It's 6:30 on a Sunday night, and Maurice (Mo) Martin is zooming around Denver's Pepsi Center on a forklift, supervising a group of workers as they put together the basketball court for an upcoming Nuggets game. "Hey, the three-point line is a little off," says Martin, pointing at two sections of floor that have not been properly aligned. "Let's fix that."
If any member of the crew understands the importance of a perfect court, it's Martin. Fourteen years ago he was a rookie shooting guard for the Nuggets, who had drafted him 16th out of St. Joseph's of Philadelphia. After averaging 3.4 points in 43 games his first NBA season, he tore cartilage in his right knee early in his second and third seasons, injuries that kept him off the floor for all but 23 games. Denver did not re-sign him after the 1988-89 season, and after a month in the CBA, Martin quit basketball. Now he heads a 45-man crew that regularly transforms the floor of the Pepsi Center for basketball and hockey games. "Life hands you setbacks, and you have to deal with them," says Martin, who went to work at the arena when it opened last October. "Besides, my three-year-old son, Isaiah, thinks it's cool that I drive a forklift."
Martin, 35, still works as hard as he did when he was trying to guard Michael Jordan at the '84 Olympic tryouts and laughs as loud as he did the day he signed a three-year, $600,000 guaranteed contract with the Nuggets. But he had a hard time adjusting after he had to quit playing. "At one point I thought, Am I cursed?" says Martin. "It ended so abruptly. I think I could have dealt better with it if someone had said, 'You're not good enough.' But it was a knee injury—that's what sticks with me."
Still, Martin had made it to the NBA from the small town of Liberty, N.Y., in the Catskill Mountains, where his high school graduating class had only 85 students. He had met his boyhood idol, Julius Erving; guarded Magic Johnson, in the '86-87 playoffs; and made lifelong friends in Denver teammates such as Mike Evans, Alex English, T.R. Dunn and Danny Schayes. "My dream was to play in the NBA, to go up against the best, and I did that," Martin says. "In so many ways I was fortunate."
Though he sometimes bumps into former teammates and opponents at the Pepsi Center, only a handful of current Denver players know that the big guy with the tape measure and the radiant smile is a former NBA player. After a recent game, Nuggets Popeye Jones, Raef LaFrentz and Antonio McDyess said they'd never heard of Martin. Only veteran swingman George McCloud remembered him as a player, but he had no clue that Martin was working in the building. "Get the f—-out," McCloud said, after being told Martin's tale. "He was good!"
As a junior at St. Joe's, Martin was among the final 16 players vying for 12 spots on the '84 Olympic team, including Jordan, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin. The day U.S. coach Bob Knight cut him from the squad, Martin recalls that Jordan stopped by his room, threw an arm around his shoulder and told him he'd see him in the NBA "Maurice was fabulous, a gifted player," recalls former St. Joe's coach Jim Boyle. "I think he would have been an NBA All-Star if he hadn't gotten injured. That's how good he was."
As it turned out, Martin scored just 204 points before his knee gave out for good. With a degree in criminal justice, he thought about working for the FBI or CIA but decided he couldn't meet the physical requirements. Instead, he spent five years selling cars in the Denver area, before a contact with the Nuggets approached him two years ago about working as a stagehand at local theaters and at McNichols Arena. "I work vampire hours—a lot of late hours," says Martin, whose wife, Paula, is expecting their second child. "There are a lot of late nights in this job."
On many of those nights Martin is driving the forklift, removing 150-pound sheets of Plexiglas from the hockey boards and delivering stacks of the 200-pound wood panels that make up the basketball court. Later he pushes the basketball stanchions onto the court, locks them into the floor with steel pins and raises the rims to 10 feet. "It might not seem like it, but it's really a competitive job," Martin says. "We're always trying to do it better and faster each time."
Martin, who supplements his $60,000 annual income with approximately $10,000 a year from his NBA pension, severance and licensing deals combined, doesn't have much time to play even a pickup game anymore. Just as well, Martin says. He gets his share of court time at the office.