Q&A: Damian Martin on the Art of Playing D, Those Painful Boomers Cuts and #30Straight

Let’s be real; Damian Martin is one of the best players to ever lace ‘em up in the NBL.

He and Darnell Mee are the only dudes in league history to have been named Best Defensive Player on five occasions and only Martin has done it five seasons in a row.  If defense truly does win championships then the Perth captain is one of the most valuable commodities in the NBL today.

With his long arms, massive hands, huge motor and relentless approach, Martin strikes fear into opposing guards the moment they receive the ball.  In fact, there are nights when his defense simply tears teams apart; picking more pockets than the Artful Dodger and kick-starting fast-break opportunities for the Wildcats.  Take the Sydney Kings, for example, many of whom are still receiving counselling following Damo’s 9-steal mugging on October 24 last year.

He’s also as tough as they come, having battled through numerous Achilles, knee and ankle injuries to play over 200 NBL games and win multiple championships with the Wildcats.

The Perth faithful absolutely love him - I mean, they lined up down the freakin’ street last season to get their hands on a Damian Martin bobblehead!

Martin spoke with Downtown this week about the state of the NBL, the art of playing D and why he’s not playing for the Gloucester Magpies Rugby League team.

Congratulations on the wedding mate.  How’s married life treating you?

[Laughs] It’s really just the same except now I spend half the day looking for where I’ve put the ring. I actually bought two wedding rings – two for $70 – knowing I’d lose it at some stage I just didn’t think it would be so soon.  Definitely glad I didn’t spend too much on them, that’s for sure.

How’d the celebrant [Greg Hire] go?

[Laughs] He actually didn’t pass in time so we had to get another celebrant in to do the legal side, though he got to do most of it.  When you go to a wedding and get introduced by your height, weight and playing position you know you’re somewhere special. He did a great job.

It’s been a tumultuous off-season for the league, but has it been business as usual for you personally in terms of working out and preparing for pre-season?

Well we’ve got a core group of guys that call Perth home now so in the off season not many of us go away.  When we don’t have scheduled practises, we play the game because we love it.  We go in most mornings and guys are getting shots up. It’s been business as usual, but like all NBL players we’ve been looking at the league saying, ‘What’s going on? When will they announce which teams are in?’  Hopefully there will be more confidence in the league now that Townsville has confirmed.

How much do you empathise with the guys at Townsville and Wollongong and all the uncertainty they’ve been dealing with over the past couple of months?

It’s horrible and it’s exactly that; all the uncertainty and waiting. In a way I was lucky [with the Sydney Spirit] because our owner flat out said “there’s not going to be a team” so we knew from day one.  That put me in a different boat because at least I could start planning for the future whereas these guys have been held in limbo for so long. My heart goes out to them because it’s a frustrating time, particularly for those guys who have families or mortgages. Hopefully now there’s going to be some good news around the corner from Wollongong.

Was there a point where you were genuinely concerned about the league moving forward?

I’ve always had confidence that Townsville and Wollongong would still be involved, or at least one would be, and that the NBL would go ahead. The frustrating part is not knowing whether good Aussie talent are going to be without a job next year playing in Australia. Aussies losing their jobs and having to look abroad is the last thing we want.

You’ve been named Best Defensive Player five times in a row… does it annoy you when people say that playing offense is about skill and ability and playing defense is just about effort?  

Look, there is an element of truth in that but the reality is you still need skill in every facet of the game.  I sometimes get frustrated with teammates because some of the defensive end is down to playing with a bit of ticker, but in saying that I like to think there’s some skill involved too, whether it’s hand quickness or being able to read the play or knowing your defensive scout.

It’s funny, one of the first things you teach kids is how to shoot the ball and one of the last things is how you get in a defensive stance.  Yet, shooting the ball is a lot harder than getting in a stance.  I’ve had great joy and pride in playing defense and I am a big believer that defense wins championships. There is probably more skill involved in shooting the ball, but in saying that, we probably don’t necessarily get the credit we deserve at times.

What do you think are the key attributes of a great defender?

I think being able to adjust to every single player and being able to read one or two passes or plays ahead; knowing a guy’s strength or his go to moves and trying to kind of read what he’s going to do with the ball. Just little things that you do on the fly and you do consistently.

