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Tuesday, June 18, 2002
Updated: September 11, 1:31 PM ET
Fab Friend

By by Chad Millman


Ed Martin had the judge right where he wanted him, because he has always delivered when someone needed something. So when the judge peered down from his bench and, in a parental scold, asked, "Do you understand?'' Martin buoyantly answered, "Yes, sir." This was right up Uncle Eddie's alley. For all of his 68 years, he's been able to make giving to others work for him.

He's a little round in the belly, a little jolly in his manner, with a white beard covering his light coffee-colored face. And the man has a genius for pleasing. He'd give matronly neighbors gourmet cakes he kept in the trunk of his Mercedes. He'd treat all the kids in his northwest Detroit neighborhood to ice cream. He'd pick up the Southwestern High basketball team's tab at McDonald's after a big win. Sometimes, he'd buy a pair of shoes for an up-and-coming player, or maybe he'd slip them some spending money. If one of the great ones needed a hotel room, he didn't have to ask. Martin was their biggest fan, and a walking credit card. They all called him Uncle Eddie. And when the up-and-coming basketball players became stars, Eddie Martin could say he was their friend. That was their thank-you.

Ed Martin
Bad news for Uncle Eddie.
But Martin was offering a different kind of gift to the judge. On May 28, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to launder money -- forking over cash and gifts to basketball players, specifically more than $600,000 he earned running an illegal lottery. The plea saved him from a trial which could have earned him 20 years in prison. But now his fate was up to the judge. And all Martin had to bargain with was his willingness to tell a story he had never told before. It's the one about how he became the biggest booster to the biggest star of the most celebrated recruiting class in college basketball history. It's the one about the autoworker who brought down an elite basketball program that is now not even the best in its state. It's the one a dozen reporters in the courtroom want to hear, and one the nation's most prestigious public university needs to know.

Martin has yet to tell his story. Who knows when he will? But it will take more than cake, or sneakers, or spending money to sell his truth and avoid jail time. "The best scenario is probation," the judge said to Martin. "But your rosiest scenario may not work out."

"It will," Martin answered cheerfully, convinced the judge would be overwhelmed by what he had to offer. After all, Ed Martin's spent a lifetime making friends.

***

Interstate 75 runs through Atlanta to Tennessee and Kentucky and along the Ohio border before it reaches Detroit. Back in the early 1950s, when Eddie Martin left his segregated high school in Roswell, Ga., a half-hour north of Atlanta, I-75 was a 700-mile pipeline out of purgatory. The northern migration of employable black kids who went jobless in the South was in full swing and, for many, Detroit was their beacon. The auto industry was churning out entire parking lots' worth of cars. And the River Rouge auto plant, a massive complex braided in metal pipes with belching smokestacks, the Henry Ford version of Versailles, needed to be filled.

Though the plant was in Dearborn, most people who worked there lived in southwestern Detroit or in a cluster of nearby communities like River Rouge and Melvindale. They owned two-story brick houses, drove Fords, of course, and spent as many Friday nights as possible watching the River Rouge High basketball team. "Our games were the in thing," says DeWayne Smith, who played for Rouge in 1953 and '54, was an assistant coach from 1961 to '83 and coached the team from '84 to '94. "People were so decked out, it looked like a fashion show." River Rouge was beginning a run of 12 state titles in 22 years when Ed Martin joined Ford as an electrician's apprentice in 1951. It was impossible not to become a basketball fan when everyone spent Monday mornings talking about Friday night's game.

Martin's job was to keep the assembly lines in Ford's crown jewel humming. Socially, the plant was like high school. The guys in the body shop were one clique. The guys working on final assembly were another. But Martin was a nomadic Mr. Fix It. He traveled to wherever the hot spots were, putting out fires, making friends, helping people do their jobs. He'd share a joke with guys during breaks and talk hoops with them after they punched out.

