Bill Martin and the rest of the Indiana Pacers stood in front of the luggage carousel watching it spin round and round. Like most National Basketball Association players at this time of year, they were tired. They had played in Hartford, Conn., the night before, boarded an early plane for Detroit, changed planes and finally arrived here. Another game was little more than 24 hours away.
But their luggage was nowhere in sight. It was floating somewhere in the netherworld of the airlines. Perhaps in Hartford. Maybe Detroit. More likely, Cleveland.
Bill Martin shrugged. "Life on the road," he said softly. "These things happen."
Many things have happened to Martin since he left the sheltered life he led at Georgetown and plunged into the lonely, nomadic existence of a pro basketball player. For four years at Georgetown, playing alongside Patrick Ewing, losing was alien to Martin. The Hoyas won 121 games and lost only 23. They reached the national championship game three times, winning once. Martin, an All-Met at McKinley High School, was a contributor from day one as a freshman, and his statistics improved each season.
Ever since the day last June when he was the 26th player chosen in the NBA draft, it has all changed for Martin. He signed a two-year contract with the Pacers, became a wealthy young man and headed into that real world that John Thompson had been warning him about for four years.
"Actually, I've adjusted to things a lot better than I thought I would," he said, sipping a soft drink. "Since I grew up in Washington, my family was always nearby in college. Now, they aren't. I'm living alone for the first time in my life. That's a little strange, but I've also enjoyed the privacy.
"The adjustment has been not playing. I've always played. That's what I love to do most -- play the game. Now, I sit there on the bench in the fourth quarter thinking, 'Let me guard that guy,' or, 'Give me the ball, I'll score.' I guess all players feel that way. I'm sure there were guys on the bench at Georgetown that felt that way too. But it isn't easy."
At Georgetown, the end-game usually belonged to the Hoyas. When you win better than five of every six times you step on the court, that is generally the case. It is not like that with the Pacers. They are a tattered, struggling franchise.
This year, it took the team 31 games to equal the number of losses Martin suffered in four years of college. Indiana won 10 of its first 40 games, and after splitting its last 20, stands a well-rounded 20-40 for the season. It is a young team, but it seems every year it is a young team.
"When I heard the Pacers had drafted me, I thought that was great," Martin said. "I thought it was a place I could really make my mark, make a contribution right away. But it's taking me longer than I thought. I just have to be patient and keep working to get better."
Martin's first real shock in the NBA came early in the season when he asked Coach George Irvine what he had to do to get more minutes. "Improve your defense," Irvine answered.
Martin was stunned. "The one thing I thought I was pretty good at was defense," he said, laughing. "I've learned a lot about how much I have to learn to be good at the game at this level. I guess playing defense without Patrick behind me is a whole different story."
While Ewing plays superbly in the harsh glare of New York's spotlight for a bad team, Martin plays little for an awful team in the anonymity of the Midwest. Martin isn't sure that's such a bad thing. "I talk to Pat a couple times a month," he said. "I don't envy the attention he's getting, I just envy his ability. The last time we talked he was in Utah. He said he was playing 43 minutes a night, his knees hurt and Utah was boring.
"I said to him, 'Pat, take it easy on yourself. Don't go so hard.' Then I realized if he ever did that he wouldn't be Pat and he wouldn't be the player that he is. I'm never going to be the player that he is, of course, but I really think if I work I can be a good player in this league."
So do the Pacers. Tom Newell, the director of player personnel, thinks that once Martin adjusts to playing on the perimeter, he can be a major contributor.
"He played mostly inside in college and at 6-7 you can't do that in the NBA," Newell said. "We knew he would need time to learn what is, in essence, a new position for him. But we also thought that coming from a program like Georgetown with his intelligence, he could do it. We still do."
For now, Martin is averaging about nine minutes a game -- although he hasn't played at all in 15 of Indiana's games. He is scoring 4.0 points a game and getting about two rebounds. He gets homesick at times -- mostly for Georgetown.
"More than anything, I miss being there," he said. "I always felt I was part of something special there. I had known most of the guys I played with even before I got to college. I knew Coach Thompson when I was 14. The four years there were just great in every way. I'm glad I'm where I am today, but I still call back there a lot."
And, when the Pacers were in Washington, Martin headed straight for campus to see his old friends and his old coach. For the most part, though, Martin has not had that much trouble adjusting to his new life. He's a quick learner.
"Most kids who come into this league need two or three years before they understand what's going on, what you have to do to succeed," said Quinn Buckner, a teammate until the Pacers cut him last month. "Billy figured things out in half a season. That's pretty remarkable."
More remarkable perhaps is Martin's adjustment to bachelor life. His older sister, Theoni, has visited several times (she lives not far away in Bloomington, Ill.) and has given him a cookbook. Martin, who spent most of training camp eating at McDonald's, is cooking casseroles, stir fry oriental dishes and even banana pancakes for breakfast. That is progress.
But there's a long way to go.
"When I left Georgetown I never thought I would miss all the restrictions," he said. "I can remember getting into trouble because I would sneak members of my family into hotels to see me. I knew I'd be glad to have all this freedom. But now that I have it, I get myself into trouble sometimes and I almost wish there was someone there to tell me, 'No.' I have to make those decisions now.
"But I think I will and I think I'll get better at my basketball. I know now it's going to take longer than I thought it would, but my goal is still to be an all-star someday. Maybe it won't happen. If it doesn't, I've got my degree, I can go do other things. In the meantime, this is exactly what I want to be doing right now.
"It's work, sure, but there's nothing wrong with that. That's why I'm here, to work and get better."