A no-nonsense, all business point guard, Slater Martin doesn’t leave us much to appreciate in terms of numbers. Only five times in his 11-year career did he average over 10 points a game, and his highest single-season scoring average was 13.6 in 1955. Even as a point guard, he averaged over five assists per game just three times, peaking with 6.2 in 1956. He shot 36% from the field for his career, which was pretty bad even for the era.
But what makes Slater a Hall of Famer is something that can’t quite be found in the standard quantitative measure. His greatest attributes on the court were stern determination, unflappable ball-handling, and tenacious pit bull defense.
With the Minneapolis Lakers, the diminutive Martin was always overshadowed by the powerful frontcourt trio of George Mikan, Vern Mikkelsen, and Jim Pollard (and later on Clyde Lovellette). Those players had a way of filling up the bucket and Martin had a way of making sure everything was in place on offense when it came time to set them up. His backcourt play was essential for the Lakers capturing four titles in the 1950s as he helped frustrate the Rochester Royals who were bloated with talented guards.
By 1956, Martin was a four-time All-Star and a two-time member of the All-NBA team, however, the Lakers low-balled the point guard in contract negotiations. Martin threatened to retire and return to his hometown Houston. Martin didn’t return to Texas just yet, though, thanks to some backroom wheeling and dealing.
The St. Louis Hawks had some mighty fine frontcourt talent, but were lacking an unflappable point guard who could handle and dispense defensive pressure. Owner Ben Kerner convinced New York Knicks owner Ned Irish to trade for Martin, and then flip Martin to the Hawks, since the Lakers would never trade Martin to a divisional rival.
Sure enough after the roundabout transaction, Martin helped lead the Hawks to two NBA Finals appearances. Although they lost the 1957 Finals, Martin played a key role in holding Celtics stars Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman to a woeful 5-40 shooting performance in the deciding Game 7. The next season in 1958, the Hawks defeated Boston in a Finals rematch, giving Martin his fifth title.
Perhaps a sixth would have followed in 1959 or 1960. In 1959, however, Martin had succumbed during the 1st postseason games due to a broken fibula he suffered against his old team, the Minneapolis Lakers. In 1960, he mustered only three postseason games as Father Time bore down heavily on Martin.
But really, what else would a sixth title have added to Martin’s career that five hadn’t already done? He was already recognized by peers, especially Cousy, as the best defensive guard of the era. We’d do well to keep up that assessment of Slater Martin.
Seasons Played: 1950 – 1960
5x Champion (1950, 1952-’54, 1958)
5x All-NBA 2nd Team (1955-’59)
7x All-Star (1953-’59)
NBA – 745 Games
9.8 PPG, 4.2 APG, 3.4 RPG, 36.4% FG, 76.2% FT
Contemporary NBA Ranks (1950 – 1960)
3rd Assists, 11th APG
17th Points, 17th FTs Made, 18th FGs Made
2nd Games Played, 3rd Minutes Played