Nov. 27, 2014
Ray Martin stood on the blue paint that borders the golden maple court at the University of Notre Dame’s Purcell Pavilion, not far from the spot where 40 years ago, he took a charge with 45 seconds left in the game that turned out to be one of the greatest moments in Fighting Irish sports history.
Martin, a freshman, was put into the Jan. 19, 1974, classic by Irish coach Digger Phelps to be a defensive stopper. The Irish were trying to pull off the upset of the century against the No. 1-ranked Bruins, who owned a record 88-game winning streak and had won the last seven national championships in a row. Spearheaded by Martin’s intensity, the Irish stopped mighty UCLA cold, forcing the Bruins into zero-of-six shooting and four turnovers in the final 3:32 as the Irish wiped out a 70-59 UCLA lead in stunning fashion.
When Martin took the charge by Keith Wilkes in the final minute, it set up Dwight Clay’s go-ahead basket to make it 71-70 and then the Irish survived a frantic succession of UCLA desperation shots before the final buzzer triggered an epic Irish victory celebration.
Martin, now an assistant coach at Grambling State was back at Notre Dame, the ghosts of triumphs past still ringing loudly in his ears.
On Wednesday night, before Grambling took on the current Irish in what ended up an 81-54 victory by Notre Dame, Martin stood courtside and marveled at the majestic renovation of what was known in the 1970s as the ACC, the Athletic and Convocation Center.
“Wow,” Martin gushed about Purcell Pavilion. “This is beautiful. It’s magnificent. It’s not surprising, because Notre Dame has always been first class.”
“I love the blue. I don’t miss the multi-colored seats, but I’m sure (former Irish coach) Digger (Phelps) misses those seats, with the Pink Panther and all those things he was into back then,” Martin laughed.
Irish coach Mike Brey said Martin has made a profound mark on the profession.
“I would really call him an educator,” Brey said of Martin. “There’s a lot of young people in the college game, through his different coaching stops, who have benefited from his relationship. He’s one of the good guys in the business. He’s a class act. I think every young person who comes in touch with him feels good about himself.
“Ray Martin was a heck of a basketball player for us and a great guard coming out of New York City. I was younger, but I knew the name Dice Martin, growing up in D.C.”
Martin relished his time at Notre Dame, an era of stunning upsets and deep runs in the NCAA Championship.
“There are a lot of good memories here, even though my last memory here was not that good, when I broke my ankle against Indiana,” Martin said. “But I made great friendships and had great relationships. I talked to Dwight Clay today. I talked to Duck Williams the other day. I talked to Gary Brokaw yesterday. I keep in contact with Toby Knight. I talk to Adrian Dantley, John Shumate, Peter Crotty. The guys who played in the `70s really keep in contact with each other.”
Martin has had a journeyman’s career as a coach. He was an assistant coach on Jim Valvano’s 1983 North Carolina State club that stunned “Phi Slamma Jamma” Houston in one of the greatest upset in NCAA Championship history. He was the head coach at Long Island University and also coached at SMU, Tennessee, Shaw, Florida Atlantic, Miami (Ohio), Fordham, South Carolina State, University of Maryland-Baltimore County and North Carolina Central.
“First and foremost, I’m blessed to have a great wife,” Martin said. “Valerie endured all these different places I’ve been at. She kept the family together while I’ve been on the road. I also have four great children. My youngest and only son, Ray Anthony II, is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, so he will graduate this year. That’s a blessing.
“It’s also been a true blessing to be around great players and be around great coaches. A lot of it was being around good people. I’m blessed to say I was part of some great college basketball games. Hopefully, those memories will stay with me forever and I can share them with my grandkids.”
According to Martin, coaching basketball has been more of a calling than a profession.
“This has definitely been a calling,” Martin said. “It’s a blessing to have an opportunity to give back and to have an opportunity to be around great people. There have been challenges, but I still get a lot of good vibes from the game.
“The most important thing I do is to let the players know there is life outside of basketball, beyond basketball,” Martin continued. “That’s what I learned from Notre Dame, that’s what was instilled in me by my parents. Even when you’re playing in these 40 minutes, and that’s the most important thing you’re doing at that time, after the 40 minutes is over you have to realize there’s life after sports and prepare for that. The most important thing is to get your degree. Even the great ones have to give it up at some point.
“I also tell them to be a good citizen. You have to represent your family, represent your school, represent yourself with class and dignity. Those are among the many things I learned at Notre Dame.”
Phelps, who spoke to the Grambling team Wednesday afternoon, said he always felt Martin had the talent to coach.
“Ray was a great point guard,” Phelps said. “I knew he could lead the team. He was great about playing defense. His job wasn’t to score, it was to play defense and to run the team.
“I really felt he had the instincts to coach. He was very observant about what we did here and how we built this program. Jimmy Valvano saw things in him when he was an assistant at North Carolina State.”
Martin said he felt a strong urge to stay in academic circles because of his Notre Dame experience and to try and touch the future as an educator.
“I came from humble beginnings,” Martin said. “I was born and raised in Long Island City, New York, Queens Bridge Projects. My Dad worked the night shift. He worked his butt off to keep a roof over our heads and food in the table. My mom was a domestic. I talk to young men who have come from a path similar to my path. If I can be of inspiration to them and let them know that if I can make it out of humble beginnings, so can they. That’s what keeps me going.”
“There are so many principles from Notre Dame that have touched me and guided me,” Martin said. “The most important thing is belief, belief that if you put your mind to it, you can do what you want to do. The other thing is the value of family. Notre Dame is a family and it taught me about family.”
Martin’s Notre Dame experiences influence his coaching.
“Digger made sure his players were prepared and ready to go to battle,” Martin said. “He was an attention-to-details coach and he was a great motivator. I tried to look back on the things that I experience at Notre Dame, playing for Coach Phelps, and if I can use it to motivate the guys who come across my path, I do.”
Brey gave Martin a tremendous honor after the game, grabbing Martin and pulling him into the Irish line for the traditional playing of the fabled Notre Dame Alma Mater.
“Ray commented, `I watch (the Alma Mater) on football Saturdays, and at the end of (basketball) games, and I get a little emotional, at times,'” Brey said.
“Ray’s very humble,” Brey added about Martin. “He’s a pleasant man. If I had a son (playing now), I’d love him to play for Ray Martin. I know he would be in good hands.”
— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent