The flowers at the funeral were bright and colorful, white orchids and pink carnations spreading across the pulpit. A singer wailed a plaintive hymn, “I know He holds my hand.” A church elder urged the assembled to ignore the newspapers and remember that “a man’s legacy is not determined by one chapter of his life.” He said only those who truly knew the Lord could say who they thought He was.
Then he asked the mourners: “Who do YOU think Eddie Martin was?”
Well? Who was he? All of the following: a loving man to those who knew him, a criminal to those who didn’t, a father, a numbers-runner, a neighborhood hero, a “booster” who almost single-handedly ruined the University of Michigan basketball program for a decade.
And, in the end, a man ignored by the athletes he most coveted. They say you can measure your life by those who attend your funeral. But in the case of 69-year-old Ed Martin, eulogized Wednesday to the strains of organ music at the Greater New Mt. Moriah Baptist Church in Detroit, it was those who did not attend that told the story.Where was Chris Webber? Where was Jalen Rose? Where was Maurice Taylor or Robert Traylor or other NBA-caliber basketball players that Martin helped, players he so wanted to please, offering everything from rides to birthday cakes to hundreds of thousands of dollars?Where were all these players who admitted to taking his money because he was a “good, caring man,” just trying to help them out?
Where were they when it was time to say good-bye?
Family, friends only see the good
They were elsewhere, earning their millions, because that is what happens with players and boosters; when the latter are no longer needed, they often are no longer wanted.
So Martin was buried Wednesday, as much a mystery in death as he was in life. I went to his memorial service in hopes of learning something of this vilified man, who had eluded the press — and the authorities — for years.
What I learned is what you often learn at funerals: That family love transcends the headlines, that friends will defend you to the finish.
A co-worker from Ford Motor Co., where Martin supposedly ran a long-time numbers racket, told the church that Martin was “loved and respected” by all of his colleagues. A lawyer, who’s had to defend Martin from countless slings and arrows, spoke only of those who deeply respected his client. A young man who spent hours as a child at Martin’s house — the same place where basketball players allegedly went for gifts and favors — said this funeral was the first time people gathered for Martin “and everyone wasn’t smiling.”
The church obituary claimed “Eddie was an avid sports fan” who “assisted in meeting the needs of many people. He touched many young lives.”
In what way? To what extent? A relative read a poem that ended with, “He lived life to the fullest, and he lived it being Ed.”
Only a few truly know what that means.
Truth might go to the grave
Martin died Friday, from a blood clot in his lungs, and with him died any chance of unearthing the real story of the dirty business that shadowed Michigan basketball for years.
But no matter how much money Martin did or didn’t give the players, no matter how he got his cash or where it ended up going, remember that Martin did not violate his NCAA rules, because he was not subject to NCAA rules. The Michigan players and coaches did that.
Martin was, like so many boosters, the guy who wanted to get close to glory.
So it was sad then, Wednesday, seeing a half-empty church, devoid of NBA players paying tribute to the man who had helped them. No doubt Martin would have liked that. No doubt he envisioned such a thing while befriending young prospects in the Detroit high schools and on the playgrounds. Get to know them early, they’ll remember you later.
It didn’t happen. Martin, nabbed by the feds for gambling and money-laundering, surrendered information. He named names. The bonds were broken. Players distanced themselves. Webber actually said he felt “betrayed” by an older man taking advantage of young kids.
The whole thing fell apart. And none of us will ever really know what happened.
Hymns were sung. The eulogy was given. A woman in a white dress offered tissues from a box. Who do YOU think Eddie Martin was? I’ll give you one answer:
A cautionary tale. A warning to other boosters: If you think that throwing money at an athlete will endear you to him for life, save your effort. Save your breath. And save your kindness for family and friends.
They’ll be the ones who bury you in the end.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).