Synonymous: The Steve Martin Story

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By Sam Perley

It takes a special talent in the sports broadcasting world for one’s voice to become completely embedded within a single organization. For the Charlotte Hornets, it’s a voice that’s been there since Opening Night in 1988, called nearly 2,500 games, survived a relocation, a rebirth and everything in between. On April 10, 2018, the legendary “Voice of the Charlotte Hornets,” Steve Martin, signed off for the final time, putting an end to a tremendous 50-year run in the industry.

The last stop of Martin’s illustrious career was in Indianapolis for the team’s season finale against the Pacers. The origins of his journey though began in Millinocket, Maine, which is where he was born and raised during the 1950’s and 60’s. Known primarily as a small logging and paper mill town located in the middle of the state, Millinocket is where Martin’s interest and career in broadcasting first began.

“I’ve never done anything else for pay, not even mow lawns,” he recalls. “I was in junior high school – eighth grade. In April of that year, we had a career day with a manager from the local station. I always knew what I wanted to do, but how would a junior high school in the middle of the Maine woods have somebody from a radio or television station tell me about a career?”

“Fast forward to June. Last day of school, first day of summer vacation, I get a call and the same guy that gave the presentation to us two months earlier on career day asked if I wanted to work in radio. I was up there in about 15 minutes and I got on the air on Monday, June 18, 1968.”

Thus, Martin’s broadcasting career was officially underway at just 15 years of age. It’s a day that ultimately changed his life forever, setting in motion a path that would take him farther than he probably ever could have imagined at the time.

“I worked 77 straight days,” he said. “So, there was no, ‘Do you think you like the business?’ No, you got me. I’ve been in love with the business ever since.”

“I would go in at 12:30 p.m. and get off at 3 p.m. during the day after playing records, stuff like that. Then, I’d go back at 7 p.m. We were a Red Sox affiliate and we had Red Sox baseball and, of course, that occupies all your nights in the summertime,” he added.

Originally, Martin’s childhood dream was to be the midday personality of WBZ in Boston, although that meant working in a field of radio that was on its way out at the time, he admitted.

“I’m just glad I took a real big interest in sports broadcasting because I didn’t have it when I first began. I listened to a lot of sports, but I wanted to be part of radio that was fading. Personality-driven, music-oriented radio and you don’t hear that anymore on the airwaves. When I got into the business in 1968, it was starting to recede quite a bit.”

Maybe like any other eager teenager ready to take on the world, Martin had his plan entirely mapped out from the beginning. The aforementioned developing changes in the radio industry eventually forced him to take a different route though.

“I figured the way I was going to do it, Bangor, Portland, Boston. That was it. Stay there the rest of my life. I didn’t ever think I’d get to Charlotte to tell you the truth. That was the trail I was going to do and then when I started to figure well, maybe I ought to pursue sports.”

Martin enrolled at the University of Maine in 1971 to study political science and history while working night hours at WABI. He left his junior year when he was offered a fulltime job at the station, figuring it made sense since that was what he wanted to do all along anyways. He continued working as a play-by-play announcer, covering local football, basketball and baseball games.

At the time, he was working with a man by the name of George Hale, who was heading WABI. Martin credits Hale as not only one of the major influencers in his career, but oddly the indirect reason he ended up going to Charlotte in the first place.

“I grew up listening to him. He’s still on the air. So, I wasn’t going to replace him,” says Martin with regards to Hale, who turned 86 years old in January. “If I was going to make any advancement in this business, I came to the realization I was probably going to have to leave Maine. That’s why I came to Charlotte in 1982. That’s going from like Market 303 to Market 25. That was a pretty big jump.”

So, Martin headed south to become the sports director at WBT-AM, although there was another twist of fate at the time that altered how his career would unfold.

“I was second choice at WBT,” he says. “Yeah, really. The first choice turned them down. I walked in and I’ve been here ever since.”

For his first five years in Charlotte, Martin served as the voice of the Davidson College Wildcats in addition to calling Atlantic Coast Conference football games. When the city was awarded the Hornets for the start of the 1988-89 season, he jumped to the NBA and tipped off the beginning of his 30-year run in the league.

