CHICAGO -- In the summer of 2008, a letter arrived at the Chicago office of LaRue Martin. He opened it and was stunned by what he read.
The letter had been written by former Portland owner Larry Weinberg. He had heard how the one-time Trail Blazers center had turned his life around.
"You certainly are a wonderful role model in the work you are doing for UPS,'' Weinberg wrote July 19, 2008.
Martin felt a great sense of relief. For years, he believed he had let down the Trail Blazers by not living up to expectations as the No. 1 pick in the 1972 draft. And here was the former owner lauding him for his work later in life.
"I was shocked to death,'' Martin, 60, said of getting the letter. "(Weinberg wrote), 'LaRue, I'm very proud of you and what you've turned out to be. Basketball maybe was up and down for you but look at you.' He said, 'I'm very proud to be associated with you.'''
After 36 years, redemption had arrived.
Martin had been taken out of Chicago's Loyola University in 1972 ahead of No. 2 pick Bob McAdoo, a future Hall of Famer. But the 6-foot-11 Martin would go down as the biggest bust in NBA draft history.
In four seasons, Martin averaged a mere 5.3 points and 4.6 rebounds before being waived out of the league, his career done at 26. The years after were hard as Martin struggled to come to terms with his unsuccessful playing career. He had gotten an ulcer and became an alcoholic.
Eventually, though, Martin became a success in another walk of life. For the past 25 years, he's worked for UPS, the last 15 as community services manager of the Illinois district.
"He didn't do as well as he would have liked (in the NBA), but he really has in the game of life,'' said Weinberg, a Portland co-owner from when the team started play in 1970 until 1975 and then the majority owner until 1988. "He's someone for a lot of players to emulate.''
So how did Martin go from being the biggest draft bust to a position in which the team's former owner is calling him a role model?
How did he go from the depths of despair to hobnobbing with President Obama, something Martin has done on several occasions being that he's a well-respected corporate man in Obama's hometown?
How did he go from having no idea 35 years ago what he would do with the rest of his life to someone who now can say, "I'm not trying to brag, but I'm doing pretty well out here now?''
It wasn't easy.
'Expectations Were Over the Top'
It initially looked as if life would be easy for Martin, an All-American at Loyola, averaging 19.5 points and 15.7 rebounds as a senior in 1971-72. During what was still a rather unsophisticated time for scouting, Martin had gotten the attention of the NBA for two games in particular.
Although his Ramblers were clobbered, 92-64, at Chicago Stadium by mighty UCLA on Jan. 28, 1972, Martin had 19 points and 18 rebounds against sophomore and College Player of the Year Bill Walton, who had 18 points and 16 rebounds. The next day at Chicago Stadium, Martin had 32 points to 23 for star Marquette center Jim Chones in a 69-67 loss.
When the draft was approaching and the Trail Blazers had the first pick, McAdoo, who had left North Carolina after his junior year, was regarded by most as the best player available. But Stu Inman, Portland's chief scout and later general manager who died in 2007, initially wanted Martin because the team needed a center.
"I asked them, 'Who are you going to draft as the No. 1 player in the country?''' said Jack McCloskey, named the Trail Blazers' coach shortly before the draft. "Stu Inman says, 'We're probably going to take LaRue Martin.' I had never heard his name as far as being the No. 1 player in the country. He said, 'Who would you like?' I said, 'I would take Bob McAdoo.'''
McCloskey, who had coached against McAdoo at Wake Forest, eventually convinced Inman to take the 6-9 McAdoo, whom some believed was too undersized to play center. McAdoo was brought to Portland along with his agent, Al Ross, to hammer out a contract.
"I was outside this meeting room waiting and Stu comes out and says, 'It looks like you're going to get your guy,''' said McCloskey, who would later win NBA titles in 1989 and 1990 as Detroit's general manager and is now retired in Georgia. "Ten minutes later, he comes out and says, 'Everything's off.' I couldn't understand why they couldn't come to an agreement for what was a small of amount of money for a guy who's going to be a Hall of Famer. ... I can't think of another (draft error) quite as catastrophic.''
Accounts differ greatly on what happened in that meeting, which included then Trail Blazers co-owner Herman Sarkowsky, Inman, Ross, Howard King, a lawyer who is now deceased, and McAdoo. However, McAdoo was not in for all the negotiations.
"They already had two (high) first-round picks in Geoff Petrie and Sidney Wicks, and they paid them top dollar and I wanted the same amount,'' McAdoo said of Petrie, co-Rookie of the Year after being drafted No. 8 in 1970 and Wicks, Rookie of the Year after being taken No. 2 in 1971. "I wanted the same amount and they didn't want to do it. So my agent says, 'Wait until the second pick and you'll get the amount that they made.' I'm hurt because there's prestige in being the No. 1 pick. So I waited and Buffalo drafted me second, and I got the same amount.''
