No one seemed to notice Cartier Martin. He made the short walk down the sidewalk from his hotel to the arena one morning last week wearing a sweat suit, sneakers and a backpack. Though he stands 6 feet 7 and makes a living playing professional basketball, heads didn’t spin and eyes didn’t pop.
Such is life on the margins of the NBA. For every megastar earning tens of millions, there are several more players like Martin who can always hear the clock ticking. As he crossed Seventh Street NW and made his way to Verizon Center, Martin knew he only had 10 days to prove himself.
Martin, 27, is a member of the Washington Wizards — at least temporarily. After starting the season in China and continuing it in Des Moines, he was finally signed by Washington to a 10-day contract on March 28. Perform well and he might receive an extension. Play poorly and he’d again be looking for work.
It’s a routine with which Martin is familiar. This marked his fifth career 10-day contract. He’s played in the NBA’s Development League, and overseas in Turkey, Italy and China. It’s an uncomfortable, nomadic life. Last summer, he visited a Texas tattoo parlor and had some more work done on his left arm, adding the words “Beware of the grind” to his ink collage.
“That’s what I do,” Martin says. “I grind.”
While the Wizards are playing out the string, Martin is auditioning — for next season and even for the next week. It’s been his unconventional reality since he left college in 2007, but it doesn’t necessarily get easier.
“It’s tough on your body, tough on your mind,” he said. “It can get stressful, but you just have to fight through. You don’t know when your next move is going to be, where you’re going to be in a week, when you’ll see your family again. You just keep grinding and hope it pays off.”
In Washington, he had 10 days to prove that he belonged, and the Wizards had 10 days to decide whether Martin deserved another contract.
The Iowa Energy rolled into Erie, Pa., and Martin and his roommate, Patrick Ewing Jr., checked into the Fairfield Inn before reporting for morning shoot-around. The team was scheduled to play that night, resuming a contest postponed 18 days earlier due to a sticky floor. Coaches told Martin the Wizards called and wanted him in Washington as soon as possible. The Wizards were battling injuries and had an open spot on their bench.
“We do a lot of scouting in the minor leagues, we keep track of these players since they were in college, and we try to make a decision based on what kind of player we need,” said team President Ernie Grunfield. “Cartier was right at the top of the list.”
Martin grabbed what little he’d brought to Erie — a sweat suit, a T-shirt, three pairs of underwear, sneakers, couple pairs of socks — and headed to the airport. A car service picked him up at Reagan National Airport and took him to the Hotel Monaco in Penn Quarter.
“They could’ve told me to sleep on the streets and I wouldn’t care,” said Martin, who’d previously played for the Charlotte Bobcats and Golden State Warriors and spent most of last season on the Wizards’ bench. “I was just happy to be back.”
The next morning Martin reported to Verizon Center and underwent a quick physical. He scribbled his name on a contract and immediately reported to his first practice. The clock began ticking; Day 1 had begun.
Forty-three 10-day contracts have been signed this season in the NBA, but only 10 were immediately extended beyond the initial 10 days.
Though there is no long-term guarantee, making the jump from D-League to the NBA is a cozy one. Following that initial practice, Martin and his teammates hopped a flight to Indianapolis, where his first game was one night away. Martin didn’t have a change of clothes but the Wizards gave him an extra sweat suit.
In addition to going from the Fairfield Inn to five-star hotels, Martin’s per diem jumped from $30 a day on the road to more than $100. The maximum salary in the D-League is $25,000 for an entire season; Martin was scheduled to earn more than $50,000 for 10 days in the NBA.
“It’s not about the salary, though,” he said. “It’s about the dream.”
Still, the money is always a consideration, especially now.
Martin appeared in 52 games for the Wizards last season before a stress fracture in his left foot prompted Washington to release him. The team paid for his surgery, but he wasn’t able to play basketball throughout the summer.
Back home in Houston, Martin’s grandmother, 86-year-old Earlier Mae Martin, had passed away, and Martin was making the 115-mile drive to Crockett for the funeral. It was a tough day for everyone in the family.
On the drive, Martin made a phone call to transfer some money — to help control spending, he had only a small amount accessible at any given time — and ran into an problem. He’d turned most of his money over to be managed by Dave Salinas, a friend and mentor. Salinas, a successful Houston area financial adviser, guided Martin through AAU ball, had been a constant confidant and even bought Martin his first car. “A father figure,” Martin calls him.
Martin didn’t know what was wrong with his account and didn’t have time to figure it out. He attended the funeral and when he turned on his phone later, he was inundated with text messages: Have you heard the news?
Salinas had shot and killed himself. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission had unearthed a Ponzi scheme in which Salinas reportedly told his clients he was putting their money in corporate bonds. In all, Salinas may have defrauded more than 100 investors of more than $50 million, according to court records, and people like Martin, Texas Tech Coach Billy Gillispie and Gonzaga Coach Mark Few lost their entire investments.
“I had just seen him two weeks before that. He took me to lunch and he was telling me how proud he was of me for being able to save my money,” Martin said. “It just really hurt. He played me. I felt betrayed by the whole thing.”
