shortest player in the league, was shipped to the New York Knicks for the 7-foot Walter Dukes. Martin’s stay in the Big Apple would last all of 13 games in the 1956-57 season. Yet another trade would send him back west to the banks of the Mississippi River where he’d once again bask in championship glory.

Flying High in St. Louis

With a glut of forwards (and a fan base unsympathetic for black players) St. Louis was happy to unload the promising Willie Naulls for backcourt help in Martin. The Hawks would stumble initially that season despite that trade, Bob Pettit’s presence, and the stellar Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan. Slowly, though, the team built up steam and by the playoffs were a force to be reckoned with as they swept Martin’s old club, Minneapolis.

Meeting Boston in what has to be one of the absolute finest finals showdowns in history, Martin played his role perfectly as he again harassed opposing guards into terrible shooting. In the crucial, decisive Game 7, Martin and teammate Jack McMahon absolutely flummoxed Celtic stars Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman into an atrocious 5-for-40 shooting exhibition. Dugie also offered up 23 points to further aid the Hawks’ cause. Nonetheless, Boston prevailed in double overtime, 125-123.

But this rivalry was just beginning and the two teams would meet again the very next season in the 1958 finals. In this rematch, Martin helped pull the Hawks to the brink of closing out the defending champs with 25 points and yet another splendid defensive job on Bob Cousy:

Slater Martin, littlest player in the National Basketball Association, at 5-10 and one of the oldest at 32, held the spotlight today following a brilliant performance in the St. Louis Hawks’ third victory in their best-of-seven championship playoffs against the Boston Celtics.

Bob Pettit took game scoring honors with 33 points, eight more than Martin, but the speedy backcourt star was immense as a field general and in holding Boston’s Bob Cousy in check.

Martin said he changed his defensive tactics against Cousy in limiting the Celtics whiz to 10 points, eight of them in the second half.

Spurred on by Bob Pettit’s 50-point Game 6, the Hawks eliminated Boston and secured their first and only title. For Martin it would be his 5th and final one as a pro. Any real chance St. Louis had of defending their title was dashed in the 1959 playoffs when in their very first game, Martin was tripped and, supposedly, deliberately elbowed by Ed Fleming of the Lakers. Hawks owner Ben Kerner and coach Ed Macauley vehemently protested the foul and produced movie reels showing the dirty deed by Fleming. Whatever the intent, the result was devastating: Martin was out for the postseason with a broken fibula and the Hawks would be ousted by the Elgin Baylor-led opponent in 6 games.

Martin played just one more season, which concluded with yet another trip to the NBA Finals that resulted in yet another 7-game loss to Boston.  However, the 33 year old Martin played a miniscule role as Si Green took over the bulk of the point guard duties. But Martin had more than earned his place in NBA lore by this time.

He was a 7x all-star (and a starter 5x) despite rarely averaging over 10 points a game. 5x he was also placed on the All-NBA 2nd Team. These accolades are nice on their own, but are also a testament to his inspired defense which more than made up for his offensive deficiencies. Not that he was truly deficient on offense, but when you have pivot men like Mikan, Lovellette and Pettit to score the ball, you let them score early and often.

This acquiescence led to those all-star games, all-NBA teams, 5 titles and two more finals appearances. However, as teammate Ed Kalafat would recall years later, the journey wasn’t always grand but it certainly wasn’t that far off from how Martin started out himself:

We were going to play a game there [Fargo, North Dakota] two days later,” he said. “We set up a portable basket out in the parking lot and conducted clinics for two days. We didn’t get paid for it. They gave us room and provided our meals.

From Houston to Fargo, Minneapolis to St. Louis, Dugie could play with the best of them whether it was in a pro gym or his childhood vacant lot. Here’s to hoping his old Laker teammates, Jim Pollard and George Mikan, can finally, once again take in a few passes from Slater among the clouds.

Editor’s Note: the book Mr. Basketball: George Mikan, the Minneapolis Lakers, and the Birth of the NBA proved instrumental in the writing of this article. It’s well worth picking up.

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