Sports

Dream for former Winthrop star remains the same: NBA or bust

Somewhere in the sea of kids wrapping up their last day of Winthrop basketball camp at Castle Heights Middle School on Thursday, there might have been another Torrell Martin.

Another kid with hoop dreams. An 8-year-old in floppy shorts with his eyes already on the NBA.

While the kids played their final games, the real Torrell Martin cheered for them. He slapped high-fives with some kids barely tall enough to reach above his knees. He passed out awards and rubbed their heads and smiled.

Martin spent the week working the camp, coaching the youngest kids, probably remembering his own days at camp.

And certainly remembering how long it's taken him to get to the moment when a dream, once just something dancing around his head, is close enough to grab.

The NBA.

Since graduating from Winthrop on May 5, the past three months have been a blur of dribbles and jumpers and plane rides, but Martin's dream is there. He can see it.

"It's still a little surreal right now," Martin said, leaning against the wall outside the gym as the sounds of squeaking sneakers and squealing kids bounced off the blocks, "but my eyes prove to me it's there."

The 6-foot-5 Martin had tryouts with the Charlotte Bobcats, Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat. There were offers to play in summer leagues with the Bulls, Heat, Orlando Magic and Houston Rockets.

There were three offers to play in Europe, all at a couple of hundred thousand bucks a year. But that's not the NBA, not the dream.

Instead of taking the sure money, Martin picked the Magic and a chance.

In five summer league games, he didn't get the kind of minutes he was hoping for, about seven a game. He averaged about three points, shot a respectable 42 percent and even got to handle the ball, something former coach Gregg Marshall didn't let him do very often in his four years at Winthrop.

He went head-to-head with J.J. Redick, the former Duke All-American who's still trying to make his way in the NBA, at every practice.

"J.J. is super-confident in his ability," Martin said. "He was the only veteran on the summer league roster, so he was playing with a chip on his shoulder. Every play was run for him and he had the green light to shoot. It was a good experience for me."

Martin did enough to warrant a second look and was invited to the Magic's veterans camp starting in September. There will be 17 or 18 players in camp and 13 of them will have guaranteed contracts. They'll keep 15. That's approximately six players with the same dream clubbing it out for two slots.

"Make it and it's probably a one-year deal for half a million," Martin said.

He understands the odds, but, as always, welcomes the opportunity.

"I've been blessed," he said.

Trying to make an NBA roster is a different deal for a player like Martin. He wasn't drafted, so the road is harder. No guaranteed contract. No sure thing. And for the first time in his playing career, he's not the star, not the best player on floor.

Those Big South championships, all-conference awards and conference tournament MVP trophies are great memories, but just about every player he faces and practices with these days has them, too.

Some, like Redick, have even more. And even guys like Redick still must prove themselves.

"I understand I have to play a role, be ready to defend and knock down open shots," Martin said.

But just because he's not the focal point anymore doesn't mean the dream dies.

"I always knew that point would come," he said, "but I still want to be the best, and I think I can still find my way to the top. You can't stop thinking that way."

For the first time in his life, he's going at it alone, to a degree. The security blanket of having teammates and coaches in his corner is gone, at least until he signs that first contract and guys he battles for a roster spot become teammates.

The NBA is a business, and Martin knows it. Just like any business, his every move is a job interview, even though he's doing it in sneakers and shorts instead of coat and tie.

"You never know who has your best interest at heart," he said.

After the Winthrop camp ended, Martin was off to Columbia to play some more ball, to get ready to run down the dream that's been a part of his life probably since he picked up a basketball for the first time.

To get to this point, he said, the time seems to have flown by.

"Oh man," he said, "it went fast. It's gone by so fast. My whole career has been great. But you learn a lot."

Mostly, you learn never to stop dreaming.

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