If you asked 10 fans to name the best player in Murray State history you might get half a dozen different names. And it's really an impossible question to answer. But Jeff Martin would have to be in the conversation.
Martin is the all-time leading scorer in the history of college basketball in the state of Kentucky. He won the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year award twice and was named OVC Male Athlete of the Year twice. He is one of 11 players in MSU history to earn all-conference honors in three consecutive seasons.
He holds six school records – most points in a single season, most points in a career, most field goals in a single season, most field goals in a career, highest 3-point field goal percentage in a single season, and highest 3-point field goal percentage in a career. He is among the top-10 in five other categories. And it's worth noting that he is third in career blocked shots.
Martin wasn't just a scorer either. He was one of the best all-around players to ever wear a Racer uniform. And yet, it was almost an accident that he wound up at Murray State.
“Shortly after I was hired I got a call from one of our fans in Paducah,” former MSU head coach Steve Newton recalled. “He had overheard a conversation about a player who was visiting Paducah Community College. We did some research and found out that it was Jeff Martin from Cross County High School in Cherry Valley, Ark.
“I sent Mike Dill, one of my assistants to take a look at him and he found Jeff shooting in the gym in his street clothes. Well, Mike called and said, 'He's hit 10 shots in a row. Do you think we ought to recruit him?' And I said absolutely, let's bring him in for a visit.”
Cherry Valley was so small it made Murray look like a sprawling metropolis by comparison.
"It was a town of about 500 people,” Martin recalled. “Everyone knew everyone else. The kids I played with when I was little are the same kids I played ball with in junior high school and high school.
“I started playing organized ball in the fifth or sixth grade. I played football, basketball, and baseball. I played everything. I liked football better than basketball. We played a lot of football when I was growing up. We played basketball too but we played more football than anything else.
“I grew up in a competitive atmosphere. My sister Diane was all-state in basketball. To this day I still haven't beaten her. My brother Wayne was all-state in football and basketball and he went on to play at Arkansas and in the NFL for the New Orleans Saints. We always took sports seriously.”
Martin starred in both football and basketball at Cross County, playing alongside his brother.
“From my sophomore through my senior year we went 35-2 in football,” he said. “My sophomore year we went undefeated in the regular season and lost in the playoffs. My junior year we went undefeated in the regular season and lost in the semifinals. My senior year we went 14-0 and won the state championship. I played receiver and free safety.
“My junior year we played Harding Academy in the playoffs. We were 12-0. But they beat us by one point. I've never seen such disappointment. Our players, fans and coaches were all crushed. I saw my brother break down and he was a tough guy. We played that same team the next year in the playoffs and we beat them.”
As a senior, Martin earned all-district honors and was named to the all-state playoff team. In four playoff games he intercepted five passes.
He also excelled on the hardwood as he strove to emulate one of the game's all-time greats.
“I really admired Kareem Abdul Jabbar,” he recalled. “I liked him because he was so consistent. He scored in double figures in almost every game. And I always wanted to be consistent.
“In basketball we were just so-so my sophomore year. But we were good my junior and senior year. When I was a junior my brother was a senior. He averaged 20 points and I averaged 18. We both made all-conference, all-region, and all-state. He was a great athlete.
“We got beat in the regional by a team that... Well everyone gets bad calls now and then but we had some tough calls go against us. I won't say that they cheated but they pretty much did. They were an all-white school and we were mixed.”
Martin averaged 32 points, 16 rebounds, and five blocked shots as a senior, while shooting 58 percent from the field and 80 percent from the free throw line. But until coach Dill made his way to Cherry Valley it looked like he might not even play Division I basketball.
“Arkansas State had offered me a partial scholarship,” he recalled. “And I had some offers from Central Arkansas and some other NAIA schools. Murray State was the only Division I school that offered me a full scholarship.
“I was from a small town and I was a 6-5, 175 pound center. No one knew whether I could shoot or play on the wing. They just saw a skinny kid who could score around the basket.”
When he got to Murray, Martin quickly discovered that college basketball was going to be more demanding than he had expected.
“I remember my first day on campus, we played a pickup game that night,” he recalled. “There was this guy, Owen Bronston. He had played my position the year before. And he was shooting it from deep right in my face and yelling, 'Christmas!'
“He was really good. I remember going back to my room and thinking I really had to get with it. I was also a little ticked off because I'd never had anyone talk trash to me before. And I think that drove me more than anything.
“I wasn't one of the highly recruited guys. We had some highly recruited players from Ohio and St. Louis. So I didn't know what to expect. But after playing against those guys in practice I wasn't surprised that I got to start as a freshman.”
That first year (1985-86) Martin averaged 11.7 points while shooting 47.2 percent from the field. By midseason the Racers were starting two freshmen, Martin and Don Mann. It was an up and down year as they finished 17-12 overall and 8-6 in OVC play. But they were a perfect 14-0 at home.
“My freshman year I won the team's Defensive Player of the Year award,” Martin recalled. “I guarded the other team's best player. If I scored, I scored. If I didn't, I didn't.”