Throughout the first 14 seasons of Hornets basketball in Charlotte, Martin was there to see and call it all. He watched players like Larry Johnson, Muggsy Bogues, Dell Curry, Alonzo Mourning, Kendall Gill, Kenny Gattison, Anthony Mason, Glen Rice, Bobby Phills, Baron Davis and many more take the city by storm. He witnessed a succession of Head Coaches in Dick Harter, Gene Littles, Allan Bristow, Dave Cowens and Paul Silas quickly take the team to unexpected heights and popularity.

Back then, not every Hornets game was televised like it is now, so, Martin often ended up transitioning back and forth between multiple platforms on a nightly basis. When he wasn’t calling NBA games, he also worked for Jefferson-Pilot and Raycom Sports doing college football and basketball contests, as well. Regardless of the outlet or sport, each broadcast received the same high level of preparation and execution from Martin. Up until his final game, he never wavered from his responsibility to fans and the audience to give them the best, most insightful presentation possible.

Many have heard and still remember his famous call during the team’s first-ever playoff series win in 1993 over the Boston Celtics, a moment Martin considers one of the highlights of his career. Holding a 2-1 series lead in the best-of-five, Eastern Conference quarterfinals, the Hornets trailed by one point with just over three seconds left in Game 4.

“103-102 Boston. Charlotte out of timeouts. Here’s Mourning… the shot… GOOOOOOOOOD!!! GAME OVER!!! IT’S OVER!!!,” Martin screamed before backtracking moments later. “The game is not over!! There’s four tenths of a second left!! They’re going to have to clear the floor!!”

Twenty-five years later, Martin can still vividly describe the details of the ensuing sequence in this particular game that almost made his unforgettable reaction all for naught.

“So, Alonzo hits the shot and I made what I thought was a great call, but it turned out to be the wrong call. Everybody still thinks, ‘Oh, yeah, you got it right.’ What happened was the ball comes out of bounds and [Boston’s] Kevin McHale is inbounding the ball and he’s right in front of me. There’s four tenths of a second on the clock, so there’s not much you can do. As soon as someone touches the ball in play, the clock starts. He threw a perfect bullet over the basket to Dee Brown. Dee Brown is 6’1” and he can sky. He went up, over and caught it perfectly. Kendall Gill rose at that same time, got his hand on the ball and blocked the shot. He doesn’t block that shot, game over. We’re going back to Boston to play a Game 5. That was probably one of the greatest games.”

After so many years in the northeast, Charlotte had become home for Martin and the up-and-coming city was growing right alongside its beloved Hornets. Things changed abruptly in 2002 though, when the franchise relocated to New Orleans and Martin chose to go with it. It was a situation that although difficult at the time, worked out well in hindsight, he said.

“I had a pretty good idea I wouldn’t leave [Charlotte at the time]. I did leave once. I went to New Orleans. I really thought hard about that one. I’m kind of glad I did. It kept me in the sport. My wife, [Debbie], stayed in Charlotte with the kids, [daughters Kate and Corinne]. They were at a key age in their mid and early high school years.”

When the NBA returned to Charlotte with the expansion Bobcats in 2004, Martin was called upon to come back home and help usher in a new era. Unlike two years earlier, this was a relatively easy choice from him.
“It turned out to be a good decision because had I stayed in New Orleans, I would have gone through Hurricane Katrina, been transplanted to Oklahoma City [where the team played for parts of the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons] and then sent back. I think my youngest would have changed schools about four times. Probably turned out to be the right thing,” he said.

NBA basketball was finally back in Charlotte, bringing with it a brand-new identity, players, coaches and soon-to-be-constructed downtown arena. Perhaps the only mainstay from the original days of the organization was in fact Martin himself.

“He was kind of the Godfather to all of us, you know what I mean? He knew everything that was going on. The history, the tradition. We were lucky to be around him to just ask him questions and he always had the answer,” said current Memphis Grizzlies Interim Head Coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who was an assistant in Charlotte from 2004-07.

