BOSTON – Humility has defined Caleb Martin throughout his life.
He grew up in a roach-infested, single-wide trailer in a Carolina town so small, it sounds like a fictional place from a Pat Conroy novel.
Disrespect has dogged Martin throughout his professional career.
He went undrafted out of Nevada partially because NBA teams felt he was too old at 23. Two years after finding a home in the league, the Charlotte Hornets waived him to make room for someone new.
Then on Monday night, attention followed Martin through his star turn in Game 7.
He turned the TD Garden floor into his playground, shooting from long distance, driving to the rim, making the Boston Celtics’ defense rue the hours they forgot to account for him . Once the Miami Heat completed their leave-no-doubt demolition, winning 103-84 to advance to the NBA Finals, Martin had earned the respect. Still, the humility remained.
Long after the game, Martin returned to the court wearing a Finals T-shirt over his black Heat jersey and holding a can of Stella Artois.
A team staffer held his beer as he conducted several on-camera interviews with local broadcasters. Once done, a handful of those working TV journalists asked for photos and Martin obliged, each time ending the interaction by touching his heart.
“I appreciate y’all,” Martin told the crew from WSVN 7News.
When Martin finally walked off the court – can in hand – a pair of arena workers extended their fists toward his. Asking an enemy player for a dap; a gesture of admiration.
“Hey, I got to give him his props,” a young employee said, explaining to his co-worker.
“The man could not miss a shot,” acknowledged the other.
Miami, the Little Eighth Seed That Could, was simply the better team in this series.
It showed so in multiple ways, but especially with its roster depth. How else can one team lose two rotational players, bench a starter and still blow out the second seed on in its home floor in Game 7?
That depth helps explain the culture of the Heat. And if that culture needs a cover boy, then Martin is ready for his close up.
“His DNA is perfectly matched with their culture,” Eric Fleisher, Martin’s agent, told me while outside the TD Garden visitors’ locker room Monday night. “He’s all about having to outwork everybody. He’s about toughness, resilience. He doesn’t complain. He has a great attitude.”
The three Martin boys – identical twins Caleb and Cody and older brother Raheem – had no choice but to work hard. It was the only way they’d have a chance of surviving their existence in Cooleemee, North Carolina. Their mother, Jenny Bennett, raised them alone and had to clock in for three jobs that together barely passed for a livable wage. At one point, the family lived in a trailer park. Other times, Bennett gave up meals so that she could feed her boys.
When the twins developed into highly ranked prospects, both brothers appeared to be on the trajectory of your typical hoop star: elite prep school, then Power Five university – the brothers went to N.C. State before transferring to Nevada – and off to the league. Their futures, and fortunes, appeared to be set. But on draft night, Caleb’s journey hit turbulence when not a single NBA team called his name.
In 2019, the Hornets selected Cody late in the second round, but Caleb had to sign a training camp deal and then a two-way contract, which meant he would spend most of his rookie season in the G League. Before the 2021-22 season, Charlotte signed Kelly Oubre Jr., another wing, and parted ways with Caleb Martin.
“When Charlotte waived him, it was really difficult,” Fleisher said. “He was on a minimum deal, and they waived him. And any and every other team in the league could’ve picked him up off a minimum contract and not one did. So you talk about kind of hitting (rock) bottom and having self-doubt, and how are you going to handle this? Are you going to use that to fuel you? Or are you going to pout?”
The popular story goes that North Carolina rapper J. Cole did Martin a favor by helping him get a workout with the Heat, but truth has more layers. Martin did receive interest from teams, according to Fleisher. Good teams, too. They invited him in to compete for a minimum deal along with a host of other players, but Martin and his agent said no thank you. When the Heat showed interest, finally Martin had found his tribe.
As Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra said after the Game 7 win, this team is “not for everybody.” Translation: If a player desires to take his talents only to South Beach – and not to Brickell Avenue, where the gym is located – he will be lost within a franchise that strives to be the “hardest-working, best-conditioned, most-professional … team in the NBA.” Then along came Martin, the undrafted, overlooked, rejected player ready to work. It couldn’t have been a better fit.
“It’s been amazing. If you’re a real competitor and it’s in your soul, and that’s what Caleb is, he’s a competitor,” Spoelstra said. “Every bit the competitor that you talk about with Jimmy (Butler) or Bam (Adebayo) or whatever. Caleb is a competitor.”
Though Butler was voted the Eastern Conference Finals MVP by a 5-4 margin over his teammate, a powerful argument could be made for Martin’s candidacy. After Game 5, he moved into the starting lineup to replace veteran Kevin Love, elevating Miami’s most consistent 3-point threat. Through the series, Martin connected on 48.9% of his threes and shot 60.2% overall. In Game 7, Martin logged 45 minutes and scored 26 points on 11-of-16 shooting from the field, which included 4 for 6 on 3-pointers.
“To the untrained eye, he just looks like he’s an undrafted guy who has been in the G League, who has started with Charlotte and now he’s here. Started on a two-way contract. That’s what it looks like to y’all. To us, he’s a hell of a player, hell of a defender, playmaker, shot maker, all of the above,” Butler said. “Everybody has seen Caleb work on those shots day in, day out. It doesn’t surprise us. We have seen it every single day. I’m so proud and happy for him. I think he’s going to be even better in the next round, and I don’t think he’s going to be a surprise to anybody any longer.”
Butler can say that now, but judging by the past 364-plus days, Martin’s ascension should be a surprise.
In the 2022 conference finals, when Miami faced Boston in Game 7, Martin did not log a minute. As the Celtics won on Miami’s home floor, Martin stayed on the bench. A year later, Martin couldn’t leave the floor.
“I felt kind of disrespected just off how I got guarded last year,” Martin said. “I definitely just wanted to take a – I guess it was like a sense of pride and just I think a sense of just understanding how they were going to guard me. They were going to make me have to earn their respect, which I totally understand. I just wanted to make sure I came in to contribute any way I could to make sure that I was being able to move the needle to get to the Finals.”