The next season saw Martin develop into one of the best players in the league as he averaged 21.2 points while shooting 52.3 percent from the field and 40.5 percent (15-for-37) from 3-point range in the first year after the adoption of the new rule.
“I didn't think anything about it,” he admitted. “I didn't make a conscious effort to shoot the 3 until I was a senior. When I came off of a pick wherever I caught it, that was where I shot it from. I had more 3-point plays than I did 3-pointers. In one game against Morehead I had six 3-point plays.”
Unfortunately, Murray State stumbled to a 13-15 record, 6-8 in OVC play and just 8-5 at home.
“We had some good players,” Martin declared. “Sometimes we played well and sometimes we didn't. There were a lot of good teams in the league then. Going 17-12 and 13-15 was difficult because we had all won a lot of games in high school.”
The 1987-88 season looked like a repeat of the previous two years as the Racers won just six of their first 13 games. But once conference play began they got on a roll, winning 16 out of 17 games at one point. And Martin was better than ever, averaging 26 points while shooting 55.8 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from behind the arc.
"The turning point in that season was the game at Memphis State,” Martin said. “We lost in overtime. But after that we knew that we could play with anybody. We got into conference play and some of those teams had beaten us with joy the year before. Somebody acting up like that always irked me.
“We only lost one conference game that year and that was to Austin Peay at Racer Arena. I remember Lake Kelly (Austin Peay's head coach) running his mouth after the game and telling people Murray State wasn't as good as everyone thought. That was on a Saturday and we played them again on Monday at their place. I didn't talk to anyone the rest of that weekend. I was mad. All I wanted to do was play them again and beat them. And that's what we did.”
“I remember that game,” Newton said. “We were down 10 points and I called time out and was talking about bracing up defensively and shutting them down. And Jeff said, 'We're okay. Just get me the ball five times and we'll be tied.' So, that's what we did. We wound up beating them 83-70.”
Murray State rolled into the NCAA tournament on a 10 game winning streak. Their reward was a first round game against highly regarded North Carolina State, a game the Racers would win 78-75.
“To me it was just another game,” Martin said. “We knew we were playing a good team. But we had played against good teams. After we won we had another game so we couldn't really enjoy it until we got back home. The gym was packed when we got back. We knew then that we had done something special.
“After the season I got a chance to go to the Olympic tryouts in Colorado Springs. John Thompson was the coach. That was an experience I won't forget. David Robinson was there. Alonzo Mourning was there, all those big name players. I saw that I could play with those guys and that gave me confidence. That's what got me started thinking about the NBA. Before that it never even crossed my mind.”
Much was expected of Martin and the Racers the next year and they did well. He averaged 25.7 points and set the single season school record for 3-point field goal percentage as he hit 65-of-131 attempts for 49.6 percent. The team finished 19-11 overall and tied for the conference championship with a 12-2 record in OVC play. But they lost to Peay in the conference tournament and failed to make it back to the NCAA.
Looking back, Martin treasures his memories of the fans and the unique atmosphere in Racer Arena.
“It was a special place,” he recalled. “You could literally feel people against the back of your legs when you took the ball out. Some of my best memories are from the games we played against Austin Peay there. We had fans, they had fans, and that place was rockin'.”
Martin's legacy is inextricably connected with that of teammate Don Mann as they both held down spots in the starting lineup from 1986-1989.
"Don and I were suitemates the whole four years I was there,” he noted. “We were close on the court and off the court. We never had any special signals though. I never had to point at the rim and he never had to give me a nod. He would just throw it up and he knew I was going to get it. I can't remember a time when he threw a bad pass.”
Newton says Martin was so good they had special practice rules for him.
“We gave him a red shirt that he wore during practices,” Newton said. “We wouldn't allow anyone to draw a charge on him and we wouldn't allow him to take a charge. We told our other players if Jeff got a breakaway not to try to block his shot or draw a charge because we were afraid he'd get injured.
“He was a great shooter, perhaps the best in the history of Murray State. He had great range but he also had strong post-up moves. He drew a lot of double teams and box-and-one defenses. But they never slowed him down.”
Following his career at Murray State, Martin was taken early in the second round of the 1989 NBA draft by the Los Angeles Clippers. In two years with the Clippers he averaged 6.7 points and 2.0 rebounds per game.
Martin continued his career in Europe where he played through the 2000-2001 season. During that time he had brief stints in the CBA and IBL. Through it all, Murray State was never far from his thoughts.
“I bought a house in Murray in 1991 and I kept it for 15 years,” he said. “I'd come back in the summer time and play pickup games. In 2001 I went back to school and got my masters in occupational safety at Murray State.
"My jersey was retired my second year in the NBA. I didn't actually find out about it until after the fact. Then in 2004 I was inducted into the Hall of Fame. It took a while and I was kind of like, 'Hey, what took so long?' But it meant a lot to me because of all the great players who've played at Murray State. I try to make it back whenever I can and I follow the Racers as best I can."