LIKE ART critics sizing up a stunning exhibition, the Portland Trail Blazers' executives looked on with a mixture of awe and admiration as Martell Webster worked out for the team in the weeks before June's draft. They were impressed by his shooting range, his honeyed touch and a release so quick it sometimes appeared he wasn't shooting the ball so much as redirecting a pass toward the hoop. They marveled at his athleticism, his 6'7", 210-pound, NBA-ready body and his ability to extricate himself from a defender and squeeze off accurate midrange jump shots. Over and over Blazers owner Paul Allen, president Steve Patterson and general manager John Nash looked at one another and exchanged subtle nods that all but screamed Man, is this kid a find! ¬∂ But it was Webster's performance during a series of dinners, interviews and psychological tests that really bowled over (their term) the hiring committee. About to enter a profession in which arrested development can seem to be a prerequisite, Webster exhibited poise, polish and emotional maturity. An 18-year-old just weeks removed from his graduation from Seattle Prep High, he looked his inquisitors in the eye and offered thoughtful responses. "Right away," says Nash, "it was clear that he had this awareness of himself and awareness of the world, that he was way advanced for his age, and not just among basketball players." ¬∂ Asked about the 175-mile drive between Portland and Seattle, Webster responded that he prefers to go by train. "The scenery is beautiful, and I can read Harry Potter or bring my laptop and get some work done," he explained. "Plus with gas prices these days, driving is no cheaper." Questioned about what he could contribute to the franchise, Webster asked for clarification, "You mean contribute to the overall organization? Or contribute in a basketball sense?" Asked to list his biggest asset, Webster considered for a moment. "I'm a really good listener," he answered. "I mean, if someone wants to tell me something that can benefit me, why wouldn't I pay attention?"
Webster was striking a pitch-perfect chord for his audience. The Portland organization is still trying to rehab its image after the Jail Blazers era, when a Dantean cast of players found new and unusual ways to run afoul of the law and, in the process, alienate a fan base that had once been the most loyal in sports. "Look, there were some real knuckleheads here, guilty of some serious transgressions," Nash says (referring to, among other incidents, dogfights at Qyntel Woods's house last season). In a marked departure from the talent-√ºber-alles philosophy of the previous Blazers' brain trust, Nash says, "We weigh background and character pretty heavily around here. That obviously worked in Martell's favor."
By the time Webster departed for Seattle, offering firm handshakes and gratitude "for taking the time to meet with me," the Blazers had their man-child. They held the third pick but--convinced that no team among the top five would select Webster--traded it to the Utah Jazz for the sixth and 27th slots and a conditional first-round pick next year. On draft night they made Webster the team's highest selection since Sam Bowie went second in 1984.
In seven preseason games Webster held his own, averaging 7.0 points, and his range invited comparison to that of Dale Ellis. But it was his comportment that drew the most praise. He quickly made it clear that he'd be happy to represent the Blazers in the community. Unsolicited, he asked if he could write a blog for the team's website this season. His one indulgence after he became a millionaire was ... a new car. "But I'm trying to write it off," he quickly points out. "I need it to get to practice; that makes it a business expense, right? People say I'm frugal."
The first time other Blazers heard an 18-year-old making these kinds of pronouncements, they nearly did spit-takes of Gatorade. "You don't find kids that age so levelheaded," says Portland's first-year coach Nate McMillan. "Martell reminds me of LeBron James in terms of a guy who comes in and just gets it."
Here's the irony: Now that the NBA has enacted an age minimum, 19, which effectively compels players to spend at least a year at college, prep school or in the D-league, Webster was at the head of the last class of high school players who could jump directly to the pros. Yet had the players' association been inclined to make the case that some adolescent stars grow up as they grow tall, Webster would be Exhibit A. While Portland teammates 10 years his senior (see: Patterson, Ruben) spent the preseason petulantly whining about the Blazers' rebuilding effort, Webster has a more philosophical take. "[This season] might be a challenge," he says. "But what's life without challenge? Who wants that? You just trust the fans to be patient and realize that a young team gets older."
"With Martell, you wait for the other shoe to drop--can this kid be for real?--and it never does," says Jim Marsh, Webster's AAU coach in Seattle and a Blazers forward in the early '70s. "Then you look at what he went through as a kid and look at the woman who raised him and it makes sense."
Beulah Walker isn't hard to find. She spends most of her days in the parlor of her Seattle home, taking in a stunning view of Mount Rainier, the Cascades and Lake Washington. Odds are good that banana bread is in the oven and jazz is swinging out of her transistor radio in 4/4 time. Walker is 83, but she's still as sharp as a rapier. This is a woman who recently fell out of her chair laughing when she heard about B.B. King's 80th birthday party. "I remember him coming through town when I was a girl in Arkansas!" she says. "He was older than me then, but now he's three years younger?"
