Beulah Walker wanted Martell Webster to go to college. But when she saw the determined look in his eyes and heard the desire in his voice as Webster told her he wanted to go to the NBA straight from high school, she knew there was no use trying to stand in his way. So Walker, his 83-year-old great-aunt and lifelong guardian, relented and offered just one bit of advice.
"You're still my boy," she said told him, " but you're fixin' to step in men's shoes now. So you got to wear them."
"I'll wear them, grandma," Webster replied.
About six months after the Portland Trail Blazers chose Webster with the sixth pick in the NBA draft, however, they decided to send Webster to their NBA Development League team in Fort Worth, believing the young talent needed more seasoning. Initially, Webster wasn't pleased at the demotion, so he called Walker seeking sympathy. She gave him the truth.
"I said, ‘You don't have no choice,' " Walker recalled. "What did I tell you?"
"You told me I stepped in men's shoes," Webster shot back.
"Well, get on out there and walk in them then," she said.
Webster, 19, has walked in those shoes through what he called an "average" rookie campaign. "I set high standards for myself," he said.
Looking back, Webster actually sees his three-week stint in the D-League in January as the highlight of his rookie year. "It really boosted my confidence when I came back to the NBA. . . . I'll probably look at it, two or three years from now, when I'll be a franchise player — which I feel I will be — and laugh about it."
The latest collective bargaining agreement established an age minimum of 19 that prohibited high school players from entering the NBA, beginning with this year's draft. It also allowed teams to send players with less than two years of NBA experience to the developmental league, establishing a true minor league system for the league. "Baseball's done it for 1,000 years," Portland General Manager John Nash said. "I think it's going to be a part of our culture. I think a lot of teams will recognize the value of doing that."
Five of the eight players who made the final leap from high school to the NBA were assigned to D-League duty this season. Center Andrew Bynum of the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors guard Monta Ellis and Philadelphia guard Louis Williams were the only members of the class who spent the entire season with the team that drafted them. None of them has been able to avoid a slow start to his career. "Really only a select few players can do stuff like that, like LeBron James," Webster said in a recent phone interview.
Following the immediate impacts James and Dwight Howard had on the league, the last class has made a minimal impression this season. To some, it has supported NBA Commissioner David Stern's decision to shut the doors on high school players just 10 years after Kevin Garnett opened the floodgates in 1995. "I don't think it's fair to see how well a kid does or doesn't to support a rule," Stern said. "We just think that the opportunity to see those skills develop another year outside of the NBA will help our teams make wiser decisions about them. From the business perspective, it's better for our teams to be able to see a player after he has played against broader competition, which would be the collegiate ranks."
Stern said the opportunity to play in the D-League would help keep "the young underdeveloped kid" from "doing nothing but being a tourist." Detroit Pistons guard Amir Johnson, a rookie out of Los Angeles's Westchester High, actually asked if he could be sent to the D-League. "Sitting down all the time, I wanted to get some runs in," said Johnson, who has played in just two games this season. "I thought it was good for me to go down to get a little learning experience. I'm skipping a whole level without college."
Although the D-League recently lowered its minimum age requirement to 18, D-League Vice President of Player Development Michael Curry doesn't foresee many players bypassing college to play minor league basketball. "It's an option for them to stay here in the States [instead of playing in Europe]," Curry said of the new rule. "[But] the best deal [for a D-League player] is for $24,000. There is no way you can compare a non-guaranteed, $24,000 contract to a guarantee of millions of dollars in a multiyear contract [in the NBA]. I don't think guys would turn down the opportunity to play at North Carolina to play in the D-League."
A 6-foot-7 guard-forward with a crisp jump shot that has drawn comparisons to one of his basketball mentors, Seattle's Ray Allen, Webster turned down a scholarship to the University of Washington to enter the NBA. "If he were a freshman in college right now, we'd be hearing all about him," Nash said. Still, Webster said he never second-guessed his decision, not even when he became the highest draft pick ever sent down to the D-League. "If I could make the decision again, I would do it the same exact way," Webster said. "The reason why? I'm confident. Plain and simple."