“He never made it feel like [the organization] was his. He was a part of something bigger, being a part of the organization and he was always welcoming to it,” Bickerstaff added. “He wanted to do a great job of representing the organization, taking care of the organization and helping spread all the good things about the organization to people everywhere.”

Just like in each of the previous 16 NBA seasons, Martin was back on the broadcast, only this time calling Bobcats games instead. A new wave of players led by Emeka Okafor, Raymond Felton, Gerald Wallace, Stephen Jackson and Gerald Henderson helped christen Part II of Charlotte NBA basketball and the franchise eventually got back to the playoffs again in 2010.

Four years later, the Hornets moniker officially returned to the organization for the start of the 2014-15 season, bringing Martin’s NBA broadcasting career seemingly full circle. On Opening Night, Martin – as only he could – provided a fittingly, brilliant call as the team rallied from a franchise-record 24-point deficit to beat the visiting Milwaukee Bucks in overtime.

“Hornets no timeouts… six seconds… five, Walker with a three to tie – YES!” shouted Martin as the Charlotte point guard knotted the score at 100-100 in the closing seconds of regulation.

“Two, one… HORNETS LEAD!!!,” he yelled a handful of minutes later when Walker once again drained the go-ahead jumper near the end of overtime. “With the shot clock on his back, Kemba Walker sent it into overtime and now he’s given the Hornets their first lead since the first quarter!!”

Martin transitioned back to radio on a fulltime basis in 2015 as the team finished with its highest yearly win total since 2000. Sometime within the last few years, Steve and Debbie mutually agreed that this most recent season was going to be his last. When asked on what factored into his retirement, he pinpointed a few reasons (some lightheartedly) that led to his decision.

“I knew the travel was starting to get to me because I kept going to the same places to eat every time,” he said jokingly. “Some people call that good per diem management. I just call it lack of imagination, really. I don’t want to go out to a new place and be disappointed. I try and keep it simple and I don’t bounce around too much.”

He also added, “There are a lot of reasons to get out at age 65 though. For me, my health hasn’t been great and I can sense myself slipping off the prime. If that’s going to happen, it’s best to get out on your word instead of theirs. You don’t want somebody to say, ‘Steve, you’ve been at it too long. Why don’t you step away?’ There may be people thinking that, but our organization has treated me royally.”

“The people that I work for in our organization have been great to me and when I told [Hornets Vice President of Communications] Mike Cristaldi that I was going to hang it up at the end of the season, he was great about it. That was probably the most emotional I’ve gotten.”

It’s impossible to determine how many people Martin has reached throughout the years, how many Charlotteans he turned into NBA fans or how much different the Hornets organization and the city’s sports scene would be without him. While the rigors of the job will be easy to let go, the bonds he’s built over the years will surely be the hardest thing to say goodbye to.

“I’ve had a lot of great people to work with and the good thing about it is that it hasn’t been many. Gil McGregor, Gerry Vaillancourt, Mike Gminski, Henry Williams, Stephanie Ready, Dell Curry and Matt Carroll and that’s it through 30 years of NBA basketball. It’s been a good group. I’ve enjoyed it. I think I’ll miss the folks that I work with more than the job itself. It’s those relationships you build, you travel together. You’re basically amongst each other six months out of the year.”

“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Carroll, who was Martin’s final radio partner. “[He’s] been a mentor to me, taking me under his wing. [I] enjoyed every minute of it. To have a chance to learn from one of the best in the business or the best, has been a pretty nice luxury to have. I’ve been fortunate to have that. If you want to know how good Steve is at his job, he’s that good.”

While Martin has had the opportunity to be alongside plenty of different Hornets players over the years (literally all 218 or so, really), there are a few here and there that might stick out as favorites.

“I’ve always been blessed to have a lot of good players to work with. This franchise has got characters up and down. I guess the two that you had to really enjoy the most and they’re still great friends are Muggsy and Dell. I’m always partial to the originals. They were incredible. They were funny as all get out. I got along well with Kelly Tripucka, Rex Chapman, J.R. Reid, Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning, all those guys. I’ve made a lot of friends in this game.”