Martin's personality, and his wandering ways, made him perfect for the Rouge plant's other business: a numbers racket that broke up the monotony of factory work. It wasn't a sophisticated, Sopranoesque gambling ring. Think NCAA office pool -- only think really big office. Workers would put a couple bucks down. Winnings were based on state lottery numbers. Runners came around to collect the bets so that no one lost time on the Ford clock. And another worker doubled as the house. For the bettors it was hassle free. And the house always knew where to find the money. With access to every part of the plant and all its potential bettors, Martin supplemented his electrician's salary with commissions he earned collecting bets. Slowly he climbed the numbers-runner ladder, using his position at the plant and the force of his personality to make him a natural choice as heir apparent to the whole operation. When the man who ran it retired during the '80s, the entire operation became Martin's, passed on as seamlessly as a mom-and-pop drugstore.

***

St. Cecilia's, on the corner of Livernois and Burlingame in northwest Detroit, is a sweatbox masquerading as a gym. The steeple-topped field house still boasts a sign over the door -- right underneath the cross -- that proclaims it the "sports capital of Detroit."

That's where Martin's basketball jones kicked into overdrive.

During the summers, he'd watch pro leagues in a gym so tight that players threw inbounds passes around support beams. He watched Magic take on The Iceman and Isiah. But The Saint was also a hotbed for high school teams looking to gel. That included Perry Watson's Southwestern teams. In the early '80s, Watson took an undisciplined team that had won all of 15 games in the two years before he arrived and put them through boot camp. Three years later, Southwestern was in the state finals -- and it went back for six straight years. "Wherever we went was like a road show," says Tony Jones, a Watson assistant during those glory days. "We were winning, and people wanted to jump on the bandwagon."

That included Ed Martin. Martin was a rare kind of friend to the program. Neither of his sons played there. He didn't want to coach the team. And he didn't yell at Watson from the bleachers. He came by after work to watch practices. He treated the team and the cheerleaders to pizza after games. And if an All-America like Antoine Joubert, who later starred at Michigan, needed cash, "then he'd go to Eddie's house to mow the lawn," says Jones.

The Motor City economy stalled in the throes of the Rust Belt recession. The modest, two-story brick houses southwest of Detroit looked like they had been abandoned during breakfast. And no one bought a new Ford every year anymore. But most folks were still putting a few bucks down on the number. So Martin was still the guy who could hand out the right present to the right person at just the right moment.

"A lot of these kids came from single-parent homes," says Martin's attorney, William Mitchell, who spoke with The Magazine on his client's behalf. "And Eddie was a pied piper to them because he thought he could help. He got to know the families and liked feeling needed and admired."

"Kids started calling him Uncle Eddie," says Quinton Watkins, who coaches a local AAU team. "He loved the celebrity of it and hanging around the players."

Martin was so committed to the team, and so intoxicated by the attention that came from being affiliated with it, he pushed the boundaries to put Southwestern over the top. According to published reports, in 1984, after Southwestern lost in the state finals for the third straight year, he approached the father of Terry Mills, a hulking forward who played at rival Romulus. Martin gave Mills' father $400 in cash, a case of liquor, bottles of perfume and, of course, a cake, hoping Mills would jump to Southwestern. Martin says he only offered to help Mills transfer -- if he was interested. Mills, later a Michigan star and journeyman pro, wasn't, and Mills' father returned the gifts.

Either way, Martin's rep had been cemented.

***

The most glamorous stars that Detroit had in the late '80s were basketball players. Isiah, Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman: the Bad Boy Pistons. And, of course, the two best high school players in the country, Jalen Rose at Southwestern and Chris Webber at Detroit Country Day. Eddie Martin first saw them as 14-year-old teammates on their AAU team, Super Friends. They were watching hoops in the U. of Detroit gym one day when Martin walked in looking like a retired member of Run-DMC. He wore an all-white sweatsuit with gold ropes hanging from his neck and tinted glasses shading his eyes. "He had a real cool walk," remembers Darrell Hervey, who played on the team, which was coached by his father, Curtis. "He seemed a little flashy and a little classy. He met us all, but everyone already knew who he was."

And Martin sure knew who Webber was.

Even at 14, Webber was a presence in the gym. He seemed to have skipped gawky and shy and gone right into being a perfectly proportioned, well-coordinated man-child, with a smile and charm to match. "Chris was easy to like," says Curtis Hervey. And Ed Martin wanted to be close.