Take Jessie Wagstaff, for example.  Jessie played at Metro State under Mike Dunlap who made you do suicide sprints or push-ups if you ever dropped your hand below your waist. It’s a very disciplined thing not to do but even to this day, even in a time out, or in huddles, Jessie will still have his fingers and hands up just under his neck because he got in that habit. It’s a great trait; if you can keep your hands up you limit a guys visibility. And if you’re always trying to have a go at the ball then maybe it takes half a second for them to make a different decision and take their mind off the game. Those little things can distract your opponent and don’t necessarily require a whole lot of skill.  You just have to do it every possession.

When you’re watching film of someone you’re going to be guarding in an upcoming game, what are you looking for specifically? 

If there’s a big possession or the end of a shot clock, usually people go to what they’re comfortable with or what they’ve practised the most so I like to know those.  When it comes down to scoring because it’s a big possession then guys usually go to something they trust the most so I like to know what those plays are because they’re usually done at an important moment of the game.

I’ll also go to some of the turnovers they’ve had and see if they don’t like being pressed or if they don’t like being double-teamed or aren’t a confident shooter.  Knowing where their turnovers or missed shots usually come from, those little things require a little bit of extra tape but I think are worthwhile.

What are your key areas on the floor? 

The half-court line is massive, you know, trying to judge where to press guys so they might not be able to go backwards into the back court or further down the sideline. There are definitely parts of the court that you’d prefer to push an opponent into. Most of the time the offensive player knows that so it’s just a matter of being good enough to force them there or knowing your team mates have got your back if you want to play a little bit closer and maybe put a bit more pressure on them and gamble a little bit.

It’s important to not only have the person on the ball switched on but also the guys behind them, whether it’s deep corners, half way, forcing them left/right, there’s a million little things you can do to try and get him in areas and that’s all dependant on the personnel.

Let’s talk about mental toughness for a second … most athletes who suffer a serious Achilles injury play in constant fear of it happening again.  You’ve had two. Does it play on your mind at all?

The only reason it plays on my mind is because of the tendonitis I get from it but, no matter what sport it is, you can’t play scared because of your body. I’ve always bought into ‘if you’re good enough to play the game then you’ve got to play at 100%’ and just trust that either your medical team is right or your body’s going to hold up. I’d be lying if I said that there’s no side affects of those injuries but, like most guys, once I’m on the court the last thing I’m thinking about is a current or a previous injury.

You played under Rob Beveridge with the Junior National Team, the Sydney Spirit and the Wildcats – how important was he in terms of the development of your career?

He was massive. I’d actually given up basketball to pursue rugby league and he called me up to see if my father and I were willing to meet with him.  I’d never met the guy before so we drove down to a McDonald’s of all places about an hour away from my little country town and that was the first time anyone had ever spoken to me about considering basketball as something I could pursue professionally down the line. He convinced me to give up rugby league and come back to basketball.

He made me a bunch of promises on that day and he lived up to every one of them; that he’d give me a NSW Institute of Sport scholarship, he believed I could make the Australian Emus team and that he thought I could play professionally one day and all three of those things he made reality. I’m very fortunate that he came into my life when he did otherwise I’d probably be playing for the Gloucester Magpies Rugby League team and working at home somewhere.

Are you surprised that an NBL club hasn’t gone after him hard in the last couple of seasons and signed him up?

I think it’s only a matter of time before he’s back coaching in the NBL.  Hopefully if there is an expansion team he gets a look into it or if a coach is to get fired or quit then I’m sure he must be high up on the list it’s just a matter of getting the job. He has a good lifestyle out in Perth so maybe he doesn’t want to move and he does a lot of work with Philippine basketball in particular but I don’t think it’s too long until we see him coaching at the senior level again.

You’ve come frustratingly close to making the Boomers team for the past two major tournaments… obviously that was gut-wrenching both times. Were you surprised either time?  Did you think you’d done enough to get selected?

You’re right, the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through mentally as a player was getting cut from the London Olympics. It was a life long dream and to get so close, it really knocked me about and the moment I relived that phone call a lot of times in the following months.

The reality was, I had two sessions working out with my ankle after that Grand Final ankle injury and I gave as much as I could but, it’s one of those things, I didn’t want to pull out of that camp through injury, but I went in there and didn’t want to speak up about the extent of it and I shot myself in the foot in a way. The reality was, they went with the best twelve and I sat back and had to watch it from home.  I still supported the guys because I’d grown so close to them over the last three years of the campaign but it was still tough to watch knowing how close I was to making that Olympic squad.

