| ||MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- In a freakish instant, the college basketball season has been blindsided. Just as it approached its climax.
Cincinnati center Kenyon Martin sat in tears on The Pyramid floor, his right leg broken and ligaments damaged. Medical personnel rushed to his side. A raucous crowd went stone-cold silent until a replay of the injury was shown on the scoreboard screen, producing a traumatized ripple of noise from the fans.
"It's bad," Conference USA assistant commissioner Brian Teter said as he hurried along press row. Very bad, as it turned out.
Martin went down just three minutes into No. 1-ranked Cincy's C-USA Tournament quarterfinal game against Saint Louis, terminating his college career with random cruelty. He was bumped in the lane by Billikens guard Justin Love as Martin went to set a screen, stumbled and fell, grotesquely torquing his foot underneath him.
"I felt it snap," Martin said, his leg -- and Cincinnati's season -- encased
in fresh white plaster. "I knew it was broke."
As he sat on the floor, Martin called for his sister, Tamara Ridley. She accompanied him to the hospital.
"She just told me to be strong and I'll be all right," Martin said. "She
was being strong for me. That's why I love her to death."
This was not a tragedy. This was not Hank Gathers collapsing a decade
ago and never getting up. But it was an awful thing for a self-made player
striving toward his crowning glory -- a national title and national Player of
the Year honors.
"He's the best player in the country," Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins
said. "He's a great human being. ... It's very hard for me, because I feel as
close to him as anybody I've ever coached."
Martin was transported to an orthopedic surgeons' clinic in Memphis,
where the cast was applied. Huggins called Martin at halftime and told
him, "Your season is over but you're going to have a great career."
Martin was back in The Pyramid with surprising quickness, coming in on crutches with 11½ minutes remaining in the game against the Billikens. He sat behind the bench, propped his foot on a chair, popped a cherry Tootsie Roll Pop in his mouth and encouraged his teammates to no
Saint Louis beat the shellshocked Bearcats 68-58. Martin left the gym in
a wheelchair in the closing seconds to a standing ovation from the Cincinnati fans.
"Thank you, Kenyon!" a woman called out.
"I couldn't help my team," Martin said. "To help them so much to get to
this point, it hurts."
Martin will have surgery Friday morning in Cincinnati. Doctors are
expected to insert a screw into the bones. He could be back running in
six weeks and playing in eight. Doctors say he should make a full recovery.
What can be done to repair the Bearcats' fractured national championship hopes in a single week remains to be seen.
Put this injury alongside Indiana University standout Scott May's broken arm in 1975, and the knee injuries to Hoosier freshman Alan Henderson in 1993 and Kentucky senior Derek Anderson in '97. Actually, put this one ahead of those.
Those injuries occurred earlier in the season, giving their teams time to regroup. All three teams whose title dreams were crippled by injury still mounted strong NCAA Tournament runs. Judging from the 53-point turnaround in five days against Saint Louis -- from a 43-point rout last Saturday to a 10-point loss Thursday -- Cincy is in serious trouble.
In the 23-year history of the Wooden Award, given annually to the nation's Player of the Year, the winner has never suffered a season-ending injury in March. Prohibitive favorite Martin will be the first.
In the annals of bad breaks, this one could be the topper.
"My frustration is for (the players)," Huggins said. "I think I'm going to be able to do this a lot longer and will have more good teams.
"This was their chance. I think in life you have very few chances to be special."
Huggins stopped himself and added, "It's not like you don't have a chance. ... We're going to respond.
There isn't any question we're going to respond."
Martin plans to be integrally involved in Cincy's response. He wants to attend practice and games and provide the emotional leadership he has all season.
"I'm trying to pick my teammates up," Martin said. "We just lost. We're still trying to play six more games. ... They'll be fine."
So will Martin, whose professional future shouldn't be jeopardized by the
injury. But college basketball will miss him the rest of this month.
In his four years, Martin has enhanced his game as much as any collegian in recent memory. The relentless worker transformed himself from a one-dimensional shot blocker into a
big man with excellent shooting touch and startling ball-handling skills. He
scored even more points by deciding not to jump for the pro money next
year, coming back to Cincinnati. This March was to be his showcase.
"That's one of the reasons I came back, to play in the tournament again," Martin said, surprisingly serene after the game. "It'll be hard, but it's something I'll have to deal with.
"I play my heart out. It's unfortunate, but I'm not sad."
Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
|Cincinnati's bench reacts during the Bearcats' 68-58 loss to Saint Louis.|| |
Saint Louis exposes Cincinnati's hole in middle
Martin's injury scuttles Cincy's hope for No. 1 seed
Martin knew leg was broken before he hit court
Kenyon Martin breaks his right fibula.
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