Curry, who eventually went into broadcasting following his NBA playing days, considers Martin a huge influence since the former arrived in Charlotte and is humbled at being held in such high regard by the long-time Hornets broadcaster.

“He’s had an impact on my life since 1988 and getting into the broadcast business as well,” Curry states. “He kind of held my hand the whole first couple of seasons, walking me through how games would be called, the prep, the ins and outs of what it took to call a good game. I think it was because we were friends. He really liked me and I liked him. We got along great. I’m sure he’s not only done that for me, but for a lot of other people. He’s had a big influence on their second careers.”

He added, “It means a lot to have a guy say you’re his favorite player. He’s seen every player that’s ever played for the organization come through. He saw my family, my kids grow up, play and how they loved the game. He’s a big influence there as well. Any time my kids tuned into the game on the road, they listened to Steve Martin. Big influence not only for me, but for my entire family.”

Martin says one of the best things about working with the Hornets players and coaches (particularly in recent years) has been the approachability and overall comradery he’s shared with them. It’s not only made his job easier, but more enjoyable as well.

“There isn’t a person in this lineup who you can’t sit down and ask a question. I’m partial to Kemba because he and I were together during the Bobcats years. I’ve watched him grow as a player and now he’s among the elite guards in the league. That’s been great to see that happen.”

“He’s had a great career,” said Walker. “You know, from day one, getting to know him over the years, he’s been great to me. He’s a great guy. I’m really happy for him, he deserves to retire and have some fun. When he was calling the games, it’s always fun when I get a chance to rewatch them and listen to him talk. He loves the Hornets, loves the players and loves basketball.”

A relationship unfamiliar to some, Hornets Head Coach Steve Clifford and Martin share a history that goes back much further than the five years they’ve spent together in Charlotte. Both were coincidentally born in small towns in Maine about 20 minutes apart, although there is a nine-year age difference between the two. Clifford, who moved to Vermont when he was in third grade, depicts Martin as an extremely well-renowned figure in the New England high-school basketball community while he was growing up.

“I have a much more long-lasting, genuine appreciation for him,” said Clifford on the day Martin announced his retirement back in February. “My father was a high school coach at the smaller school down the road – Stearns High School – in Millinocket, Maine. If you were a New Englander, [you knew] Stearns High School actually won the New Englands one year. That’s a big deal and it was the home of Steve Martin.”
Clifford added, “When I was a young kid if you talked to my family, who watch all of our games, Steve Martin is a legend. He started doing high school basketball for the Eastern Maine tournament back when, I think, they would sit there and do eight games a day. It’s a huge deal. Five or six thousand people at a game, and it’s been a big deal for me to have the chance to work with him. It’s exciting for my family when they come down to visit. It’s a huge deal for them to see him. I know he’s a big deal down here, for me it has been a special thing.”

The games themselves will also be difficult to leave. Despite the immense experience underneath his belt, Martin admits he always got excited driving to the arena for tipoff and much like any fan, often times disappointed when the Hornets didn’t come out on top.

“I will miss the games themselves. Game starts out and it’s all equal no matter what either side has been through,” he describes. “[The excitement] is a natural thing that happens. You never know what’s going to happen any night. It’s always going to be different and I think that’s what keeps you going. Some games have a pattern to them. When you’re down 23 and you have six minutes to go in the third quarter and you come back and beat the team that has held you down, no matter what you do, that’s a pretty good night. If we come from 23 down, I’m probably going to say something that lets you know my impartiality is for sale.”

“Yeah, I’m [disappointed when the horn goes off] and we lose,” he confesses. “There’s a part of me saying we’re just one step closer to the end. There are no real regrets though. You’ve got to know when to go. I think the time is right. I’ve achieved all I wanted to achieve and the time is right to let somebody else have some fun.”

Even when missing the playoffs was a near certainty this season, Martin was always positive and optimistic up until the day the team was mathematically eliminated. One of the biggest challenges next season, he states, is knowing that for the first time ever, he won’t be around to call any of those special Hornets moments that come with the beautiful unpredictability of sports and competition.

