When Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith fled the lockout to play in China, it always seemed more than just forward-thinking business. They weren’t the only players to look to China, or even the only Nuggets; recent addition Wilson Chandler did the same. But Martin and Smith have always had a special place in our hearts. As the mainstays of a Nuggets club whose outbursts, streakiness, and excessive body art made for a theater of the racialized absurd, they were always cartoon outlaws.
Through this lens, their China maneuver was a towering hustle; a sabbatical in caper form; and even a kind of human piracy, if the cultural exports also happened to play-act as pirates. Smith has lived up to expectations, dropping obscene point totals and watching his family members brawl with fans. It's the star turn that Smith, who turned Iversonian paradox into a volley of extremes, always deserved. He was always going to be the leading man somewhere; it was just a matter of finding the appropriately surreal context.
K-Mart was just as bound to return. Martin has been inching into utter legitimacy for some time now. Though he came into the league brash, muscular, and quick to unleash a conqueror's roar after every power dunk or swatted shot, Martin had morphed into the proverbial gritty vet, albeit one who still boasted the league’s most literal case of swagger. Always a strong defender, Martin learned that intimidation was meant to distract opponents, not him. He was pursued by most contenders, an affirmation of just how far he had come. Martin chose the Clippers, that formerly rotten team scrubbed clean by Chris Paul, which in turn effaces the past rep of anyone they sign. There's no change or redemption, here, not even much of a story. Just a man who does a job well. It’s Kenyon Martin’s mature period, where recognition comes with little acknowledgement of his ruckus-bringing ways.
It’s a business transaction, and frankly, nice to see Martin allowed to take part in one with so few complications. I have trouble telling whether he had outgrown the Nuggets; the Nuggets had outgrown him with their post-trade makeover; or he had simply outgrown his baggage. It also throws his first few seasons with the Nets into sharp relief. Martin was a sparkplug for a Nuggets team that was always uncomfortably stranded. Were they a sputtering contender or tough-minded bunch of miscreants pushing their way up the standings?
The Nets, by contrast were an optical trick. They made trips to the Finals in 2002 and 2003, but only as lambs to slaughter. Jason Kidd, the team’s virtuoso, seemed misplaced. In a way, he was, exiled to New Jersey in the summer of 2001 after a domestic abuse charge. The Suns decided Stephon Marbury was the lesser of two evils, and in return, Kidd took over the wilderness, zooming around on his dirt bike with an army of giddy corpses. Richard Jefferson was a small forward stunted by Kidd’s pin-ball playmaking, but Martin, the number-one overall pick in 2000, was his right-hand man in the East. He fit the terrain, spoke the language, and practically defined its comfort zone. The Nets are Kidd's team when pointed to as a precursor to the SSOL Suns. That’s history, and retroactive value. I remember them mostly as Martin providing a jolt of energy in that oh-so-wan early game slot. He was, in some rough sense, a star. In the East circa 2003, the people mattered.
Today’s Kenyon Martin is a practical player. In Denver, he was knee-deep in rhetoric. In Jersey, his imperfection was the source of his rugged charisma. Martin’s fractious behavior, loud noises, and genuinely uneven game made him the quintessential Eastern Conference player. He didn't rebound as much as he should have. He clowned Alonzo Morning for a life-threatening kidney disease. Martin shoved and lurched a lot in the post, his shots were often better describes as angry tosses.
But there was a light there. His dunks, punctuated by cries and flexing, were that one transcendent gesture that lured in skeptics. Those two-handed slams could bring you out of your seat. Martin may be the NBA's all-time champ at swinging from the rim. That was when you really understood his strength and agility, especially when these came on the break. Martin never tried to tear down the hoop or upend the backboard. He needed the rim for recovery, lest he send himself crashing into the stands like a runaway projectile. There's a Reebok commercial, somehow not preserved by YouTube, in which Martin demolishes a half-dreamt, post-apocalyptic outdoor court. This imagery, and not the glitzy, Jay-Z soundtracked Reebok 5 ad in a white room with bright lights, captures New Jersey K-Mart. The problem wasn’t him, or the East, or us. It was everything. Kenyon Martin was the tour guide and hell spawn, and he just wanted to have a good time.
Martin benefited from a strange quality that took hold in the Eastern Conference: inferiority giving way to familiarity, even intimacy. Players in the West were monsters, gods. The East operated on a smaller scale and with that came an acceptance of imperfect athletes—or rather, athletes whose achievements were viewed as amazing human feats, not robots flashing across the sky at top-speed. With this came an acceptance that, in the East, things went wrong in real time. Fate knocked you around. Wins were exhausting, not mere execution.
Iverson was the East’s champion. He turned “underdog” into an insult, but he had to do so time and time again. There was no stability, no ceiling. In part, this was because AI was married to excess. But it also reflected just how readily he could be torn down. Yet if Iverson tackled this problem on a near-cosmic scale, Kenyon Martin was the East’s standard-bearer. These players didn’t have to be impervious; in some ways, we loved them for their flaws, for the way that they could be defined and embraced though well shy of perfection.
We are living in a new golden age of superstars. Today there are more names in the league than there have been since Michael Jordan retired. These superstars are compromised, even humbled, and may be more accessible, if not necessarily likable, because of it. LeBron likes to pass and has no heart. Wade is in LeBron’s shadow. Durant can be too quiet. Melo aggravates. Kobe stays polarizing. Rose needs personality. Griffin hasn’t earned it. Garnett, Duncan, and Dirk are aging. Nash is on a dead team. By default, Dwight Howard may be the last traditional superstar left standing.
These figures seem smaller, closer to us, and we have put them there. Social media has supplanted the gaffe, and surveillance-like coverage left us numb to missteps. Mortality is in; god is dead because the Colin Cowherds of this world overplayed their hand. Smartly, superstars have taken to slumming it—making us come to them as much as they impose themselves on us. In New Jersey, Kenyon Martin made an art form of this brand of self-invention. Kenyon Martin never said he was special, but he knew we couldn’t help but see some of that in him. Those days are over, but for all its talent, the league has never been closer to his example.