Last year I probably only got invited into the camp because Patty Mills had his injury and I went in there under-done.  I have no animosity towards not getting picked in the World Cup team because I think they made the right choices.  They went with the guys who performed best at the camp. Gibbo had an awesome camp, obviously you’re not going to cut Dante Exum and Dellavedova was coming off a great season, so I can’t look at anyone in that squad and think I was hard done by. They all thoroughly deserved to be playing in the worlds.


Look, every goal I ever set was based on making the Olympic team or playing for the Boomers… now that I’m a little bit older and I’m in the same position as Dante, Patty and Delly… I’ll never say no to representing Australia if I was asked but now I’m primarily focused on trying to win as many championships with the Perth Wildcats as possible in the years I’ve got remaining.

I know you enjoy watching the NBA… how impressed have you been with Matty Dellavedova these past couple of weeks?

Oh man… I was over the moon when he had that massive quarter, I’ve been telling everyone how important he is all season. Regardless of the form he’s had, people only really start paying attention when they see some points put on the board.  He was so good defensively in major parts of the games but to see him start knocking down some shots… yeah I was over the moon for him and hopefully he continues that form through the Conference Finals

How about Bogut?  You captained him at the 2003 U-19 World Champs where you guys won the gold – how happy are you to see him healthy and doing so well?

Yeah I love it. The role he plays on that team - rebounding, passing, setting screens and then blocking shots and kind of captaining the defense - he’s been awesome. He deserves to get the accolades he did; coming sixth in the Defensive Player of the Year and being named Second Team All-Defense.  I’d love to see them trust him more and he trust himself with his scoring ability because he can score. In saying that, when you’ve got the Splash Brothers on the perimeter you’re probably not getting too upset if they shoot it.  I really do hope it’s a Golden State and Cleveland final and I’ll be very happy to see regardless of which Aussie is holding up the trophy.

Does that Gold Medal in ’03 stick out for you as something of a highlight?

Absolutely, representing the Boomers, winning some NBL Championships and winning that World Championship; they’re the highlights of my career and it’s hard to separate any of them.

Bogut was just phenomenal.  He went in there full of confidence and backed himself in every single game. He and Linas Kleiza (LTU) were by far the best two players there and Bogut fully deserved to get the MVP of the tournament.

I think, and I could be wrong with the numbers, but I’m pretty sure at the end of the tournament Bogut was offered about a two or three million dollar contract to stay and play in Greece and he turned it down because he believed college was the right stepping stone for him to get to the NBA. For an eighteen year old kid to turn down a multi-million dollar deal to pursue college where he didn’t get paid a cent, that’s a guy who has self-confidence and self-belief and it has paid off.

Bogut, in particular, just knowing everything he went through from a seventeen year old who wasn’t our best player at the AIS, to eighteen months later he is by far the best player in the junior Australian level and obviously the world getting named that MVP… I just love following his career and saying that I was just a small, small, small part of it for two years.

Bogut used to be a stretch big when he was a teenager and he’s obviously evolved his game to find his niche as a pro… Have you enjoyed following how his game has changed over the past 12 years?

I think his game has had to change a lot both with his body and the injuries. I can remember when we were in Canberra together if he shot a 3 pointer you started running back the other way – he was a very capable shooter, as you mentioned.  And then playing in the Worlds he was by far the best player there, scoring from all over the place, not just under the ring.

I think he got the leash put on him a little bit by Rick Majerus in Utah. In his freshman year the looks weren’t there for him and he was a different player. That kind of evolved the second year under a new coach where he was the go-to guy and got Player of the Year in the NCAA. Then he went into the NBA and he was borderline an All-Star in my opinion, albeit I might be slightly biased, in Milwaukee.  Unfortunately he started having the injuries and the more injuries he got the closer to the ring he seemed to play.

Now he’s in Golden State where he’s adapted to the role and he plays the role perfectly. For a guy who was a shooter as a seventeen year old I would like to see him putting a few more up if he can with that horrible elbow injury he had.

The Wildcats next season… #30Straight?

That’s what seven seasons playing for the Wildcats and I’m not going to lie from the first season onwards you do feel that pressure to make sure that streak continues. At times it can be extra motivation and at other times you look on the ladder and say ‘How are we shaping up?’   Especially this year where it would be breaking the world record and to get to that three-zero mark would be something very special.


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