While Rose says Martin gave him shoes, clothes and some spending money, it was Webber who got the bulk of Martin's attention. Teammates often noticed the two meeting privately, where coaches couldn't see them. Then Webber would show up with a new pair of shoes, the kind that would have been a luxury for his teacher mother and factory-worker father. One afternoon, during his senior year, Webber walked into the Country Day locker room with a new gold chain around his neck.

"Where'd you get that?" a teammate says he asked him.

"Mr. Martin," Webber said.

"He gave you the chain?"

"No," Webber answered, "He gave me money. I bought the chain."

Ed Martin was practicing his own kind of urban boosterism, and he was not alone. The new breed of boosters are not powerful alumni of some big university, quietly stuffing car keys into a star player's pocket at the 19th hole of the local country club. They're street-corner barons who elevate their status by hanging around neighborhood princes. "Mr. Martin knew it was tough where we were coming from," says Rose, now a Chicago Bull. "So he gave us what we needed to not screw it up." To an 18-year-old whose family can't afford an allowance, that can be as simple as a gold chain, a new pair of Jordans or, in Rose's case, spending cash. The byproduct of Martin's largess was more access to fame and glory than an electrician at Ford can usually expect.

When ex-Michigan coach Steve Fisher recruited Webber, Rose and the rest of the famed Fab Five, he also recruited Ed Martin. Fisher would have been at a disadvantage if he hadn't. It's a new hazard of the coach's job: how to include the neighborhood "Uncle" in the recruiting process, yet not let him get too close to the program. "Put yourself in the college coach's place," says Al Wilkerson, who was Mills' coach at Romulus. "Do you want to piss off a guy who has influence over the kids you need?"

Fisher let Martin feel like he occupied space in the Fab Five's inner sanctum. He comped him tickets. He put him on the team list for hotel rooms at the Final Four. He even called him to talk about the team. And the more access Martin was granted, the more Uncle Eddie's ambition grew. "After Webber, Martin aligned himself with players all over the city," remembers Tony Jones. "He became more of a Detroit guy."

Martin was a confirmed bigwig now. And he apparently doled out gifts to match his status. Gold chains were penny ante. Now it was an apartment, Martin would later say in court, that he leased for Webber. Or, according to the indictment, thousands of dollars in cash. Martin even told people he was Chris Webber's godfather. Uncle Eddie wasn't just a nickname now, it was a way of life. When Fisher made a recruiting trip to Robert Traylor's house, Martin was in the living room, as though he were part of the family. Martin even requested that UM players bring visiting recruits by his house, as if he was a royal the prospects needed to meet.

That's what happened in February 1996, when Flint phenom Mateen Cleaves made his recruiting trip to Ann Arbor. The Wolverines were playing Indiana the next day, but Maurice Taylor, Robert Traylor, Louis Bullock and others wanted to show Cleaves a good time, so they hopped into Taylor's SUV and drove to Detroit for some parties.

Driving home at nearly 5 in the morning, Taylor fell asleep at the wheel, flipping his truck. Traylor broke an arm in the crash, and while everyone else walked away relatively unscathed, the same could not be said for the Michigan basketball program. "We couldn't figure out why Taylor had such an expensive car," says former UM president Jim Duderstadt. A university investigation discovered that the car was registered to a relative of Taylor's. But the Detroit Free Press reported that players had stopped at Martin's house that night because Martin wanted to meet Cleaves. That was the first time any officials at Michigan other than the basketball coaches had heard the name Ed Martin. It wouldn't be the last.

That summer, the NCAA called Joe Roberson, the school's athletic director, and passed along an anonymous tip that Martin had paid several past and present players. "I called Ed Martin right away," says Roberson. "He said he'd talk to his lawyer and call back. I'm still waiting."

