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Damian Martin: Red Army Hero

As the final seconds of Perth’s 2015/16 Championship season wound down, Damian Martin embraced his team-mates. The Wildcats captain had been instrumental in Perth’s decisive Game 3 victory and he would soon be awarded the Larry Sengstock Medal as Grand Final MVP. His team-mates knew it. Cedric Jackson knew it. The Red Army knew it. The ‘MVP’ chant for Martin roared throughout the building. “It’s very special,” Martin said later. “It’s one of those awards I probably don’t appreciate to the full extent right now just because I’m caught up in lifting the trophy. But to win that individual accolade is something I’m sure I’ll think about once the celebrating unwinds.” Led by their inspirational skipper, the Wildcats produced the greatest defensive performance in NBL Grand Final history in Game 3, restricting the New Zealand Breakers to an all-time low 52 points. One of the NBL‘s greatest defensive teams – steered by arguably the greatest defensive player in League history – was at its brilliant best when it mattered most. “When you’ve got Damian Martin... he’s the best defensive player in Australia, he’s our engine. He was getting after the ball and everyone was just following his lead,” two-time championship winning Coach Trevor Gleeson said post-game. “It’s fantastic to have a soldier like that.” Martin’s impact on Game 3 was monumental right from the opening tip. His ability to shut down Cedric Jackson, one of the greatest players in league history and a proven big-stage performer, was key. Most defenders give Jackson a cushion, scared he may blow by them at any moment. Not Martin, the gutsy stopper was into Jackson’s feet across the entire length of the floor. Possession after possession; turning him, wearing him down, forcing him towards the help. Martin’s pressure was relentless. In the end, it wore Jackson down. After failing to have an impact, the star import fouled out early in the final quarter with zero points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 turnovers. It was the first time in his celebrated four-year NBL career that Jackson failed to score a single point.

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“That was our best defensive effort of the season and to do it in Game 3 makes it all the better,” Martin said post-game. Down the other end, the captain’s hustle was having a similar kind of impact. The Wildcats were relentless on the offensive glass in the opening stages, notching up their tenth offensive rebound early in the second quarter. Martin, their point guard, had grabbed 4 of them. Shown no respect on the perimeter, he drained a wide-open three-pointer with 30 seconds left in the second quarter to extend Perth’s lead to 12. He followed that by stripping Jackson on New Zealand’s final first-half possession. Midway through the third quarter, Martin did the same to Thomas Abercrombie who was striding towards the basket in transition. The Breakers’ game leading scorer (21 points) was desperately trying to inch his team back into the contest but Martin was having none of it. “It’s like there’s two or three of Damian Martin running around the floor, this guy is everywhere,” Fox Sports Broadcaster Derek Rucker said on the call. Martin, who announced his wife’s pregnancy to a national TV audience during his MVP acceptance speech, finished with 10 points on 4-of-8 shooting, eight rebounds, two steals to go with an assist and a block. The numbers were nice, but it was his inspirational defensive play – most of which is never reflected in the box score – that powered the Wildcats to victory, just as it had in Game 1. “Everyone has a role on the team and mine’s at the defensive end,” Martin said post-game. “Everyone embraces their role and it’s the reason why we won, we just stand up and do what we’re capable of.” In many ways, what Martin is capable of is greater than most. His intensity, grit and toughness are unparalleled across the league. Nobody plays harder. Perhaps only New Zealand’s Mika Vukona, the other Grand Final captain, comes close. Let’s also not forget that Martin had his face rearranged earlier this season. It was a scary moment and, after all of the work done to repair his toothy grin, his face now makes things interesting at airport security. Those missed games cost him a sixth consecutive NBL Best Defensive Player Award but that’s history now. The ring is the thing. Martin’s proud coach was absolutely gushing when asked about his captain’s leadership post-game. “He just plays with his heart and that just carries on to the rest of the team. It’s inspirational,” Gleeson said. “Some leaders just talk well – and he does that as well – but the performance on the court that’s what it’s all about. “When your team-mate’s playing that hard you have to play at that level because you’ll feel like you’re letting the team down and that’s what this team did this year.”
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All part of a day’s work for Martin. Unsurprisingly, Martin was keen to deflect the attention post-game, considering himself lucky to have been named Grand Final MVP. “It could have gone to a handful of guys,” the champ said humbly. “I am grateful that my name was called but in saying that I would’ve been just as happy if Jermaine (Beal), Nate (Jawai), Matty (Knight), whoever it was had their name called out.” Nobody who actually watched the series was in any doubt. Martin, now a three-time champion, added that the quality of the League this year is what makes this one particularly special. “This is the strongest the NBL has been in the nine years I’ve been a part of the League,” Martin said. “It was so tight throughout the course of the season.. so it’s very special just because of how tough teams one through eight were. “To stand up the top at the end of it is quite remarkable and something I’m very proud of.”
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