They don't know it now, but the national hoop reporters who write the articles and tape the sound bites will soon discover that Seattle Prep junior small forward Martell Webster is a complex guy.
Notice we didn't call him complicated. Quite the contrary. He's unwaveringly simple and unencumbered in his approach to life. He is, nonetheless, a complex individual — the product of intensely varied emotions, circumstances and themes.
Complex enough for Seattle Prep athletic director Jeff Pietz to call him "an interesting kid, an unusual high schooler," while 13th-year head basketball coach Chris Miller describes him as "very unique." Talking to Webster, a 6-foot-6, 235-pound stud who's rated the nation's No. 6 overall recruit in the Class of 2005 by SchoolSports.com, those observations are immediately evident.
He is utterly respectful, but abrupt. There is a hint of defensiveness in everything he says, but, oddly enough, the tone is pleasing. Even appealing. Martell Webster turned 17 this past Dec. 4, but he speaks with the confidence of a guy twice his age. He is resolute. Self-assured.
"You have to say what you feel," says Webster, who averaged 20 points and 10 boards per game as a sophomore before missing much of his junior season with a high ankle sprain on his left leg (he didn't make his season debut this year till Jan. 30).
Of course, Webster is no stranger to feelings.
The dull ache of having a father who left while his mother was pregnant with him. And the horror of losing his mother, Cora McGuirk, as a 5-year-old when she disappeared in 1991. Her case remains open with the Seattle Police Department, and it's believed she was a possible victim of the Green River serial killer. Webster was essentially raised by his great-aunt Beulah Walker and mentored by cousin Stallone Braxton, who is eight years older.
There's also the distance from his native Chicago. He moved at age 1 for the better schools and neighborhoods of the Pacific Northwest, despite the fact that most of his immediate family still lives in Illinois.
There was also his dissatisfaction with his own developmental progress that prompted Webster to leave organized basketball as a grade schooler, choosing instead to work on his game in daily solo sessions for three years before returning to the Asa Mercer Middle School team as an eighth-grader.
And then his latest adversity: sitting on the sidelines during three months of rehab this year after leading the Panthers in scoring and rebounding as a freshman and following up with a breakout sophomore campaign that made him a star on the national scene.
Still, he cuts through the headaches and heartache with unrelenting practicality.
"The biggest conclusion I've come to about the injury is that I came to focus on much more important things than basketball, like school," says Webster, who was a preseason SchoolSports All-American selection this year.
Of course, that's the politically correct thing to say. But you get the sense he really means it. It's just the same when he talks about the pressure of fan expectations.
"I don't look at things that way," says Webster, who lives with Walker, his 13-year-old brother, Robert McCutcheon, and his 19-year-old sister, Monsheri. "I don't care what the fans expect. I don't care what they think. I just play. You go out there and you do the best you can."
If he didn't speak with such conviction, Martell Webster would be considered boring. Too vanilla. But he's not. He's edgy. And very hard not to like. Plus, just because he's grown up in a non-traditional family setting doesn't mean you should feel sorry for him. Webster has a definite sense of family. Fact is, he can't wait for his family's next every-other-year reunion (he attended last year's in Arizona), which is slated for Seattle in 2005.
"He hasn't had it easy, but I think some people are just born with something in their genes that allows them to overcome," says coach Miller, 43, a former Seattle Prep defensive back. "He's had as much or more love in his life as anyone — between his great-aunt, Stallone, various aunts and uncles and his siblings. It's not all blood-related love, but these adult family friends make him feel wanted. If all of my players had a family like that, I'd be fine."
Webster actually relates to adults as well as he does to peers. Perhaps better. Miller recalls a seven-hour bus ride to Gonzaga's team camp in Spokane last summer when Webster sat with him the entire ride, engaging in a balanced dialogue the whole way.
"He's almost innocent, in a way, like that," says Miller, who guided the Panthers to the Class 3A state championship in 2000 and the state final four the following year before recording back-to-back 17-8 campaigns the last two seasons. "He rode up there in the front seat with his coach and didn't worry about what his teammates thought. You won't find many guys like that anymore."
You also won't find many guys with his game. NBA range from the perimeter and a body ready for the next level. With amazing athleticism.
"When you first see him, you wonder how athletic he's capable of being," says Miller. "Believe me, that's no longer a question. His shooting ability is brilliant and just God-given. The real tragedy of this injury is how much he had improved from September to November, which he's not able to show. We'll see it next year."
Next year is when the real crunch will come. And Miller knows it, saying, "The only blessing about this injury is that it's kept the hype down another year." Webster, quite predictably, doesn't sweat any of it. Not the hype, the recruiters or the playa haters sure to label him. None of it.
"I don't listen to the media hype," says Webster, who is tight-lipped about his college favorites. "And my basketball ability isn't God-given, it's the result of a lot of hard work. People should know by now it takes hours and hours to become a good player. I'm not really bugged by the college recruiters thing, either. I'm not going to depend on what somebody tells me about a school. I'll look into it myself."
You get the sense he means it.