The Future - Martell Webster
This article appears in the May/June 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
Reality-check injuries, he calls them.
Not sprained ankles or even separated shoulders. Nah, he's talking about career-threatening injuries. The kind shown on "SportsCenter" over and over again even though you cringe every time you see them. You know, like when Willis McGahee thrashed every ligament in his left knee during the 2003 Fiesta Bowl.
It's in the aftermath of those moments — when the wound is still fresh — that you tend to put sports in the proper perspective, he says. It's these injuries that teach you about yourself, about what's important and what's trivial.
He is Seattle Prep senior shooting guard Martell Webster, a SchoolSports All-American who signed with Washington but could be a first-round pick in June's NBA Draft (he was still undecided between college and the pros at press time).
And you'd never know it considering he averaged 27.1 points, 10 rebounds and two assists per game this season, but he knows all about these so-called reality-check injuries.
Only two games into his comeback from a left-ankle injury that kept him out the first two months of his junior campaign, disaster struck when Webster dislocated his fibula and ruptured ligaments in his right foot in a Metro League semifinal loss to Rainier Beach last February, ending his season immediately and putting a gigantic question mark on his career.
In the weeks following the injury, Webster ballooned up to a soft 240 pounds and was unable to do the most elementary physical activities. It took him weeks just to be able to ride the stationary bike.
"He was very, very down," says Seattle Prep athletic director Jeff Pietz. "When it happened, I think it took something out of him."
"That was when I felt I was at my lowest moment," says Webster, whose second injury occurred in overtime after his potential game-winning shot from the opposite free-throw line was disallowed by the refs. "I thought it was all over then because the doctor wasn't looking too sure about my future."
The doctors were wrong. More than a year has passed since Webster suffered the injury, and his ankles are as good as new, his jump shot is as sweet as ever and he's back down to a ripped 230 pounds.
The 6-foot-7 swingman emphatically announced his return as arguably the most NBA-ready player in this year's high school senior class by scoring the West team's first eight points during a 90-second stretch at the McDonald's All-American Game in March and following that up with a 22-point effort at April's Jordan Classic in New York City's Madison Square Garden.
"He's certainly the most talented player I've been around," says Seattle Prep head coach Michael Kelly, who just completed his first year with the Panthers. "He has the body, he has the strength. I think that he's got a bright future."
But the road back wasn't easy.
Webster spent hours on the stationary bike, swam hundreds if not thousands of laps in the pool and performed countless reps in the weight room before he could even dream of playing in a pickup game.
By the time the AAU circuit and Nike All-America Camp rolled around last summer, Webster's ankles still weren't completely healed. Instead of playing like his usual explosive self, Webster spent much of the summer toiling around the perimeter to avoid another injury, picking apart teams with his jump shot and earning a reputation as a Ray Allen-like gunner as opposed to the Paul Pierce take-it-to-the-rack comparisons he was getting prior to the injury.
"I don't know if he had a whole lot to prove," Pietz says. "He was looking out for his future. Martell was smart enough to know he had a future in college basketball whether he played or not. With that injury, it allowed him to kind of think about his future a little more."
As physically draining as the comeback was, it tested his emotions even more. That reality-check injury didn't just scar his ankles, it forever changed his approach to life.
Now more than ever, Webster approaches life and basketball with a hint of trepidation. He knows how easy it is to fall from grace because he almost did. Everything Webster went through to get back on top gave him a new lens to view life through.
"Any of those injuries could have ended my basketball career," says Webster, whose cousin is Dallas Mavericks point guard Jason Terry. "I learned to cherish life, don't have any regrets. Life isn't all about sports. Life is about family, growing up, learning, having kids, settling down. The injury helped me realize that."
Although his injury magnified his family's importance to him, the truth is he's always had a close family, if not a nuclear one. His great-aunt, Beulah Walker, has been Webster's guardian since 1991, when his mother, Cora McGuirk, disappeared and was believed to have been a victim of the Green River serial killer. Although he refers to Walker as his grandmother, the truth is she's been more of a mother.
"I say she is an idol-icon," says Webster. "I've looked up to her since I was little. She's the most important thing in my life."
And as a constant reminder of that, prior to his senior season, Webster got her name as well as his mother's name tattooed on his left bicep under text that reads, "I Will Always Be Watching."
In addition to Walker, Webster lives with his siblings, 14-year-old brother Bobby and 20-year-old sister Moncheri, who he's also extremely close with.
Of course, Webster's new approach to life doesn't mean basketball is now an afterthought. On the contrary, that tumultuous junior year helped Webster put the game in proper perspective. It helped him realize that basketball is still the same game it was when he was a promising 11-year-old baseball player who decided to concentrate solely on hoops because of an undying passion for the game.
After all, without the love, you really think Webster would have gone through such torture just to play again?
Which is why he turned into a giddy grade-schooler in April at the Jordan Classic when M.J. himself addressed Webster and his teammates during a question-answer session. It's also why moments before the McDonald's All-American Game, Webster stood in the tunnel of the Notre Dame gymnasium and couldn't mask his excitement.
Remember, it wasn't long ago he was sitting in a doctor's office, ankle wrapped up, hearing doctors say his career might be over.
"It took a lot of determination and a lot of effort," Webster says. "It was a really great relief to know that working your tail off is going to get you good results."
Turns out, even reality-check injuries have a happy ending sometimes.