In today’s world of basketball giants, Slater Martin would still stand tall, despite his 5’10” stature. He was one of the all-time stars for the Texas Longhorns. He never made the National Basketball Association’s all-time team but those who did make it remembered him well.
Slater came out of Houston, where his grandmother got him interested in basketball at an early age. She put up baskets, even lights, in the backyard and Slater spent many hours out there practicing. He later led the Jefferson Davis high school team to a state championship in 1942, then hitch-hiked to Austin where he volunteered to play for Bully Gilstrap at the University of Texas. His college career was interrupted by two years in the Navy, but he then returned to lead the Longhorns to the National Invitational Tournament finals in 1948, earn all-conference honors two years and become an all-American in 1949.
The lure of professional basketball took Martin to Minneapolis, where the Lakers signed him for a $3,500 bonus. The Lakers’ George Mikan, a 6’10” superstar, mistook the diminutive Martin for a ball boy. George later recognized the smallest player in the NBA at the time as one of the game’s greatest competitors. Martin spent 11 years in the rough and tumble world of the NBA, and in 1964 was voted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.
Jack Gray was the Texas coach when Martin returned from his Navy tour of duty, and he put together a group of little guys who went far beyond their expectations. Martin set the Longhorn scoring record of 49 points, which another Texas shooting star, Raymond Downs, later equaled. Slater hit 21 field goals in that game against TCU in 1949. “If you had to name one thing as his greatest attribute, it would have to be his amazing coordination,” said Coach Gray. “He could have been a star in any sport.”
Martin would have been hard pressed to single out the highlights of his illustrious basketball career. Longhorn fans wouldn’t have that much of a problem. They’d point to that 1947 season when Texas went 26-2 and finished third in the NCAA tournament following a last-second loss to Oklahoma in the semifinals. Or they’d pinpoint the NIT finals the following year when Texas lost to New York University 45-43.
Martin was joined in the “Mighty Mice” backcourt by 5’10” Al Madsen and 5’8” Roy Cox, and the big guys were 6’3” John Hargis and 6’6” John Langdon. They were playing Oklahoma for the Western championship, and held a 54-53 lead with six seconds remaining, when a substitute Sooner guard got off a desperation that swished through the nets. The Mighty Mites dreams were shattered. They had beaten Oklahoma earlier in the season by 12 points.
Could the speed of that group counter the size of today’s cage teams? Could those little guys play defense? Those questions are moot. But there’s little doubt in the minds of teammates and rivals alike that Martin could play today. “He was a great team man, a leader, a shooter, a passer, a great ball hawk,” said Bill Henderson, who coached the Baylor Bears against Martin and the Longhorns. “And he was a great influence on others. He was dedicated to basketball, and unhesitatingly helped others.”
That time Martin spent in the Navy didn’t completely halt his basketball progress. They set up a basket in the hold of an attack transport, and Slater merely rolled with the sea and fired away.
But despite his fabulous days at Texas, the pro experience had to be the most satisfying for Martin. Lasting 11 years in the land of giants was quite an accomplishment. When Martin reported to Minneapolis, he was just one of 18 rookies, and he was the smallest. All loved to shoot, but only one cared anything about playing defense. That was Slater. He stayed, while most of the others bombed out.”
“I was a holdout every year with the Lakers,” recalled Martin later. “I felt like I was worthy of one figure and they didn’t. We had a hard time getting together.”
Finally, the Lakers traded Martin to St. Louis, and Slater helped spark the Hawks to three divisional titles and one NBA championship. When St. Louis owner Ben Kerner fired Red Holzman as coach in 1957, he offered the job to Martin, but Slater politely said, “No thanks, I want to play, not coach.” But Kerner was persuasive, although he had to agree to let Alex Hannun share in the coaching duties. At age 35, Martin retired in 1960.
As the best guard the Lakers had, Martin was matched up against the other teams’ best guard, guys like Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Larry Costello and Max Zaslofsky. Ironically, Martin scored his pro career high of 35 points against Cousy, one of the NBA’s all-time greats.
“Basketball isn’t all just shooting,” Martin contended. “You had to be able to think. You have to know your man, whether he can go left or right, keep him away from his best shooting spots,” explained Martin. “As for my own shooting, I generally faked and drove to the basket , but I didn’t shoot all that much. Somebody has to run the offense and play defense.” That’s what Martin did. When the Hawks played against Cousy, Sharman, Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn and Co., and won the NBA finals in 1958, Martin scored 12 points per game but mainly fed the ball to Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagen and Ed Macauley.
Martin had his glory days in college as one of a trio of little guys, his challenges in the pros as one of very few little men. Now he stands tall in the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.