McAdoo, now an assistant coach with the Miami Heat, said he wanted $1.5 million over five years but the Trail Blazers offered $1.3 million. However, Sarkowsky said McAdoo was offered the $1.5 million, and wasn't in the room when the deal fell apart due to Ross asking the Trail Blazers to pay his 10 percent commission.
"When we met with McAdoo's agent, we thought we had struck a deal,'' Sarkowsky said. "We had agreed to a price. But at the last minute (Ross) said, 'I expect you to pay my commission,' which at the time was another $150,000. I got pissed off and I said, 'Absolutely not'... Sure, I have a regret (at not just paying the $150,000), but hindsight is perfect ... The fact that we drafted (Martin) was probably my error.''
Ross called it "the biggest crock I've ever heard'' that he demanded $150,000 from Portland, saying his commission would have come from McAdoo. He said failing to reach an agreement stemmed from Inman's refusal to put in the contract a provision that would pay for several visits to Portland each season by McAdoo's family members in North Carolina.
"Most teams would make arrangements (such as that),'' Ross said. "So we asked Stu Inman to put that in. He comes back and says, 'Piss on it.'''
Ross said that meeting ended, and he and McAdoo returned the next day.
"(Inman said), 'Do we have a deal?' Ross said. "I said, 'In the famous words of the Portland Trail Blazers general manager, piss on it.' No, we don't have a deal.'''
Sure, the Trail Blazers could have drafted McAdoo anyway. But there was the threat of McAdoo bolting to the ABA. The Virginia Squires held McAdoo's rights but he said he pretty much already had made the decision to go to the NBA.
Regardless, the Trail Blazers selected Martin, signing him to a six-year deal worth just under $1 million, and McAdoo went No. 2 to the Braves. Martin became the first of several star-crossed centers to go high in a draft for the Trail Blazers, although it was injuries that would derail 1974 top pick Walton, 1983 No. 2 selection Sam Bowie and 2007 No. 1 draftee Greg Oden.
How much of a long shot was Martin to go No. 1? When he got the word, he was as surprised as anybody.
"Are you kidding me?' Martin said of his reaction when told by then Loyola coach George Ireland. "I never dreamed of being chosen as the No. 1 pick in the NBA. I just enjoyed playing the sport of basketball. I had no idea it would happen. ... Being the No. 1 draft choice, you came out with a big target on your back.''
When Martin showed up for training camp, it didn't take McCloskey long to conclude he wouldn't be an impact player. Martin weighed about 210 pounds, making it difficult for him to battle the NBA's many strong centers.
"He worked hard and was a very nice young man,'' McCloskey said. "But he wasn't skilled. It was that simple. I tried to develop his skills around the basket, and he wasn't an outside player. He didn't have the skills to be the No. 1 pick. Defensively, he was coming along I thought, but offensively he didn't grasp what was going on.''
Martin, though, said McCloskey never gave him a chance to develop. Martin averaged 4.4 points and 4.6 rebounds in 12.9 minutes as a rookie.
"Jack McCloskey didn't want me,'' Martin said. "He wanted McAdoo. ... If you don't get any playing time, how can you produce? I don't like to point fingers, but I don't think Jack really cared for me. If you don't have that relationship with your coach, what are you going to do?''
Martin recalled a Dec. 19, 1972, game when he made his first trip back to Chicago with Portland. He said he "bought a bunch of tickets for my family and I didn't get one ounce of playing time, and I was kind of hurt.'' McCloskey said he doesn't remember that game.
Making matters worse for Martin, McAdoo averaged 18.0 points in 1972-73 and was named Rookie of the Year. In McAdoo's second season, he won the first of his three straight scoring titles and led the once-brutal Braves to the playoffs while the Trail Blazers had the NBA's second-worst record in each of Martin's first two seasons.
"Most people around the league knew I was probably the best player in the draft that year,'' McAdoo said. "I think most people found out through the grapevine that it became a money thing (why Martin was drafted ahead of McAdoo).''
In his second season, Martin played even less, averaging 4.9 points and 3.6 rebounds in 10.8 minutes. The talk got even louder about Martin being a colossal bust.
"The media used to beat me up bad, especially back in New York,'' said Martin, who said he sometimes would cry at home. "(The media would write), 'Worst draft choice in the nation. Why did they draft him?' ... I felt bad, of course. I'm a young man, back then 23, 24, 22 years old. I even got an ulcer probably my third year worrying about this stuff, being talked about, being ashamed.''