Roberson sat some of the Wolverines down and asked them point blank: Are you taking money from Ed Martin? "Everyone said no," Roberson says. "I thought some of them were lying, but I didn't have any evidence." Even after the Free Press reported, in May 1997, that Martin had loaned Webber and Taylor more than $100,000 each, the university still couldn't prove it. Nineteen months and two investigations later, limited in power because, as Roberson says, "we couldn't force anyone to testify," the school could uncover only minor infractions, which the NCAA confirmed to be: 1) Martin sat in on a recruiting visit between Fisher and Traylor; 2) Martin gave food and a birthday cake to Traylor; 3) Martin had contact with Mateen Cleaves when Michigan was recruiting him. Attempts to get comments from Bullock, Taylor, Traylor and Webber were unsuccessful.

"The explanation Fisher gave was that Martin was involved but there was no major violation," says Lee Bollinger, Duderstadt's successor as president. "That's not adequate. When you have somebody notorious for giving benefits to your athletes, you put the program at risk." A day after releasing the report, Michigan fired Fisher. ***

If the only law Eddie Martin broke was the NCAA's rule about amateurism, he would have faded into the Michigan blue yonder the day he was banned. But remember, he was running an illegal lottery that, in a good week, grossed an estimated $100,000. And for three years, from 1999 to 2002, he was the focal point of an investigation by the U.S. attorney in Detroit that kept the University of Michigan in a haze of uncertainty. The basketball team, meanwhile, is on its third coach and third AD and has a record of 7378 since banning Martin from the program in 1997. "I give nearly 300 speeches a year," says current AD Bill Martin. "And in every one I have to bring up Ed Martin because people want to know. I actually get the chills when I hear the name." The NCAA has been waiting for the U.S. attorney's office to finish its investigation before deciding what action to take, if any, against Michigan.

When Richard Convertino, the 40-year-old baby-faced career prosecutor who built the case against Martin, finally released the federal government's indictment last March, he had connected the dots: Martin's lottery business had funded his basketball jones. Martin was charged with, among other things, running an illegal gambling business and conspiring to launder money. There was no evidence that he bet on games, or tried to entice players into shaving points. But Martin did plead guilty to trying to wash his cash by loaning Webber and his family $280,000 between 1988 and '93; Traylor and his family $160,000 between 1994 and '98; Taylor and his family $105,000 between 1995 and '98; and Louis Bullock and his family $71,000 between 1995 and '99.

"People tell me that I don't understand where these kids are coming from, that Ed Martin can be a savior whose money protects them against other influences," says Bollinger. "I don't see it that way. The relationship was exploitative."

But who was exploiting whom? Was Eddie Martin blindly giving away cash with no intention of ever seeing it again because he wanted the attention it would buy? Or was he was savvy enough to befriend kids with NBA potential so he could use them years later to funnel "clean" money back to him? People close to Martin don't have trouble making the call.

"Eddie wanted to be in their entourage; he was a jock sniffer," says one Martin confidante. "He wanted to buy his way in. Otherwise, why would they hang with him? They didn't give a crap about him." At least not when the choice came down to saving their skin or Uncle Eddie's. When Webber was asked by reporters in early April about the indictment, he said he had never taken a thing from Martin. He made a point of adding, "How could you take the word of a criminal?" Ten days later, he amended his comments and told a Sacramento radio station that he had "taken $20 here and $20 there," which is what he says he told the grand jury. The feds, however, are sticking to that $280,000 claim, and won't comment on whether they'll press Webber over the discrepancy, or what charges he'd face if they did.

Who knows? Once Uncle Eddie tells his story, maybe CWebb will change his.

***

Martin will be sentenced on Aug. 29. Between now and then, he'll brief the university and the government and tell them how an autoworker from Georgia became the godfather of Detroit basketball. Mitchell says Martin is broke. But he is famous. That's the gift the players gave him.

After pleading guilty, Martin made a statement on the steps of the courthouse. The sidewalks of downtown Detroit were empty, except for a gaggle of reporters surrounding Martin and a homeless man yelling obscenities at them. One writer asked Martin what he thought of the University of Michigan, and whether he had anything to say to its players. Ed Martin smiled wide, and spoke up:

"I love Michigan. Always have. Go Blue."

This article appears in the June 24 issue of ESPN The Magazine.