Kenyon Martin tilted his ear toward a Jersey mob Tuesday night, pretending he could not hear the throaty people chanting his name at home.
He pulled off his fire-red headband and walked toward the bench, Game 4 against Detroit long decided. He began waving a towel, inciting teammates and fans until the arena at the Meadowlands was awash in noise.
Rick Mahorn watched the scene from courtside, where the former Detroit Bad Boy was working as a radio analyst.
"Does he remind me of Dennis Rodman?" Mahorn asked. "No. All of Kenyon's stuff is true. It's showmanship, but it's real."
One of the few people making the Eastern Conference playoffs palatable again combined a nice line with nettlesome antics -- Martin had 16 points, 15 rebounds, a couple of chin-up dunks and three huge blocks in a 94-79 rout that evened the second-round series at two games each.
If Jason Kidd started the engine, Martin made it purr, pushing the building toward an emotional crescendo that left the Pistons reeling in this best-of-seven series. He sneered. He yelped. He held his hands on high, almost taunting the Pistons. He even rocked a courtside press table, maliciously pounding it after just missing a steal. "My hand is fine and my emotions were going," Martin said. "I just didn't want to break anybody's computer and pay for it."
Just like that, another NBA villain is born.
Reggie Miller, 38, and Karl Malone, 40, are almost too old to taunt. Latrell Sprewell is going on 34. Allen Iverson will be 30 next year. In a league almost devoid of first-round playoff drama -- three 4-0 sweeps -- bullies and enemies are now at a premium. Shaquille O'Neal, Brad Miller and Ron Artest can only do so much to rile the masses.
Rasheed Wallace argued a call in the first half, but he had to leave the game with a sore left arch. He was booed incessantly by Nets fans for almost two games, but they almost took pity on him as he limped off to the locker room.
So it's on Martin now to carry the ornery-player flame.
It's the oldest cliche in the league to say how bad the East is, to point out that bump-and-grind ball kills interest and ratings. It discounts the open-court games of Iverson, Baron Davis, Stephon Marbury, Tracy McGrady and Paul Pierce. The problem is, some of their seasons were over a month ago. Martin's antics and theatrics are needed today, more than the league knows.
In the first round, he mocked the New York Knicks. He pursed his lips on national television, looking directly into the lens of a courtside camera after a basket, shook his head to essentially say, "You can't hold me down. Nuh-uh, not now," and went out and eliminated the Knicks with 36 points and 13 rebounds in the deciding game.
Half of those watching probably cringed, convinced another NBA egocentric had ruined their viewing evening. The other half howled in laughter, enjoying the tats and 'tude of the irascible player they call "K-Mart."
And another player dividing basketball America kept on striding, straight through Detroit, toward the derisive chants of Pistons fans who want his head Thursday night in Game 5.
To the Magic-Bird-Michael generation, Martin is the player using and abusing the legend taped to the bedroom wall, dunking on the relics, sending Dikembe Mutombo toward Aruba, retirement or both.
He is the young Turk at the health club whose jersey needs to be grabbed, whose forearms need to be hacked, because he leaps higher and is so much more agile than anyone with a reconstructed ACL in the Saturday game. The most humiliating part is, he knows it and he rubs it in, sneering after a dunk, shaking his head to and fro. He makes himself so much easier to root against.
To the playground crowd, the Slam magazine brethren, he is their champion, their boy, in the most iconic sense. And whenever he lifts off, brings those knees up, throws it down hard and emotes a primal scream, Martin is exhibiting dominance and control in a world where his young, disenfranchised fans have none.
It used to be hard to cut Martin slack; he was suspended seven games for accruing 13 technical fouls and six flagrant fouls in the 2001-02 season. Last season, he had 13 technicals and one flagrant foul. His play often bordered on thuggish.
He honed his game and attitude at Cincinnati, where Bob Huggins's junior college mercenary program has always been more about intimidation than graduation. Martin also came into the league like so many young players today, halving the world into two groups: those who understood his tenacity and where it came from and . . . the haters.
And however myopic that may sound, there are haters. One prominent Western Conference coach pulled a reporter aside last year to say he was happy to see the Spurs and the Mavericks competing in the conference finals because the teams "are what basketball is supposed to be about." Asked what he meant, the coach cited the small number of players on San Antonio and Dallas with tattoos and implied that players with tattoos are more likely to be black and individualistic and, thus, less coachable.
Sometimes the NBA is not as colorblind as it makes itself out to be, and that kind of sad thought process obscures the personal and professional development of a player like Martin.
Martin was indeed headed down Rasheed Wallace's road. Early in his career he was too busy feeling persecuted by referees and others to understand he was undermining his ability to get calls down the stretch of a close game. But he applied the brakes to his anger, if not his ego. Not every questionable call became a morality play. He checked himself, whereas Wallace just kept going, until he almost alienated an entire league.
"All of a sudden, you can get tagged as someone who is a hostile individual," said Mahorn, who knows. "I've seen it happen. But Kenyon didn't let it. He knew he was too valuable to his team."
After Game 4, Martin met Detroit Coach Larry Brown in the foyer as they were readying for a postgame news conference. Brown shook his hand and said: "You know you got some calls tonight, right? Right." Martin barely nodded and tried to change the subject, introducing his mother to Brown. But somewhere in his psyche, he had to know: this a two-out-of three series -- in a conference where the game is suddenly watchable again and Martin had a lot to do with that.