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Sunday, January 02, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Martell Webster has all the right moves

Steve Kelley / Times staff columnist

Enlarge this photoJOHN LOK / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Martell Webster says only a high NBA lottery selection could possibly shake his commitment to play for UW.

The best part of Martell Webster isn't his 400-count cottony jumper or his way-beyond-the-arc range. It isn't the way he can break down one, two, three defenders and get to the rim.

You don't see the best part of Webster on the basketball floor, even though he just might be the best high-school player in the country.

The best part of Webster is more private. It's the part that lets you know he has gracefully made it past the squall line of his early life; that he has moved past all the flotsam. It's the part he shares so easily with his friends and his extended family.

It's the person who, earlier this week after watching his friend Mitch Johnson play in a game at Mountlake Terrace, wrapped his arm around Jim Marsh, his Friends of Hoop AAU coach who is fighting Parkinson's Disease, kissed him on the forehead and told him, "I love you, coach."

"I swear to God, I cried all the way to the car," Marsh said.

It's the smart, funny, sensitive, honest part of Webster that is so apparent from the moment you meet him. It's the way he makes people around him feel welcomed.

"When we're with each other, it just seems like we're laughing all the time," said Johnson, of O'Dea High School and a former AAU teammate. "He's kind of my best friend and he's been through a lot, but he has a way of always looking at things light-hearted, like he wants you to feel comfortable around him."

He's good enough to be an NBA lottery pick in June. A week ago, playing in a high-visibility high-school tournament in Florida, Webster, 6 feet 8, scored 117 points in four games for Seattle Prep. He had 37 points and 11 rebounds in one of the wins.

But you can't define him by his numbers, or by his handles or by any of his pull-you-out-of-your-seat moves. You can't understand him just by watching his 18-going-on-30 court sense. He is much more than his game.

"At every step along the way, every bus stop we've frequented together, Martell, on most occasions, has blown me away with his maturity," said Marsh, who has known Webster since grade school. "Every step he's shown extraordinary maturity in figuring situations out and understanding what was going on. And I give the credit for building that foundation to (his great aunt) Beulah Walker. He's had a great, great model."

Webster was 4 years old when his mother, Cora McGuirk, dropped off him, older sister Moncheri and baby brother Bobby so they could spend the night at Walker's house.

It was the last time Martell saw his mother, who was only 22 at the time. She hasn't been seen or heard from since, and her missing-persons case remains open.

Webster has ideas about his mother, thoughts on who she is and what she represents. And much of his mental picture of her has been drawn by Walker, the great aunt he calls his grandmother.

"She told me my mom was an independent person who loved her children and wouldn't let anything get in the way of that," Webster said after a Seattle Prep practice last week. "That's how I see my mom. Tough. Just a roughrider, who loved her children dearly and would do anything for them."

In fifth grade, Webster began playing basketball as a way to escape the pain of his mother's disappearance. He was tall and lanky and, according to his own scouting report, not very good.

In the summer between fifth and sixth grades, he dedicated himself to the game. He called Marsh. He called Lou Hobson, athletic director at St. Joseph's, a middle school on Capitol Hill.

He made the decision that he didn't want to play organized ball that summer. He wanted to drill. He wanted to learn to shoot. He wanted to improve his ballhandling.

That early in his development, he saw his future and that summer he traded the glory of the game for the sweat in the gym and, with Marsh's and Hobson's help, began making himself into the player he is becoming.

"I wasn't the prodigy child on the block," Webster said. "I was tall and lanky, just a guy to have on the team. But I began to see some things. That to be a really good basketball player it takes hard work."

Webster attracts people who want to help. He has been raised by a village, including Tony and Leslie Conti, whom he calls his father and mother. "Blood couldn't make us any closer," he said.

Their son Huston Conti, who plays for Edmonds-Woodway High School, was his best friend in grade school, and Webster became so close to the family they began treating him as if he were another member. He spends most of his time with them in their Edmonds home and takes vacations with them to North Carolina every summer.

