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Good and Nasty
Chris Ballard
April 29, 2002
To beat the Pacers, the Nets will need some intimidating play from bruising Kenyon Martin, who walks the line between tough and dirty
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April 29, 2002

Good And Nasty

To beat the Pacers, the Nets will need some intimidating play from bruising Kenyon Martin, who walks the line between tough and dirty

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Lydia Moore had flown all the way from Dallas to see her son, and she sure as heck wasn't returning home without a keepsake. Which explains why she was in a supermarket in New Jersey two weeks ago, rifling through cases of Sprite and doing what any proud mother would: digging past the Kobe cans to get to the Kenyon Martins. "She was going through them, right there in the store!" says Martin, the Nets forward who is immortalized in aluminum, along with stars such as the Lakers' Bryant, as part of a new promotional campaign. "I was like, 'C'mon, Mom, you can't do that.' But she was determined."

In all, Moore took 48 cans of soda back to Dallas, where, she grumbles, "You can only get the Michael Finleys." That she was able to buy 12 ounces of any product bearing her son's likeness is a testament to the rising profile of the second-year forward, who has gone from raw rookie to budding All-Star by improving his jump shot, dunking on anything that moves and bringing a tough, physical presence to a Nets team heretofore as soft as chocolate left out on a sunny day.

Considering the season Martin has had, however, it might be more fitting if his image adorned a beverage with a little more kick to it, say Red Bull or Jolt! At the same time he was emerging as a player, Martin was gaining notoriety for committing flagrant fouls, six in all, which earned him seven games in suspensions and $347,057 in fines. By the end of the season—as refs watched his every box-out and the media questioned his volatility—the man known as Kmart felt as if he had a giant Target on his back. He even asked coach Byron Scott if he could sit out the final three games of the regular season, just to make sure he didn't pick up another flagrant and a suspension that would spill into the playoffs. ( Martin played those meaningless games and survived unscathed.)

The irony, of course, is that the qualities that make the 6'9", 230-pound Martin so effective—his intense, bruising style and fierce passion—have also led to his foul problems. As Scott says, "Kenyon has to be physical and play with emotion. If you take that away from him, he's just a normal player." Ask his teammates what Martin's most valuable attribute is, and they will answer, without hesitation, 'Toughness." And, while they won't condone the flagrants, they won't condemn Martin for them either. After all, especially during the half-court, bump-and-grind ritual of the playoffs, every team needs an enforcer to ensure that there are no free rides, much less free layups.

And when Martin doesn't play full-tilt, neither do the Nets, that was painfully obvious last Saturday during their play-off opener against the Indiana Pacers in East Rutherford, N.J. Martin was so anxious he barely grazed the rim with his jumper, while Pacers power forward Jermaine O'Neal was the one sparking his team with windup dunks and chest-thumping roars. The result: an 89-83 upset for eighth-seeded Indiana behind a game-high 30 points from O'Neal.

After vowing to come out a different player in Game 2, Martin kept his word on Monday, exerting a manic energy worthy of Sam Kinison in his heyday, as New Jersey romped 96-79 to even the series. Martin hounded O'Neal into awkward fade-aways on D—lending a nastiness to that chore that Keith Van Horn couldn't summon in the opener—while scoring 19 points, inciting the crowd with waving arms and soaring for monstrous jams. "Kenyon started us off," said Scott, "and we just followed."

Monday's aerial assault was almost mundane by Martin's standards. Fully healed from the broken right leg that ended an already disappointing rookie season in March of last year, he has spent much of the last nine months throwing down two to three did-you-see-that? dunks every game, any of which would qualify as the career highlight for most players. Ask teammate Kerry Kittles to name his favorite Martin jam, and he scrunches up his face as if forced to choose his favorite album of all time. "Well, there was that one in Miami, where he cocked it on Zo," Kittles says, "but then there was Philly, where he got [ Dikembe Mutombo]—man, that was nasty. And then there was Orlando.... It's too hard to pick just one."

Dunking on Alonzo Mourning and Mutombo, two of the best defenders in the league, is quite a feat. Not surprisingly, lesser defenders have learned to stay out of Martin's way when he attacks the rim, something he finds disappointing. "A lot of times I'm wishing people will jump with me," Martin says. When some hapless help-side defender does rotate over, Martin often offers him some post-posterizing advice: "Just mind your own business, and you won't get dunked on."

Martin could always throw down. What has made him more dangerous this year (he led the team in regular-season scoring with 14.9 points per game) has been the refinement of his offense, specifically the improvement in his jump hook—his go-to move—and his outside shot, which is now respectable out to three-point range. But where Martin really earns his keep, along with the undying affection of his teammates, is on defense. As quick a leaper as there is in the league, he gets across the lane in an eye blink to offer weakside help, meets opponents in midair, bumps cutters in the paint and blocks shots with so much force that one expects the ball to deflate and sputter to the floor like a balloon that's just been untied.

He also has a knack for making crunch-time plays. (His mom calls him Captain Crunch.) He blocked a last-second shot by Tracy McGrady to save a game two weeks ago, and only a few days before that, against the Lakers, Martin raced the length of the court, took a running leap and got a hand on a potential last-minute game-tying three by Derek Fisher. Afterward Fisher sat at his locker and shook his head in disbelief. "Never saw him, not even out of the corner of my eye," he said. "I thought I was all by myself." Scott calls Martin his defensive "ace in the hole," and New Jersey center Todd MacCulloch goes so far as to say, "I'd have no problem putting him on Shaq; he's strong and aggressive enough." Asked whether he agrees with the latter appraisal, Martin nods. "I'll guard Shaq. I don't care, I'll guard anybody—I could half-front him." Then, sensing the bulletin-board potential of such a statement, he quickly adds, "I'm not saying I'll shut him down, but I'll try."

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