The 1972 draft actually was weak, with McAdoo, a five-time selection, being the only player taken in the top nine to make even one All-Star Game. But selections such as No. 3 Dwight Davis, No. 4 Corky Calhoun, No. 5 Fred Boyd, No. 6 Russ Lee, No. 7 Bud Stallworth, No. 8 Tom Riker and No. 9 Bob Nash didn't have the burden of having gone No. 1 even if Lee and Riker actually had shorter NBA careers than Martin.
While McAdoo emerged as a star in Buffalo, Petrie and Wicks continued to excel for Portland. Having a pair of All-Stars on the Trail Blazers from the two previous drafts made it even more trying for Martin.
"To follow that I was Rookie of the Year and Sidney was Rookie of the Year was difficult,'' said Petrie, now Sacramento's general manager. "And when you're the No. 1 pick, expectations were over the top. It was just tough.''
'I Turned My Back on Basketball'
Yes, it was. Even when McCloskey was fired in 1974 and the Trail Blazers brought in Lenny Wilkens to coach, Martin's situation didn't improve. That's because Portland had drafted Walton to serve as the team's center of the future.
Injuries limited Walton to 35 games as a rookie, but Martin wasn't able to step in as his replacement and do much. Even though Martin averaged career highs of 7.0 points and 5.0 rebounds over 16.9 minutes in 1974-75, his per-minute numbers actually were worse than in either of his first two seasons.
By Sept. 2, 1976, not long after Jack Ramsay had replaced Wilkens as Portland's coach, Martin was traded to Seattle. Ramsay, who had been McAdoo's coach in Buffalo during the scoring star's first four seasons, soon learned it was best to not talk to Inman about Martin having been drafted No. 1.
"He didn't even like to talk about it,'' said Ramsay, a Hall of Famer who coached the Trail Blazers from 1976-86 and is now an ESPN NBA radio analyst. "It was a sore subject. Because LaRue couldn't play. He was trying to make the team when I got there, but we had no place for him. He had no offensive game. And he wasn't a rebounder or shot blocker even though he was 6-11. So he had no skills.''
Even though he had two years left on his contract, Martin was waived by the SuperSonics before the start of the 1976-77 season. By then, he was a defeated man.
"I turned my back at basketball,'' said Martin, who rejected several offers to play in Europe. "I was hurt by it. It destroyed my pride. My head was hanging real low. I started drinking. It was bad. I'm an alcoholic. I'm a member of AA today. (Martin drank) Remy Martin (a cognac). I was a heavy drinker. Scotch and J.B. ... I had mood swings, being ashamed of myself about basketball.''
When the Trail Blazers won the 1977 NBA title in the first year Martin was out of basketball, that was a low point. Martin was at home drinking.
"That was tough,'' said Martin, who said he hasn't had a drink since April 2000. "I got tears in my eyes. I don't think I even felt good for the team. I was very bitter. That was a bad feeling. I still think about it today once in a while, I admit it. I wish I could have been a part of it. I felt as though I was left out.''
'It's Been a Good Run'
Martin, though, eventually realized he had to get on with his life and support his family. Martin, who has been married to Kimberly Martin since 1997, then was married to Claudia, whom he divorced in 1993. They had two children, LaRue Martin III, now 38, and Tiffany Martin, now 32.
Martin returned to Loyola to finish his degree in sociology, paying for it himself. He worked in real estate and later took a job in marketing with Nike, based in the Portland area. He traveled around the country, seeking to sell products to high schools.
When there was a lull in the business in 1987 and Martin got laid off for a week, he began to look for other employment. Nike eventually sought to bring him back, but Martin decided to become a driver for UPS in Portland after being impressed during interviews about how the company promotes from within.
"After two or three days, I tried to quit,'' Martin said. "My division manager wouldn't let me quit. At first, it was embarrassing. A lot of friends, I'm not going to mention their names, that I played ball with or against years ago were kind of laughing, saying, 'LaRue's a truck driver today.' That bothered me. But I said, 'To hell with it.'''
After 6 1/2 months as a driver, Martin, exchanging a brown uniform for a coat and tie, was promoted to customer service and then became a supervisor. He continued to work his way up the ranks, moving to the Chicago office in 1990 as an employment manager and then into several other management positions.
It was in Chicago where Martin had grown up poor, having to put cardboard in his shoes to cover holes and wearing socks rather than gloves over his hands during the winter. Martin's father, LaRue Martin Sr., was an alcoholic who was found dead in his bed at 40 in 1968.
