Unless you are fortunate enough to know an NBA player or high-level collegian, Ryan Martin is probably the best basketball player you’ll ever meet.
He’s got a great handle, a feathery shot and an upper torso that would be the envy of many professional wrestlers. Unlike those who fly up and down the court, however, Martin is forced to take a different approach; he doesn’t have legs.
Martin, a 33-year-old Somers native who calls LA Fitness in South Windsor home, is a professional wheelchair basketball player. His exploits have taken him halfway around the world to play in Spain for the last seven years, including the last six at CID Casa Murcia Getafe.
There he made a comfortable, if not demanding, living playing basketball and hobnobbing with some of the greatest athletes in the world, including footballer Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid.
Wheelchair basketball may not be well-known in the U.S., but like women’s basketball and soccer, it’s got quite a following in Europe.
“If you want to make money, you go overseas,” Martin, a guard, said before adding without bragging, “I’m good. If I’m on and it’s my day, I can be great.”
He nearly made the U.S. Wheelchair Basketball team several years ago, making it to the final round of 18 before being cut.
“You can be an NBA All-Star and still not make the Olympic team,” he said.
He just has to settle on playing in the Spanish First Division for Getafe - which won the league title - and making appearances in European competitions, where his team finished second. A good player in the wheelchair league can make $50,000 a year, while a star can make six figures, said Martin, who declined to specifically discuss his salary.
There are drawbacks, of course. He doesn’t see his family for months on end and European cities are notoriously unfriendly to the handicapped.
“Rome is gorgeous,” he said. “But it’s also the most inaccessible place that I’ve been in.”
He also had to learn Spanish and playing overseas can give way to homesickness and loneliness.
Martin, however, overcame those obstacles to the point where it’s not a bad gig for a man who was born with spina bifida, resulting in the amputation of his legs when he was just 2-years-old.
“It’s my full-time job,” Martin said of wheelchair basketball. “If somebody wants to pay me to take me to places like Rome…it’s all perspective. I feel like I’m playing with house money.”
He started by playing basketball when he was 12 against his older siblings. It didn’t take long for him to fall in love with the sport and, after graduating from Somers High in 1997, he attended Southwest Minnesota State University on a basketball scholarship.
In college, he scored over 1,000 points in his career and set several school records for assists
Not bad for a kid adopted into a family that eventually grew to 12 children - eight adopted, four biological - several of whom had special needs.
“I played against my brothers, a couple of them were 6’2”, 6’3”, and they treated me as if I was one of them, like I was able-bodied,” Martin said. “They prepared me well for playing against Barcelona, throwing elbows and yelling at me. … It’s kind of like when I was playing when I was 10.”
And he works as hard - if not harder - than any other professional athlete.
“I don’t think people understand the level of constant work it takes to perform at an elite level,” he said. “When people say they want to work out with me and I tell them we have to do cardio at 6 a.m. and they say it’s not going to happen…you make concessions along the way.”
His workouts - five or six days a week during the offseason, four to six hours a day - are the stuff of local legend.
Martin throws himself on the ground to do pushups, does resistance training on his wheelchair up and down Buckland Avenue and generally punishes himself for extended periods of time.
“He destroys me,” said Gina Navarra, who works out with Martin on occasion. “The things he does amaze me.”
And he’s competitive. Oh, is he ever. Pickup games at LA Fitness take on the gravity as though they are the European Championships. He used to be able to make a small fortune challenging people to games of P.I.G. and H.O.R.S.E., until people wised up to him.
“It’s hard for me to get a game these days,” he says with a wry smile. “I like competing against able-bodies because they come in with this mindset like, ‘There’s no way I’m going to lose this.’”
Martin also recognizes that, at age 33, he’s in the back end of his career. With that in mind, he has been focusing more and more on his foundation that includes hosting an annual wheelchair basketball clinic at Nomads Adventure Quest in South Windsor every summer.
“I was content to use my basketball skills to fund my education,” Martin said. “I have 12 brothers and sisters. College gave me a true sense of achievement. The foundation [is designed] to give individuals with disabilities the opportunity to realize the dreams that I once had.”
Martin said that programs directed toward individuals with disabilities were lacking when he was a child.
“I’m not saying that out of a sense of pity,” he said. “I realize how fortunate I am to have accomplished what I have. But I want to open doors for people. The athletes that I respect are the ones who go back and do that.”
Martin said that he doesn’t just want to do a basketball camp. He points out Lance Armstrong - the interview with Martin was done before Armstrong’s recent issues - and what he did on a global level regarding cancer research, funding and education.
Toward that end, Martin also does speaking engagements with high school and college students on things like anti-bullying. Martin said that he was bullied as a child and that his story of perseverance and overcoming resonates with people.
“I’m very, very fortunate,” Martin said. “To have this sort of opportunity is incredible. For people with disabilities, it’s even more rare. I’m tremendously fortunate. That isn’t lost on me. I realize this every day…I feel like I defy paradigms with what I do.”
But before he gives all of his time and energy to his foundation, there’s basketball season to think about. Martin has to report back to his team on Oct. 1, something that he relishes.
“Like I said. I’m playing with house money.”