Here was the great Sam Smith’s lede in the March 4, 1997, edition of the Chicago Tribune:
“Michael Jordan pushed another legend of the game aside.
Dennis Rodman hit someone else in the groin.
Just another night in the life of the Bulls as they moved to 51-7 with a 108-90 victory Monday over the Milwaukee Fawns, er, Bucks.”
You’d have to flip a few pages to the agate section to find this tiny but locally relevant historical nugget in the box score: Martin 0-4 0-0 0.
That was Cuonzo Martin’s stat line in the seventh and final game of his two-year NBA career. The Missouri basketball coach came off the bench late in the fourth quarter and played the final 5 minutes and 38 seconds for the Bucks. As Martin checked in at the scorer’s table, subbing for former college roommate and close friend Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson, Jordan checked out for the final time of the night.
“It wasn’t a great game,” Martin said recently, laughing, “but I had a game.”
Martin, the second-to-last pick in the 1995 NBA Draft by Atlanta, was waived before his rookie season got started, then caught on with Vancouver the following April. He appeared in four games with the Grizzlies during the franchise’s debut season. (The 95-96 Grizzlies won a whopping 15 games behind top players Greg Anthony, Eric Murdock and Bryant “Big Country” Reeves.) Martin initially signed a 10-day contract then agreed to an extension through the final weeks of the season. He scored nine points on a perfect 3-for-3 from 3-point range in 19 total minutes.
Vancouver waived him that summer and he landed with Milwaukee on the first of two 10-day contracts midway through the 1996-97 season a day after the Bucks traded Shawn Respert to Toronto for Acie Earl. Martin came off the bench late in games against Indiana and Sacramento.
Then, he crossed paths with the legends from Chicago.
That Bucks team finished last in the Central Division but had some young talent. Robinson, a two-time All-Star, was in the third of his 11-year NBA career. Future Hall of Famer Ray Allen was a rookie in the backcourt. Four-time All-Star Vin Baker anchored the frontcourt.
But this game was a mismatch. The Bulls played without injured forward Toni Kukoc but had more than enough from its trifecta of Hall of Famers. Scottie Pippen missed 10 of 12 shots in the first half, but Jordan scored 24 of his 31 points by halftime. Pippen poured in 21 points in the third quarter and finished with 25. Rodman pulled down 11 rebounds and had seven assists. Both Rodman and Pippen were out of the game early in the fourth quarter as the Bulls turned to their reserves to finish off the Bucks.
The next day’s headlines focused on Jordan passing Dominique Wilkins for seventh place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list … and Rodman’s third-quarter scuffle with Bucks center Joe Wolf.
“I feel old,” Jordan told reporters after the game. “I feel like gradually some of the things I’ve done over the years are starting to add up. It’s another accolade I feel proud about. I haven’t focused in on it yet.”
Then there was the Rodman subplot. After a tie-up with Wolf in the paint, Rodman threw a punch then found himself in a Wolf headlock. Bulls coach Phil Jackson benched his eccentric rebounder for the rest of the game. The missed punch took place under the basket right in front of the Bucks’ bench, giving Martin a front-row seat to the latest act in the Rodman circus.
The next day Rodman was handed a one-game suspension and fined $7,500.
“The league says that Dennis put a fist in the groin area of Joe Wolf,” Bulls general manager Jerry Krause told the Tribune the next day. “We have to abide by what the league tells us.”
Martin’s appearance in the game was but a footnote. According to the official play-by-play, the 25-year-old guard missed three long jumpers inside the 3-point line and a layup. He assisted on a 3-pointer by Elliott Perry. He fouled Randy Brown on a layup. The Bulls were down to their reserves by the time he entered the game. Martin played the final 5:38 against Brown, Jason Caffey, Jud Buechler, Steve Kerr and 43-year-old Robert Parish in his final NBA season.
As ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary has become the biggest story in sports during the COVID-19 shutdown, I asked Martin if he ever reflects on his brush with basketball immortality that March night 23 years ago. (Like everyone else, Martin has been watching “The Last Dance” — but he and his wife had to catch up on the latest season of “Ozark” first.)
“You know what’s crazy about it is you’re just playing a game,” Martin said. “Think about it. The world saw him as Michael Jordan, a great player and all that. For me, when you’re in it, you’re a competitive basketball player. When you remove yourself, you’re like, ‘Man, this guy is 6-6, 205 pounds.’ But his will was so great. He wasn’t any stronger or faster than anyone else, but his will was great. He was such a fierce competitor. He didn’t care about ruffling the feathers of his teammates. Those are the things that made him great.
“Because when you looked at him, he wasn’t any different than a lot of guys on the floor, guys like Clyde Drexler or Ron Harper. But he separated himself with his desire and drive. If you were his teammate you had to raise your level or he would break you.”
“But going through it at the time,” he added, “you’re just in the game. You’re a ball player. For example, I played with LaPhonso Ellis in high school (at East St. Louis Lincoln), the fifth pick in the draft. I played with Glenn Robinson. Glenn and I were roommates for three years (at Purdue), but I was never like, ‘Oh, man, this guy’s the No. 1 pick in the draft. He’s just my roommate.’ You don’t know it when you’re in it. As I started coaching I could look back and say, ‘Man, this guy averaged 30 points and 10 rebounds in a college season.’ That’s heavy production. And that’s back when guys weren’t leaving college early.”
But as time passes, it’s easier now to appreciate those moments, fleeting as they might have seemed at the time.“Now as you get older, like when I talked to my sons about it, they’re like, ‘Wow!’” Martin said. “But when you’re in it, it’s just different. You’re just trying to survive.”