Martell Webster shows up to the nail salon in McLean and immediately apologizes for being late. The Wizards swingman has been battling an abdominal strain, and an ultrasound delayed his arrival. As he sinks into his chair and puts his feet in the bubbling warm water, he tries to make himself comfortable.
“Does this chair go back any more?” he asks, his 6-foot-7, 230-pound frame folded awkwardly into a chair clearly not built for NBA players. Thankfully it does, and Webster slides back, closes his eyes for a minute and the technician begins to work on the feet that have carried him for 76 games so far this season.
After a few moments of quiet, filled only by the sound of the whirlpool and the classical music playing over the salon’s speakers, we begin to chat, and as is often the case with 26-year old Webster, the conversation turns to his family. Anyone who follows him on social media has seen him frequently talk about and post pictures of his three young daughters, aged 10, 6 and 4. The oldest is his wife’s from a previous relationship, but Webster has adopted her and helped raise her as his own. He is a proud father who wants more children, and says he loves everything about parenthood.
“The hardest part is being away from them,” he says. “I like to be there for my oldest, so I can help her with stuff. It’s a good thing for Skype. I can see my kids every night, even when I’m on the road. I can help my oldest with her homework over the Internet.”
Road trips are tough for any parent who travels with the frequency of a professional athlete, but Webster’s upbringing makes it especially difficult for him to be away from his family.
He was raised in Seattle by his grandmother, and the circumstances that sent him to live with her are what movie scripts are made of. When Webster was 4 years old, his mother, Cora McGuirk, mysteriously disappeared. The most common theory is that she was one of the many victims of Gary Ridgway, a serial killer in Seattle known as the “Green River Killer.” Ridgway’s murders were carried out around the same time that McGuirk disappeared in 1991. Unlike other victims, her body was never found.
The usually animated Webster gets quiet when I ask about her, and takes a moment before answering.
“There’s a part of me that says she’s still alive,” he admits softly, staring down at his feet. “Maybe she just wasn’t ready, or was overwhelmed. There’s closure. I just hope that wherever she is, she’s peaceful.”
Webster’s father left before he was born, so after his mother’s disappearance, he was sent to live with his grandmother, along with his older sister and his younger half-brother. His older half-brother, who only shared a biological father with Webster, went to live with his own mother.
It wasn’t until 2005 that Webster met his father for the first time.
“Two weeks after I got drafted, we had a family reunion at my grandmother’s house, and he showed up to it,” Webster said, his voice catching a bit. “It was my first time meeting my dad. It was kind of rough, because he knew where I was the whole time and for me that was just like, ‘Why, dude?’ He knew where I was, he knew I was at my grandma’s house. He knew where my grandma’s house was.”
While Webster doesn’t have a relationship with his father, he was able to take something away from that painful meeting – a relationship with the half-brother he was separated from when he was 4 years old.
The events of his life have given the young father a purpose when it comes to his own family, and he vows that their childhood won’t be marred with the same kind of pain he experienced.
“I have my wife and my kids now, and my goal, and really my whole perspective on what happened to me in my childhood, is to never let that happen to my kids,” he said. “To always be around when they need something, whenever they’re going through things. It’s one of those things you learn from, and apply it to your life and to the morals you want your children to have. The understanding that your family’s always going to be there when you need them.”
Webster credits his wife, Courtney, whom he married in 2010, with keeping him grounded, but it hasn’t always been easy for him. Before coming to the Wizards he had to do some soul-searching after getting a wake-up call from some friends.
“I had been talking to people who are really close to me and have mentored me around the league,” he said. “I asked them what the perception was of me as a player, and it was completely off. [They said] ‘Not a team player, a loner.’ It was terrible. It’s funny how these things can alter one’s career. Perception is everything in this league. What people think of you is gonna get out and that’s what’s going to stick to you.”
The veteran was shocked to hear what some of his fellow players thought of him, and he made it his goal to change that before coming to Washington.
“I wanted show people that I have a personality, that I’m very coachable and that I’m a team player,” said Webster, who is currently on a one-year contract he signed last August. “That was the main thing. So coming here it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’m going to be a leader.’ It was just showing everybody that I’m not a loner and I’m not the person you think I am.”
Webster has become a veteran leader in the Wizards locker room, and is having a breakout year. He’s become one of the league’s better three-point shooters, and his stat line is filled with career highs.
He has already thought about what his post-NBA life will look like, which includes going to college for music, film or photography. But for now, the man who was left behind by both parents as a child says he just wants to be where he’s wanted.
“I love the situation here,” he says. “In a perfect world I’d come back and enjoy another wonderful season.”