But Webster also has been given extraordinary help from Walker, and from Marsh and Hobson and a Seattle basketball community that understands how special he is.

Webster has taken all the good parts of all these good people and all the good instruction he has been given and incorporated it into his own life. Out of tragedy, he has built a wonderful young life.

"If Martell hadn't been a youngster with an engaging smile and a pleasing personality," Marsh said, "if he had had a chip on his shoulder, I don't imagine that the neighborhood would have left too many lights on for him on their front porches. But there were a lot of people who, in his younger years, didn't mind having him around.


JIM BATES / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Martell Webster greets his great aunt, Beulah Walker, with a kiss. Walker, whom he calls his grandma, has been the "next closest" person to Webster since his mother disappeared when he was 4.

"And he's the kind of kid who takes it literally if you tell him, 'You're welcomed in my home.' He'll come into your home. And those of us who have had that happen to us think, 'Isn't this great?' and 'Aren't we lucky?' He's just an easy kid to gravitate to. He's as genuine as the day is long. As far as I'm concerned, he is solid gold."

Reciprocally, Webster feels a responsibility to pay back all the people who have helped him by getting his school work done, improving his game and becoming an integral part of his community.

Recently, he did a public-service announcement for the Washington State Mentoring Partnership, talking about the importance of adult models in a young person's life.

"If people are expecting things from you, it's up to you to fulfill those expectations," Webster said. "I feel a responsibility toward all the people who are close to me. I want to make sure Jim stays in good health. I want to make sure my grandma stays in good health. I just want to make sure everything is stable in my family thing. That's a need-to-do thing for me. Once you're a family, you stay a family. That's the way it has to be."

His story could be tragic, but Webster won't allow it. He could have cruised through high school with a Spalding-sized chip on his shoulder, but he hasn't.

"I've had to step up and become more of an adult in a young man's body," Webster said. "No, nobody wants their mom to go. That's the closest person in their life, but lucky for me, I've had my grandma, who's the next closest thing to me.

"She raised my mom, so I know all her traits and responsibilities rubbed off on my mom. I think sometimes she is my mom, just disguised in a different way. She didn't have to raise us, but she did because she loves us. It was almost like she promised my mom that she would bring us up to be as good a human beings as we could. And that's what she did. And I appreciate my grandma for it."

Webster, who turned 18 last month, believes he has two equally important lives and loves — his extended family and his game.

"Basketball's my second life," he said. "It's been there for me and it's worked out for me. I'm just happy that it's a part of my life. I'm going to keep on going with it and see how far it takes me."

He has committed to play for the University of Washington next season, but his recent performance in Florida rekindled the talk that he would forgo college and enter the NBA draft.

One scout, watching Webster's silky jumpers, has even said, "If he was on the Olympic team this summer, the U.S. would have won. They didn't have anybody who could shoot the ball like he can."

But Webster sees rookies like Portland's Sebastian Telfair and New Orleans' J.R. Smith, last year's high-school phenoms, languishing on NBA benches and says he plans to play for Washington.

"Money can make people do crazy things," Webster said. "But back to when I was younger, it's all about decisions and the responsibility and the burden that's on my shoulders. I know there's going to be people who are going to just yap, yap, yap. 'Go, take the money. It's guaranteed. You're going to have your whole life set.'

"But that's not the issue. There's a love for the game. And there's a love for getting better for the game. I want to get better and in order for me to get better and to play on the NBA level, I'm going to college. The only thing that's going to change my mind is if I'm a lottery pick, first round, top five picks, then that's a maybe. If you go to college it's going to develop you, physically and mentally, for the league."

Martell Webster will do what he's done all his life. He will talk with Beulah Walker. He will talk with the Contis. He will talk with Marsh. He will consult the close-knit village around him. And he will make the right decision.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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