Steve Martin has been the iconic voice of the NBA in Charlotte because he never thought he was bigger than the games he called or the people who surrounded him.
The Hornets announced Tuesday morning that Martin plans to retire at the end of the 2017-18 season. Whether on radio or television – he switched back-and-forth multiple times – Martin has called every season of NBA basketball here since the original Hornets’ debut in 1988.
At 65, Martin told me Tuesday it’s just time: He has the financial resources to retire comfortably. He, his wife and his father (who has lived with the Martins the past several years) will summer in Maine and spend the other eight months in the Charlotte area. But no more cross-country charter flights, 2 a.m. hotel check-ins or 2 ½-hour prep sessions for each game.
He’s ready to take it easy. If someone needs a voiceover, or some other one-off assignment, he’d be happy to oblige, but he’s had his time in the spotlight, and he looks forward to what else is out there.
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What Martin does so well, whether it was with Gil McGregor or Mike Gminski or Dell Curry, was draw the best from the other voice on the broadcast. When I asked Stephanie Ready, who has been with the Bobcats (now Hornets) from their first game, about that quality in Martin, she immediately elaborated.
“It’s been amazing,” said Ready, who has done sideline reporting, and some analysis for both radio and television with Martin. “He’s been the best, as far as his professionalism, as far as being a good person.”
Ready says she always sits with Martin on the team’s charter flights because he’s such a delight to be around.
“When I first started with this team, he was one of the people who helped me along. I had very little television experience. I was primarily a coach, who had some things to say about the game. I didn’t know how to present them the proper way, and he helped me out.
“He was awesome.”
Martin, a Maine native, worked for WBT-AM 1110 before the NBA expanded to Charlotte the first time. Initially, he was the team’s radio play-by-play announcer. He moved over to television quickly, and paired with former Wake Forest center McGregor, a loquacious jokester by personality. Martin was the straight man, keeping McGregor on point. That pairing moved on to New Orleans when the original Hornets relocated in 2001.
Martin and his wife maintained a home in the Charlotte area, and when the Bobcats started in 2004, Martin moved back to be their radio voice. Again, he later transitioned to television, eventually pairing with Curry, still the all-time leading scorer in Hornets history.
Three years ago, Fox Sports South wanted a change in the TV team. That’s when Martin returned to radio, replaced by Eric Collins on television.
The less-is-more approach has been his constant in broadcasting.
“I would agree with that,” Martin said Tuesday. “But I’ve always been blessed with the right people (as color analysts). There was no start-up required with Gil; I once caught him in Indiana (buying) a joke book."
Asked for some memorable calls since 1988, Martin naturally recalled the Alonzo Mourning jump shot that was the winning basket in the Hornets’ 1993 playoff-series victory over the Boston Celtics.
But Martin also mentioned a game with less on the line, but just as much to call: A regular-season game in 1994-95 between Mourning’s Hornets and Shaquille O’Neal’s Orlando Magic that instead became a showcase for sharpshooters Curry and fellow Hornet Hersey Hawkins.
“Hawkins hit a pair of 3s, and then Dell hit one to cement it,” Martin recalled. “I’ve never heard a building so loud as that, and that was a regular-season game.”
Martin is the soundtrack of the NBA in Charlotte, and pretty much its encyclopedia, too.
So sometime over these last 20-some games, turn off the sound on your television, turn on WFNZ, and appreciate what makes Martin so Martin.
Time is running out.