Sports Vault: No. 1 UC was riding high in March 2000. And then ... Kenyon Martin broke his leg
Player of the year wouldn't play in NCAA Tourney
Ryan Clark | WCPO contributor
5:00 AM, Feb 28, 2017
4:05 PM, Mar 1, 2017
CINCINNATI -- It was just three minutes into the game.
That's when a player's life changed, a team's fortunes changed, and a city's championship hopes changed (again).
Cincinnati Bearcats fans remember it well.
Coach Bob Huggins' team, ranked No. 1 in the nation, had reeled off an amazing season, undefeated in the conference. The Bearcats were ready to cap it off with another championship run through the Conference USA Tournament in Memphis. UC was heavily favored against Saint Louis in the quarterfinals.
And then, in the March 9, 2000 game, just three minutes in, everything changed.
That's when Bearcats center Kenyon Martin, the best player in the country, stepped out to set a screen and collided with Billikens player Justin Love. Martin's right leg bent awkwardly, and his foot was caught underneath his body. Martin heard something snap.
He went down -- hard -- as did Cincinnati's national title hopes.
"I knew it was broke," Martin told ESPN afterward.
After visiting the hospital and getting a cast, Martin returned to the arena with his broken leg to watch the remaining 11 minutes of his team's game against Saint Louis. But he could do nothing to help his teammates, who were still reeling from their star's injury. Cincinnati lost, 68-58. Just five days earlier, with a healthy Martin, Cincinnati had beaten Saint Louis by 43 points.
The effects of the injury did not stop there. Cincinnati went from being No. 1 in the country to being saddled with a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
"My frustration is for (the players)," Huggins told ESPN. "I think I'm going to be able to do this a lot longer and will have more good teams. This was their chance. I think in life you have very few chances to be special."
The 6-foot-9, 240-pound Martin had led Conference USA with 19.5 points a game and 10 rebounds a game. He had the top field-goal percentage (57 percent) and led the league in blocked shots per game (3.57). He became the career blocked-shots leader for both Cincinnati and Conference USA with 292, and he set the single-season mark with 107.
He would never play for Cincinnati again.
The Bearcats went on to lose in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to No. 7 seed Tulsa, 69-61. They finished the season 29-4.
Chris Littman, of SBNation.com, later rated Martin's injury as his Moment of the Decade.
"When you're from Cincinnati and you're around my age -- I'm 27 -- you've lived through a pretty fair amount of sports heartache," he wrote. "Most of it was the kind of bad stuff that was just bad heaped on top of bad, so you never really felt the difference between any of the losing."
But Martin's injury was different, he said.
"I was a junior in high school in Cincinnati. I had season tickets to the University of Cincinnati Bearcats hoops team that just so happened to be No. 1 in the country for a good lot of the 1999-2000 season," he wrote. "I remember hearing that Martin might have rolled his ankle. No biggie! This team was stacked with future NBA talent. Let him rest the remainder of this week and the first two rounds of the tourney. Return for the Sweet 16 and we're good to go. And then it was maybe a little more serious. And when I finally made it to my car after school around 2:30, the news on the radio was that his season was finished. The player of the year wouldn't be part of the NCAA Tournament."
Littman said Cincinnati's history of sports heartbreak, as well as the unexpected nature of the cruel injury, made that moment resonate with him.
"It was snatched away in a manner that was completely unprecedented," he wrote. "It's still a little bit depressing to think about today."
Dan Hoard, the voice of the Bearcats, wrote in his column in 2016 that he would still "marvel at the composure (Martin) showed in handling such heartache."
"It was minute compared to the things I had been through leading up to that injury," Martin told Hoard. "Me and my mom being homeless at times and the things we went through as a family -- on a scale of life, (the injury) was minute. If I was able to walk again, I was going to play again. I'm a strong-willed person and I don't get down too easily. That was one of the times that I probably should have been down, but I was just worried about the guys and how they were going to react."
Martin would go on to become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2000 NBA Draft, chosen by the New Jersey Nets. It was the start of a 15-year NBA career, where he played in the All-Star game in 2004 and back-to-back NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003.
The injury did not ruin his career. It only ruined his senior season.
In 2015, the man nicknamed "K-Mart" by his fans, retired.
"It's been a great 15 years," Martin told Yahoo! Sports. "Thanks to all the fans that supported me over the years. But a time does come when you have to walk away, and the time is now for me. I'm ready for the next chapter of my life. I would like to thank the Nets, Nuggets, Clippers, Knicks and Bucks for the opportunity to play the game that I love."