Future of Aztec Iron Man Hinges on Fragile Knees

John Martens is lucky he is not a horse. He would probably be fastening stamps to envelopes. They shoot horses, don't they?

Martens, you see, does not exactly have the knees of a Clydesdale. Crystal is more durable.

About anything that can go wrong has gone wrong with Martens' knees. He spends more time with his knee surgeon than most movie stars spend with their therapists. His knees are like a car that needs a tune-up every 3,000 miles.

"Thanks to me," Martens mused, "my surgeon just bought a new car. He called me to thank me for it."

This is noteworthy because John Martens has been having a rather contrary senior year for San Diego State's basketball team. Contrary to everything that has happened to him during the last three years.

You see, Martens is the Aztecs' iron man this year. When he lines up against Colorado State tonight at the Sports Arena, it will be his 12th start in as many games. In terms of minutes on the court, he has played almost a full game more than any of his teammates.

This is a fellow who is due an abundance of good fortune.

Of course, Martens should have known his collegiate career was not going to be routine. He should have figured this out after a very impressive freshman year, in which he started every game. In itself, this was not exactly an omen of ill-fortune.

However, Martens spent his freshman year at the University of San Francisco, which proceeded to discontinue the basketball program because the administration had tired of apologizing for rules violations.

Martens promptly transferred to San Diego State, where he was impressed by the direction of the program and the weather. A year in San Francisco was like a sentence to a kid who likes sunshine and sand.

When Martens arrived at SDSU, there was an abundance of big men. Michael Cage was The Franchise and Leonard Allen was a 6-foot-11 force in the middle, but Martens fit quite nicely. He was a solid rebounder and a reliable shooter.

No one counted on his knees counting him out.

Martens had played in 12 games and started three of them before he went down in practice and broke his right kneecap. It took him out for all but the final four games of the season.

Undaunted, he was back for the 1983-84 season.

"I was feeling pretty good," he said.

Until . . .

Compensating for tenderness in his right knee, he twisted his left ankle. The knee, not to be outdone, started giving him more serious problems, and he played all of six games. He was granted another year of eligibility because he had played so little.

And back he came for 1984-85, this time hyperextending his left knee. Arthroscopic surgery revealed a divot in a bone, of all things, as well as loose cartilage. He was to miss a total of 11 games. He underwent surgery on the left knee after the season ended.

After three years at San Diego State, Martens had played in 42 of 87 games--many of those while less than 100%.

"After that first year," he said, "I thought, 'OK, everything's going to be OK.' Then I ended up with that redshirt year. I was thinking nothing was going to go wrong last year, then the other knee started swelling up. I've gotten so I know a little more about knees than the average person."

Lest it be assumed that Martens is a fellow with chronically weak knees, let him set the record straight.

"I had never in my life been injured," he said, "and I've been playing basketball since I was 7 or 8 years old. I guess these kinds of things happen."

He has, of course, occasionally wondered, "Why me? Why now?"

However, Martens does not seem the type to dwell on the past. He is intent on enjoying the good fortunes of the good health he once took for granted.

It is not the best of years for San Diego State basketball, but Martens is finally able to do all the things he last did so well at Newbury Park High School in Thousand Oaks. Of all people, he is the iron man.

In a sense, this has been a rather lonely year for Martens. Now that he is healthy, almost all of the Aztecs' other big men have been sidelined by injuries. At times, he is the only player in the lineup taller than 6-foot-4.

"I'm used to be surrounded by bigger men," he said. "This puts a little more pressure on me."

The biggest guy, of course, is responsible for getting rebounds. All Martens has to do it muscle past a couple of guys his own size and then outjump some guy who stands about 6-10. Getting a rebound in those circumstances is about as easy as getting through the Secret Service to shake hands with the President.

John Martens has accomplished this chore, and managed to score 14 points a game as well. The game is fun again, as it has always been when those knees were more stable than a bowl of Rice Krispies. He has the snap, crackle and pop back in his game, instead of his knees.

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