From dunks to deliveries: Former No. 1 Pick La Rue Martin’s Unlikely Success Story

La Rue Martin poses for a photo at a National Basketball Retired Players Association event.
La Rue Martin poses for a photo at a National Basketball Retired Players Association event. (Photo courtesy of La Rue Martin)

By Elan Kane

La Rue Martin Jr. thought his future was set. The Portland Trail Blazers had drafted him No. 1 overall in the 1972 NBA draft. Money and fame awaited.

Fifteen years later, he started work as a UPS driver, struggling to find uniform pants that fit his 6-foot-11 frame.

“There is life after sports,” Martin said. “Period.”

It’s been 45 years since the draft and Martin, a former Loyola University star, is now the UPS Illinois district public affairs and community services manager. He is labeled by many as one of the biggest busts in NBA draft history, but he is fine with that designation.

“I don’t believe in saying anything negative, you have no control over that,” Martin said. “I took care of my family, did what I had to do and I’m the type of person I can’t dwell off the negatives. I can’t. I kept my head up high and moved onto a positive mode of life and it has treated me very well.”

Martin averaged 5.3 points and 4.6 rebounds in 14 minutes per game in just four seasons with the Trail Blazers. He blames his low numbers on his lack of playing time, but many believe he was just not good enough.

“He didn’t get playing time because he [stunk],” said Boston Globe sports columnist Bob Ryan, who has covered the NBA for decades. “[Former No. 1 overall draft pick Michael] Olowokandi didn’t do much but I think he did more than that.”

Martin is used to the criticism.

“As a young man, reading the papers all the time, that bothered me, I must admit that,” Martin said. “But I hold my head up high now because I’ve been very successful in the corporate world.”

After retiring from the NBA in 1976, Martin began working at Nike in Portland before moving on to become a UPS driver.

UPS didn’t have much experience with 6-foot-11 drivers. They had to sew two pairs of pants together to fit Martin’s large frame.

“Everything about his whole beginning at UPS was a challenge, and he just constantly overcomes those things,” said George Willis, president of the UPS West region.

Martin slowly worked his way up the corporate chain, getting promoted to employment manager in Chicago before moving onto operations. In his current role, he is involved in UPS’ community service projects and develops relationships with congressmen throughout Illinois, receiving more than 100 emails a day.

“How the internet depicts [him as] the biggest bust ever in the NBA, I look at that as one of UPS’ greatest gains because what the NBA used for four years we’ve been able to use since 1987,” Willis said. “And since that time, over the last 30 years, we’ve had the opportunity to have a footprint in the community for political contacts, for business development, and it’s given the company the opportunity to grow in ways we probably would have never grown if he had stayed in the NBA. So their loss was our gain.”

Martin’s success is a result of his work ethic, a characteristic he picked up at a young age. He grew up in public housing in Chicago and washed dishes as a student at De La Salle High School to help pay for his education.

His mother kept a grocery bag filled with the hundreds of letters he received from potential colleges, but he chose to attend Loyola to be close to family. He scored more than 1,200 points and collected more than 1,000 rebounds at Loyola and gained popularity as a senior after outplaying UCLA star and eventual NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton at Chicago Stadium.

Martin’s work ethic recently was on display at an event in Los Angeles with Jesse Jackson.

“I don’t think La Rue slept the whole time he was here from ensuring the customers that wanted to meet Jesse met him to ensuring that myself and my staff were all taken care of,” said Willis. “I don’t think he ever stopped. He just constantly goes. … Tirelessly is an adverb I’d use when I think of La Rue.”

Martin is hard to miss because of his height. He is often stopped and asked if he played basketball. George Brooks, the president of UPS’ East region, nicknamed him “The Landmark.” Any time Brooks got separated from his wife at a party, he would tell her to look for Martin to find her way back to him.

Despite his large size, he is still able to connect with people.

“Even for a 7-foot guy, he has a lot of charisma,” Willis said. “He has a way of commanding the room, and not because he’s tall but because the things he says just make sense. He has a lot of common sense.”

Following his basketball career, Martin went through a battle with drinking, a problem his father, who died at age 40, also encountered. Martin now has been sober for 17 years and remains in touch with his Jesuit upbringing.

“I thank God every day for giving me another day,” Martin said.

Brooks credited Martin’s character for the reason he was able to overcome the adversity he faced.

“He went through a period of not being happy with himself but learned to look through that, shake that off look for new opportunities, take advantage of them and move on with his life,” Brooks said. “And I think that’s an outstanding individual and I think the character of a person like that is a fine example for other individuals to look to when they go through hard times.”

For years, Martin did not like talking about his basketball career. But in 2011, HBO Real Sports reporter Bryant Gumbel filmed a feature interview with him, which changed his public perception. More people started recognizing him and he became more comfortable talking about his history.

Martin frequently shares his story with high school students.

“I told them, you better have a plan A and a plan B. If you don’t make it, what are you going to do with yourself?” Martin said.

His main message: “There is life after sports.”

Reflecting on his basketball career, Martin’s only regret is not asking for more playing time. The Trail Blazers won the championship the year after he retired which “broke [his] heart.” But he still has fond memories playing against the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West. A photo of Martin playing against Wilt Chamberlain still hangs in his office.

But Martin has moved on from his basketball life.

“I don’t dwell off of sports,” he said. “Sports was very good to me. It has enlightened me to meet a number of people, I traveled the world, been to every state here in the U.S., been to about 14, 15 countries.”

Martin’s experience was just a big life lesson.

“When you’re the No. 1 draft choice, you have a lot of pressure,” Martin said. “I was a young man, 21, 22 years of age and you have a big zero on your back and people want you to produce. I didn’t have the opportunity to produce so they called me the worst draft choice in the nation, the big bust, but as you get older you learn how to live with it and I never say anything negative about it. They can’t take that No. 1 draft choice away from me.

“You just learn how to live with it and move on in life.”

Photo at top: La Rue Martin poses for a photo at a National Basketball Retired Players Association event. (Photo courtesy of La Rue Martin)