Martin said he lost “hundreds of thousands.” While he’s working with attorneys to recoup some of that money from Salinas’s estate, he was instantly put in a bind last summer. Martin said he had only $1,000 in his account and with the NBA lockout jeopardizing the 2011-12 season, he didn’t know when he’d receive another paycheck.
In October he signed to play for the Jilin Northeast Tigers in Changchun, China. The gig would pay $250,000 for a four-month season, but it also meant he’d have to leave his wife, Shallanie, 26, and 1-year old son, Cartier Jr.
His wife tried to send photos and video as often as possible, but it wasn’t the same.
“It’s been very difficult,” his wife said. “This is the first year where we haven’t been together the entire year. It feels like I’m a single parent at times.”
In China, Martin quickly learned to text and Skype with his iPad. Still, he felt far from home, far from his family and far from his dream.
Months later, because of his tenure in Washington the previous season, Martin didn’t need much time to pick up the Wizards’ system. “Once you get out there, you’re playing off instincts most of the time,” he said.
He logged 20 minutes in his first game against the Pacers, scoring 10 points and pulling down five rebounds. The team traveled back to Washington immediately following the game and had a date with the Philadelphia 76ers the next night. It was the third day on Martin’s contract and he knew he couldn’t afford to waste any of them.
“You feel like you have so much pressure on you,” he said. “It’s like, you can’t make any mistakes but at the same time, you have to remain poised.”
Against the 76ers, Martin scored a team-high 20 points and pulled down six rebounds, and the Wizards snapped a five-game losing streak. After the game, Washington owner Ted Leonsis had a hug for him, and Martin faced a crowd of media members afterward.
“Everybody has good games and everybody has bad games,” Martin said. “You could go from 20 points one night to zero the next.”
The Wizards flew to Toronto the next day for a Sunday game against the Raptors. Sure enough, Martin failed to score, missing on his only shot attempt.
Back in Washington the next day, Martin finally had time to visit a store and pick up some clothes. That night he played 23 minutes and scored seven points in a loss to the Bucks. All he could think about were his five missed shots, though.
With only four days and three games remaining, he hadn’t yet earned a contract extension. “The league is about being consistent” he said. “Everyone's capable of scoring. But it’s all about doing your job consistently.”
He returned to the hotel and couldn’t sleep. He flipped through the television channels and cruised around Facebook. He didn’t fall asleep until 4 a.m.
The alarm clock buzzed at 9:45 a.m. on the seventh day, and Martin quickly reported to work: a morning of weights, a visit with trainers and a masseuse, and then some time on the practice court.
Over lunch afterward, he picked at a hamburger and tried to explain his precarious position. “Of course, I worry about what’s going to happen,” he said. “I’m confident, though, in my game that I’ll be able to stay. You can’t think about it too much. There’s only so much you can control.”
Martin knows each night he’s not only playing for Wizards’ talent evaluators. There are 29 other NBA franchises that will be reviewing tape. For Martin, each of the 10 days serves as an audition to the entire league.
This season’s 10-day contracts have not been typical. The lockout condensed the NBA schedule, and while Martin’s previous 10-day stints netted him just a couple of games each, he was seeing far more court time in Washington — a total of seven games in 10 days.
While his numbers hadn’t been terrible, Martin also wasn’t sure what the organization thought of him. There are no daily progress reports and word of an extension doesn’t usually come until the final day. Martin knew that in a couple of days, he’d either be returning to Iowa to collect his belongings or he’d likely finish out the season in a Wizards uniform.
“You never know,” Wizards Coach Randy Wittman said of Martin’s contract on Day 8, before morning shoot-around. “You want to look at them. How they play dictates how much time they get.”
That night against Indiana, Martin played 19 minutes and scored four points in a loss. He missed both of his three-point attempts. It was another frustrating outing, but he didn’t have time to dwell. Following the game, he blended in with the fans outside the Verizon Center as he walked back to his hotel.
He talked to his wife on the phone and they discussed a possible visit in Washington — if he gets extended. They’d seen each other just a couple of times this year — when Martin returned from China and during a visit in Des Moines.
Martin stood in the hotel lobby shortly after 10 p.m., waiting on Eric Waters, the Wizards’ head trainer, to pick him up for the airport. The team had road games each of the next two nights, two final opportunities for Martin to make his case for a permanent job.
“Now the pressure is really on,” he said.
It was around midnight Saturday when Martin and the Wizards returned to Washington, touching down at Dulles International Airport. They’d lost two more games on the road. Martin had six points in 13 minutes at Detroit on Thursday and one night later put seven points in 29 minutes at New Jersey. He played well but didn’t know if he played well enough.
His contract expired after Friday’s game but management asked him to hang around Washington. His services were still needed, and the Wizards offered another 10-day contract. He was relieved and grateful but also well aware that the new deal also extends the lingering uncertainty by another 10 days.
On Sunday morning, Martin will again make the short walk from his hotel to the Verizon Center to scribble his name on a piece of paper, and the clock will again start ticking: Ten more days to prove himself.