It was in Chicago where Martin had honed his basketball skills for his first career. And it was there he would take a big jump in his corporate career, being named to his current position in the mid-1990s.
Martin has about 40 UPS employees report to him. He's won numerous awards in the community, including the Most Beautiful People Award from the Chicago Urban League. He does a lot of charity work, helping raise money for scholarships for underprivileged kids and to keep youngsters off drugs.
"My job is to manage our reputation in the community,'' said Martin, who meets regularly with Illinois politicians on issues that might affect UPS. "I support a number of community-based organizations. I support their dinners, their brunches. It's been pretty good. It's been a good run.''
But as much success as Martin has had with UPS, it still took a while to come to grips with his failed NBA tenure. He declined interviews and cringed whenever he heard his name come up as a legendary bust.
Stan Deans, the UPS president of the Illinois district and Martin's boss, remembers hearing on the radio after raw center Michael Olowokandi was drafted by the Clippers in 1998 that "this guy's going to be the next Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) or the next LaRue Martin.''
That was the first time Deans, who then had a different UPS position, heard of Martin's NBA infamy. It also was around the time Martin decided to really confront his past.
"My son said something to me,'' Martin said. "It started to affect him a little bit. He said, 'Dad, I'm tired about people talking about you.' Even my district manager (at the time), Noel Massie, said, 'LaRue, you need to talk to (the media) and stop being so quiet and let them know how you really feel.'''
Martin gave a 2004 interview with Sports Illustrated, which featured him in its annual "Where are they now?'' issue. He granted an interview to a Chicago television station.
"It takes a while to get out of that shell,'' said Martin, who now wishes he would have tried to get another NBA job after being waived and had a 10-year career, even if as a journeyman. "I was in a shell.''
Early in the past decade, Martin took the step of joining the NBA Retired Players Association and went to a meeting during All-Star Weekend. He initially was apprehensive, believing he would hear negative talk about his career.
"I didn't know what people were going to think about me, to be honest,'' Martin said. "But they treated me well. As a matter of fact, I was shocked because a lot of the (former players) looked pretty bad. They came up to me and said, 'LaRue, you haven't aged. You look good.'''
Martin, still slender at 255 pounds, began to regain confidence when it came to basketball. He served on a panel in which he provided advice to recently retired players about how to have a successful second career.
"It bothered him for a while,'' said Wilkens, the Hall of Fame coach who is retired in Seattle but has kept in touch with Martin over the years. "But, if you don't have success in sports, there are other things. Life goes on, and I was happy to see how successful (Martin) has become. Basketball is only one part of your life.''
Not long ago, Martin ran into McAdoo for the first time in years. The two exchanged hugs and McAdoo was pleased to hear how well Martin was doing.
"He said, 'LaRue, look at you. I'm still in basketball, but you're in the corporate world,''' Martin said.
A lot of people now take a long look at Martin in Chicago.
"He can't go anywhere without running into people who know him,'' Deans said. "People know him through basketball and UPS.''
One who knows Martin through both is President Obama. The two first met when Obama served in the Illinois Senate from 1997-2004, representing a Chicago district. But Obama had known about Martin from his playing days.
Martin said he used to have Obama's cell-phone number, admitting it's now a bit more difficult to get in touch with him. But Martin did represent UPS at the inauguration in January 2009 and he ran into Obama at the Congressional Black Caucus in September 2009 while with since-retired UPS public-relations man Art Lucien.
"It was in the state room, and we knew (Obama would have) lots of secret service,'' said Martin, who also has met presidents Ford, Carter, Clinton and George W. Bush. "We went behind the curtain after he got done speaking. And, of course secret service (tried to stop the two). But (Obama) saw me and he came over and said, 'Let them through.' He gave us a hug (and said), 'Good to see you again. Where have you been?' I said, 'President, I've been working.'''
Obama is an avid hoops player and fan. As for the chief executive's ability on the court, Martin quipped, "His game's not that tough.''
Why shouldn't Martin joke about the game of Obama, who has done pretty well for himself since his basketball days began to fade? After all, Martin now can laugh about another guy who's done OK after hoops.
"It's a big joke now to me because, 'Hey, keep my name alive out there,''' Martin now says about being regarded as the NBA's biggest draft bust. "A lot of guys are forgotten about and I'm not forgotten about.''
No, Martin's NBA career hasn't been forgotten. He still gets four or five basketball cards in the mail each week to sign. He complies, and sends each one back with his business card.
The stats on the back of Martin's basketball cards might not be impressive. But the title on the front of his business card certainly is.