Walker has lived in the same Victorian home atop Capitol Hill since 1961, way before the neighborhood became trendy and moneyed. She and her husband, Albert, a longshoreman who died in 1994, bought the place for $5,000, less than 1% of what it's worth today. Over the years so many kids have grown up in the house's six bedrooms that she's lost count; it wasn't uncommon for Walker to have to serve breakfast in shifts. And the home wasn't just a haven for her children (two) and various combinations of grandkids (six), great-grandkids (16) and great-great-grandkids (four). A nurse for 24 years, Walker once brought home a baby with birth defects whose parents had put him up for adoption at the hospital. To this day Grandma, as Walker is known to everyone regardless of blood relationship, takes in boarders in need of a place. "She's like the matriarch of Seattle," says Cliff Alex, Walker's grandson.
Cora McGuirk, Walker's great-niece, grew up in the house and, in the summer of 1991, was living there with her four-year-old son, Martell. (According to Walker, the boy's father had left McGuirk when he learned she was pregnant.) One July evening McGuirk walked out the front door, presumably to run an errand. She never returned. "Something was troubling her, but she said she was O.K.," recalls Walker. "She was such a good mom. Whatever happened, I know it was beyond her control."
As police searched fruitlessly for any clue to McGuirk's disappearance, Walker raised Martell. If there was a duty she couldn't perform because of her age, she'd find someone to fill in. A cousin would teach him to hit a curveball; a friend's family would take him on a vacation to Hawaii. "I had it very lonely with no mom or dad," says Webster. "You want your parents to cherish things with you. But I love my grandmother to death, and I always had family and friends and coaches helping me."
The ensuing years brought no answers about McGuirk's fate. No leads either. While a Seattle Police Department spokesman says that the case is still open, Webster has lost interest in solving the family mystery. A framed photo of McGuirk hangs in the kitchen of his new Portland house, but he believes she is gone, and he would just as soon leave it at that. "Something happened, she passed away," he says. "I look at her every day. I know she's watching me."
Walker, though, has no such peace of mind. "As long as they don't have a body, you can't say she's dead," she says in a whisper. Like others close to the family, Walker wonders if McGuirk wasn't a victim of Gary Ridgway, the Green River killer, who confessed to murdering 48 Seattle women, mostly in the 1980s. (According to Seattle police, Ridgway's name never came up in connection to McGuirk's disappearance.)
While the pall of his mother's sudden absence hung over Martell's childhood, he was, given the circumstances, remarkably happy, his time filled with Little League games, bike races and an education at one of the finest private high schools in Seattle. "He was a good kid," says Walker, "when he wasn't terrorizing the neighborhood." Terrorize? Martell? "Oh, yes! Pulling fruit out of the neighbor's trees, having plum fights and apple fights. And there was one time he messed with a beehive and got all stung up!"
Webster learned early on that for all of Grandma's benevolence, you crossed her at your peril, as some agents would discover. Buoyed by strong play in various all-star games, Webster spent last spring agonizing over whether to play at the University of Washington or enter the draft. When Walker believed that a prospective agent, Eric Goodwin, was recruiting Martell behind her back, she invited Goodwin--who with his twin brother, Aaron, represent NBA players on the order of Gary Payton, Jamal Crawford and, until recently, LeBron James--to her home. "Then I really let him have it," she says. Goodwin strongly denies being anything less than forthright, but Webster found different representation.
It wasn't his only exposure to some of the unfortunate aspects of being a star athlete. This summer Webster's father tried to end the 18-year estrangement from his son, showing up at a family reunion after the draft. Martell treated him with icy indifference. "The timing is a little suspicious," he says. "It's hard to respect someone like that. Imagine your father gets your mother pregnant and then leaves. How do you, as the son, look that man straight in the eye?"
But everything else has, as Webster puts it, "pretty much broken right" since he decided to turn pro. After fretting about whether he'd be a lottery pick, he was not only selected early but also ended up in the Pacific Northwest, sufficiently close to home so his uncle Cliff and cousin Stallone could move in with him and innumerable other family and friends (especially Walker) could attend home games. In July, Portland hired McMillan, whose son, Jamelle, was an AAU teammate of Webster's in Seattle. ("I trust Nate to look out for Martell," Walker says.) With the Blazers in full rebuilding mode, McMillan plans to give Webster significant playing time. What's more, he's quickly made connections with some of his new teammates, fourth-year guard Juan Dixon in particular. "We've talked about how he was raised," says Dixon, whose mother and father both died of AIDS when he was in high school. "How when you don't have parents around, you grow up fast."
On the morning of Nov. 1 Webster embarked on his first NBA road trip. As the Blazers' charter soared toward cruising altitude en route to Minnesota, the team's self-possessed rookie savored the occasion, but only for so long. "I was like, I made it," he says. "Then it was like everything was reset. I wasn't Martell Webster the high school star or the draft pick. I was just Martell Webster, NBA rookie. Here we go."
Jack McCallum's NBA Insider and more opening-week analysis at SI.com/NBA.
Webster has lottery-pick skills, but the solid values imbued by Walker are a big reason Portland believes it hit the jackpot.
Webster will get his minutes, but he can make an even bigger contribution by improving his team's image.