Six- to eight-hour bus rides through dried up farmlands left him with a lot of time to evaluate his life. Some of the landscape was so desolate, he could rarely get cellphone reception, Webster said. So he used that time to think — something he rarely did when he was 35,000 feet in the air, resting in a charter plane for a short flight. "The typical NBA person would describe it as boring," Webster said. "For me, I really just had a chance to clear my head."
While in Fort Worth, Webster spent hours working alongside Portland scout Bill Bayno. "If I look back on it. It wasn't like I was slacking off [in the NBA] and I needed work," Webster said. "I definitely felt I needed more seasoning, because I had no identity. I didn't know who I was in the NBA."
Nash said that Webster's limited minutes in the beginning of the season caused him to revert to a three-point shooter whose confidence lagged with each missed jumper. Since returning from the D-League, Webster has scored in double-figures 13 times. He had career highs with four three-pointers and 24 points against Boston on Feb. 24 but doesn't reflect on that night with fond memories. "We didn't win that night, so I didn't feel good at all," Webster said. "I'd rather win than score 30 points."
Webster speaks with a maturity that belies his age, and he has impressed the Trail Blazers with his ability to charm everyone from the arena janitor to the team's corporate sponsors. "He reminds me of Garnett and players like that because he understands, I think, the league and what you need to do at this level to be successful," Portland Coach Nate McMillan said. "Some of our guys, they think they know it. He does exactly what you say. He goes at everything hard. You appreciate and enjoy players like that. He listens to you and he tries to do what you ask him to do. He's not the kind of guy that if he loses confidence, he's going to mouth off."
McMillan has had his share of run-ins with players in his first season in Portland. He recently sent forward Darius Miles, a six-year veteran drafted out of high school in 2000, back to Portland after he changed into a suit at halftime of a road game against the Los Angeles Clippers. Forward Zach Randolph was suspended after leaving the arena during a game. The Blazers are one of the youngest teams in the league, with four players on its roster taken directly from high school. As a result, Portland has posted a league-worst 21-60 record — a miserable campaign that is mercifully going to end tonight.
"I don't let that get me down. I don't get distracted by all the negativity that's going on. I just try to contribute to my team the best way I can," Webster said. "Most people, when you have a season like this, you just want to get it over. Not me. I wish this season was a little longer. I wish we could get some more games in, but we can't. I was definitely overwhelmed when I was the sixth pick, but now I got prove that I'm the sixth pick."
Webster has made it a habit to drive from the Rose Garden to the Trail Blazers' practice facility to work out after games. "This guy has a drive that you need at this level," said McMillan. "I still feel it would have helped him to go to college. But he made the decision to go pro. And I think he will be a good pro."
Before a recent game against Seattle, he sought out Allen, a five-time all-star for the SuperSonics. Webster used to ask Allen questions when they ran up and down the floor during games. When they met for the final time of the regular season, the two huddled courtside for about 20 minutes. "He asked 50 million, well, not 50 million, but plenty of questions in regards to shooting and how I carry myself in relation to the team and being a leader. Everything that it stands for and what it means," Allen said. "He'll be able to play based upon his work ethic and how he contributes to the team and how his teammates respect him."
Webster has already earned the respect of Walker, who raised Webster in Seattle ever since his mother vanished in 1991. "He was so young, I was all he knew. He was with me all the time," she said in a phone interview from her home in Seattle. "I'm with him everywhere he goes now."
Shortly after he was drafted, Webster convinced Walker to let him get a tattoo of her eyes on his left shoulder and of Jesus on his right. "He said, ‘With you on my left side and Jesus watching me on my right side, I'm going to make it.' So I said 'Yes.' Cause I'm a very religious woman," said Walker, who added that she hates tattoos. "I said 'Okay, I don't want anymore.' "
Webster didn't listen. He's added a few more tattoos since. But Walker said Webster has heeded her advice to walk in a man's shoes.
"He wears size 16, so I guess he can wear them," Walker said, chuckling. "He's doing good. He's got a ways to go, but I know he'll be all right."