“I know I’ll miss the game when we come from behind and get the win when we’re not supposed to. I’ll miss the game when Kemba Walker gets 53 [points]. The milestones of the games that go by and all of sudden, you’re not a part of it. I’m getting out at the right time because Kemba’s [broken] the all-time scoring mark.”

Since announcing this would be his final season on the air, life and work have taken a humbling turn for Martin. With the season now over, fans made sure to let the man behind the legendary voice know what kind of impact he’s made before going quiet one last time.

“At first, it was getting a little emotional and I didn’t know how to handle it. It’s very nice to hear what people have to say to you. I hear a lot of millennials and they say, ‘I listened to every game when I was a kid and now my son’s a fan and he listens to you.’ That’s gratifying that you’ve had an impact on somebody that way and that’s their introduction to NBA basketball. I’m just starting to get my hands around what that’s all about.”
While the team’s season finale was indeed Martin’s last game, he plans to still be in and out of the arena up until his final day on May 25. He, Debbie and his father will then head to Maine for the summer and enjoy a relaxing few months in the northeast.

“[I’m looking forward to] having my wife push me around, tell me what to do, what rooms to clean, how to work a vacuum, how to wash dishes again,” he said with a smile. “Sitting down with a good book every once and a while. We’re going to spend the whole summer doing absolutely nothing. I’ve never had to do that. I might not be any good at it, but we’ll see.”

At halftime of the team’s last home game of the season on April 8, Martin was honored by the Hornets organization and Charlotte fans for his spectacular career. Alongside Curry, he was presented an appropriately framed “#30” jersey for his years of service to the Hornets (ironically the same number Dell wore during his career), a commemorative watch and a microphone trophy.

“It’s the right time. You know two things in life. You know when you’ve met the woman of your dreams and then you know when to call your career over,” Martin said after the game. “Words can’t really describe [the halftime ceremony]. It was great to be there with Dell and to get #30, he’s going to give it up to me. We’re already working out a schedule on the days of the week that I can wear it. It was outstanding. I didn’t anticipate this.”

Of all the adjectives used to describe Steve Martin’s time with the Charlotte Hornets over the last 30 years, the one that continues to surface repeatedly is ‘synonymous.’ It’s probably the greatest compliment a sports broadcaster can receive in that his or her voice has become permanently intertwined within the fabric of a single franchise. Synonymous simply seems like an understatement in the case of Steve Martin though. He defines this franchise and what it strives to be.

Next year, for the first time since 1988, Steve Martin won’t be calling Hornets games in any capacity. Instead, it’ll be somebody that probably sounds a whole lot different than what fans have grown accustomed to. Change is inevitable in some industries, this certainly being one of them. The seat will officially be filled, but the “Voice of the Hornets” won’t ever be the same.

Editor’s Note: Steve Martin’s impact on the Hornets organization and the city of Charlotte is virtually unparalleled. For many (including myself) who grew up listening to basketball games on the radio, he was one of the voices of our childhood. It’s certainly a sad time, but mostly a joyful one because we get to see Steve recognized accordingly before he heads off into a much-deserved retirement after 50 years on the job.

I still remember hearing his voice and getting star-struck my first day as an intern back in 2014, a moment that instantly took me back to my earliest years as a Hornets fan. I remember two years later when he congratulated me on getting hired for a fulltime job in the team’s digital media department, despite not thinking he knew who I was at the time. That was Steve Martin though, and this particular encounter is one of the highlights of my professional career and truly exemplified what made him so extraordinary.

I’ve had the pleasure of sitting next to Steve in the office the last three months and traveling with him this season, which has given me the opportunity to hear countless stories about his years in the NBA. I really wish he could stay here forever, but all good things must come to an end. I am truly thankful for the time I got to spend working alongside him.

Thank you for everything, Steve, and all the best to you in retirement. You’ve been an unbelievable role model and a true embodiment of everything the Charlotte Hornets organization stands for. There won’t ever be another one quite like you.

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