Getting It Together : Whittier Christian's Martin Grows Up to Become Team Leader

Times Staff Writer

When the referee blew the whistle and flashed number 23 to the scorer's table, Erik Martin looked up in the air, smiled, shrugged and walked over to the bench.

For the first time this season, Martin, a Whittier Christian High School center, had fouled out. Before doing so, he scored 22 points, blocked 5 shots and had 10 rebounds against Capistrano Valley Christian in Tuesday's Olympic League opener, which Whittier Christian won, 73-51. Impressive figures, but short of Martin's season average of almost 30 points and 14 rebounds a game.

But his father, Ed, sitting in the stands, was pleased.

"You see, that's his biggest improvement right there," Ed Martin said. "When he was a freshman, he would have been fussing at the ref. But now he just laughs."

Erik Martin, a senior, is growing up. He has learned to control the outbursts that marred his year on the freshman team and continued through his sophomore and junior years on the varsity.

Martin, 16, has emerged this season not only as a dominating player but as a team leader.

"There's been a drastic change in his maturity from last year to this year," said Bill Cuccia, Whittier Christian coach.

Whereas parents and coaches are impressed with new-found maturity, such an attribute doesn't mean a whole lot to opponents. Sure, he can keep his composure, but what can he do with a basketball?

A lot. Martin's behavior may be cool, but his play has been nothing but hot.

Martin is Orange County's second leading scorer this season. He is averaging 29.7 points a game and twice has scored 37 points in a game. In the fifth game this season, he broke his school's career-scoring record of 1,147 points. His field goal percentage is 75%, and at the free throw line he is shooting 68% and improving,

Martin also averages 14.3 rebounds per game, has blocked 44 shots and is third on the team in assists.

Of course, this didn't all happen overnight. Last season, when he was 15, Martin averaged 21 points a game and broke Whittier Christian's single-season scoring record (685 points) and rebounding record (410 rebounds). He was a first-team all-Southern Section and all-state selection.

"You have to remember, he could be a sophomore (by age) this year," Cuccia said. "My oldest son is in seventh grade, and when I think that Erik is only 3 1/2 years older, I can't believe it."

Martin is younger than other seniors because he skipped fifth grade. At the time he didn't mind. He saw it as a way of catching up with his older brother, Chris. But when he entered high school, the age difference started catching up with him.

"I had some trouble starting off, some behavioral problems," Martin said. "I had troubles adapting to school and to the team."

Martin worked out his problems on the freshman team with the help of Coach Bob Brown, but he continued to have problems once he got to the varsity.

"He would get too emotional on the court," Cuccia said. "He's a perfectionist and would get into the game emotionally."

Said Martin: "Even last year, I would get upset when things didn't go my way. But now I listen to what my dad says. He says that stuff doesn't do any good and just uses up energy."

Last season, Martin was the youngster surrounded by four experienced senior starters, including his brother Chris, now a starting guard at Rancho Santiago College.

"Last year, Erik didn't have to score," Cuccia said. "And he didn't have to be a leader. He relied on the seniors, and it allowed him to be immature."

But this season, Martin is the veteran on a team that has gotten off to an uncharacteristically slow 6-4 start.

"Now there's pressure on him," Cuccia said. "But he's ready for it. He's providing both leadership and intensity."

Still, Martin may still have some more growing up to do, in the physical department.

He is 6-feet 6-inches tall, but his size 16 shoes indicate that he hasn't finished growing.

"When he was a baby, they said he could grow to be 7-2," said Ed Martin, who is 6-5 1/2 and played center at the University of Connecticut. His mother, Beatrice, is 5-10 and played basketball at Winston-Salem College.

"Physically, Erik's a little kid in a man's body," Cuccia said. "He hasn't filled out yet."

Cuccia thinks that if doesn't keep growing, he will be able to make the transition to either big guard or small forward in college.

"He's a very good guard and an excellent perimeter shooter," Cuccia said.

"My favorite thing to do is to give a good pass," Martin said.

Against Capistrano Valley Christian, Martin showed his passing proficiency when, untouched under the basket, he chose not to score himself, instead looking left and passing right to a teammate who scored.

"I have the heart of a guard," he said.

Whatever position he plays, he'll be playing it at Texas Christian University. After also visiting Fresno State, Cal State Long Beach, Montana and Oregon, Martin signed a letter of intent with TCU, a school of 7,000.

"I liked the fact that it's a small school, like Whittier Christian," Martin said. "I won't get lost in the shuffle."

Horned Frog Coach Moe Iba, who lost eight seniors last year, expects Martin to contribute next season.

"We think Erik could play a number of positions," Iba said. "Our small forward position is more like a guard position and we may use him there. We were very impressed with his athletic ability."

One question often asked about Martin is whether he would be as impressive if he played at a school other than Whittier Christian, in a division other than 1-A.

"I can't imagine what it would be like to play at another school, like a Woodbridge or a Santa Ana," Martin said. "Maybe I wouldn't get to play that much. I like it that the team goes to me for the big play."

Cuccia believes Martin would be a standout on any team and thinks he has proved it in nonleague play.

"He's had the opportunity to play against some very good teams," Cuccia said. "We've played 5-A teams and he's been the best player on the floor."

Cuccia concedes that a lack of attention may be one drawback to attending a small, private school. But he made an effort to help Martin get noticed, encouraging his participation in summer leagues and in last summer's Five-Star basketball camp in Pittsburgh.

"I don't think it is a problem," Iba said. "We saw Erik playing this summer, and in California, the summer league competition level is very high."

But Cuccia thinks the transition from a star at a small high school to a college freshman will be difficult for Martin.

"I think it will be a rude awakening," Cuccia said. "He's a victim of his talent. So far, he's been able to coast. I think he will meet the challenge of college, but it will be the toughest challenge he's ever had."

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